7 signs of a toxic relationship and what to do to fix it, according to couple therapists
- Signs of a toxic relationship include lack of trust, controlling behaviors, and feeling drained.
- Both partners can help fix a toxic relationship with therapy, reflective listening, and honesty.
The line between healthy and unhealthy relationships can be quickly crossed, and it may be difficult to define, even with signs that might seem obvious to others.
Here's how to recognize seven signs of what is a toxic or abusive relationship and how to address those traits in healthy and safe ways.
1. Lack of trust
A partner is someone for you to rely on, to be vulnerable with, and to have in your corner. In the absence of trust, none of these things are possible.
"When I see people in a mostly healthy relationship, there is a security that they have in the stability in their relationship," says Jeni Woodfin, LMFT, a therapist at J. Woodfin Counseling in San Jose, California. "Without trust, and not just trust that their partner will be faithful, but trust that their partner will behave in the best interest of the agreements of the relationship, there cannot be a sense of security."
2. Hostile communication
According to Kamil Lewis, AMFT, a sex and relationship therapist in Southern California, overt forms of hostile communications include:
- Name-calling or other hurtful phrases
- Throwing and breaking things
- Using your body for physical intimidation or force
According to Woodfin, subtler signs of hostile communication include:
- The silent treatment
- Using 'you-statements' or blaming statements
- Constantly interrupting
- Listening to respond instead of listening to hear and understand your partner
Hostile communication can cause tension and create further distrust between partners. Rather, healthy relationships rely on open communication, cooling down before things get too heated, and respect.
"[Open communication] provides opportunities to provide and receive support between partners," says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
3. Controlling behaviors
Your partner doesn't have the right to control your actions or beliefs. According to Woodfin, one controlling behavior to look out for is threatening loss of something, such as financial stability, time with your children, or companionship.
"These threats strike fear in many people and I find these are the reasons many, many people stay in unhealthy, unhappy relationships even when wishing for the relationship to end," she says.
Other signs of controlling behavior include:
- Telling you what's right
- Threatening to out you
- Needing to know everything you do and who you're with
- Trying to manage your money
- Secluding you from loved ones or always being present when you are with others
- Acting like you don't know what you're talking about
- Requiring access to your personal devices such as phone or email accounts
4. Frequent lying
"Lies — no matter how small — erode credibility over time," says Romanoff.
When a partner lies to you, it signals they don't respect you as a mutual partner who deserves honesty and care.
"Lying to your partner indicates your allegiance is to yourself, not the relationship," says Woodfin.
5. All take, no give
If your relationship consistently revolves around what makes your partner happy and ignores your needs, it can be a sign of toxicity.
"Being considerate of your partner is one thing, but if you find yourself saying no to yourself frequently to say yes to them, you might want to consider setting some boundaries," says Lewis. "If they dismiss, belittle, or bulldoze your boundaries, that could also be a sign of a toxic relationship."
According to Woodfin, signs of a one-sided relationship include:
- Always being the first one to text
- Long gaps between sending a message and receiving a response
- Conversations that are choppy
- Finding yourself asking over and over for your partner to change their behavior
- Having a significantly unequal division of labor, responsibility, or contribution to the relationship or household
6. You feel drained
Think about the last time you did something for yourself, spent time — even virtually — with a loved one, or slept soundly.
"It is helpful to examine how your connections outside of the relationship and with yourself have been affected," says Romanoff. "Usually, self-care and self-prioritization are neglected. Time and mental energy in toxic relationships will often be spent on the other person — either directly or indirectly through the backlash of unremitting discord and strife."
Try shifting some of your energy to take care of yourself and see how your partner reacts. If their response is negative, that signals toxic traits in the relationship.
7. You're making excuses for their behavior
Do you often find yourself forced into a position to defend your partner?
While it's easy to fall back on the mentality of 'you don't know them like I do,' an outside perspective from someone you know loves you— such as a friend or family member you trust — may be able to clearly see your partner's negative characteristics that are hard to acknowledge yourself.
Can you fix a toxic relationship?
It is possible to mend a toxic relationship in certain instances — and when each partner is committed to trying. The relationship must become healthy and mutually beneficial for any potential to continue. If possible, meeting with a counselor is a great step to take.
"Working with a couples therapist or coach helps provide a neutral space to talk about issues, and a skilled and non-judgmental party to witness your challenges and help you find new solutions to old problems," says Lewis.
General advice: Practicing reflective listening — the practice of understanding the other person's perspective — and accountability are ways to identify the relationship's issues and what each partner needs, says Romanoff.
If your motivation for staying in the relationship isn't your care for the other person but fear of or disinterest in being single, it may be time to give up the relationship. If one partner refuses to work on the relationship, repeatedly acts poorly — such as breaking relationship agreements, or belittling — or is emotionally, physically, financially, or sexually abusive, it's time to make a plan to leave the relationship.
How to get help
There are clear markers of an abusive relationship that has no healthy future. According to Lewis, signs of an abusive relationship include:
- Physical, emotional, and sexual violence
- Intense fear of what might happen if you leave the relationship
Important: Creating a safety plan can minimize risk when leaving an abusive relationship. Resources that can help you include the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Chat at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), the Safe Horizon Hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE (4673), and RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline and Chat at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
Toxic relationships are characterized by a lack of trust, controlling behaviors, and frequent lying. Often one partner is prioritized instead of coming together as a team. While toxic relationships can, at times, be healed, both partners must be willing to adapt and work on the relationship.
If you are in an abusive relationship and are able to, contact a loved one for support and assistance making an exit plan. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you for being in an abusive relationship, and anyone who shames you is in the wrong.
"Try to bring your full self in a relationship, and that includes your intuition," says Lewis. "Trust in yourself to make a decision that will benefit your wellbeing not only in the short term but longer-term as well."
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