What Is a Toxic Relationship? What Therapists Need You to Know
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Toxicity can exist on a spectrum, but the key to knowing where your relationship falls lies in your partner's behavior.
It sometimes starts with a fight
So many of us have been there. Your partner is picking a fight with you about how much time you spend with your friends. When you point out that one day a week isn’t that much, your partner loses it and calls you a jerk (or something even worse).
If it’s a healthy relationship, your significant other will probably apologize, even if it’s 24 hours later. They’ll say, “Look, I’m really sorry. I feel terrible for being so controlling. I don’t want to talk to you like that.” And then you’ll hash out the conflict.
In a toxic relationship, you’re the one who apologizes—and your partner will continue to get mad every time you hang out with your friends.
What is a toxic relationship?
Every relationship has a little bit of toxicity in it, says Jane Greer, PhD, a marriage and family therapist in New York City and author of several books, including What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “You can’t be in a relationship and not have some degree of, ‘Man, you’re driving me crazy—you’re too much, you’re too needy,’ or ‘It’s always what you want,’ ” she notes. But in nontoxic partnerships, couples can acknowledge that they behaved hurtfully and relate to their significant other with care and concern, she explains.
In toxic ones, that’s missing. “The ability to acknowledge the other person, to consider their needs, and then to empathize with them is lacking,” says Greer. “As a result, toxic partners are always batting somebody over the head by blaming them, by telling them what they did wrong, by being critical all the time.”
In a nutshell, toxic relationships are filled with manipulation, coercion, and criticism. But the dynamic can be subtle. “A lot of the times, people find themselves in toxic relationships for years, and don’t even realize that what they’re experiencing isn’t good,” says Jennifer Teplin, a therapist and the clinical director of Manhattan Wellness in New York City.
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You’re never on equal footing
Toxic relationships are typically unequal. “Somebody is always more victimized,” says Greer. “There’s a taker and the giver, the controller and the martyr. The controller is the one who really is out to rule the relationship, and the martyr is the one who gives all the time.”
Your partner may fool you at the start of the relationship, though. “In the very beginning, they’re giving,” says Sherrie Campbell, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Yorba Linda, California. “They kind of love bomb you upfront, and then later take that away so you always fight for that golden period.” (Here are ways to tell if you’re dating a narcissist.)
You’re constantly in the doghouse
Feeling like you’re in the wrong is a hallmark of being in a toxic relationship, says Teplin. (Your partner is less likely to feel this way, in case you’re curious.) “You’re always saying sorry and being made to feel bad about wanting balance in your life,” she explains.
It helps to take a personal inventory of the way you feel every day, Greer notes. “Are you feeling like no matter what you do, you’re not good enough and you can never please your partner? Do you always feel like you’re put down by them and devalued?”
If the answer is yes, then read on for common scenarios and how you can change them up to make them less toxic. Just remember—the relationship may not get better. And sometimes it helps to enlist the services of a therapist to see whether you should try to salvage your partnership or move on, says Greer. (Here’s how to find the right therapist, according to other therapists.)
Your partner doesn’t trust you
“If your partner is always questioning you, checking your messages, checking up on you, or insisting on following you on Find My Friends, you’re in a toxic relationship,” says Teplin.
Can you fix it? It depends on the intent—something that’s true for all potentially toxic situations. “If a partner is denying that they’re doing anything wrong, if someone is unwilling to make a change, then I would argue that it can’t really be a good fit, because a relationship is give and take,” Teplin notes.
But if they can acknowledge their obsessive behavior, then you begin to make changes.
“Tell your partner, ‘It makes me feel anxious when you question where I was today. I’ve done nothing to make you feel that way and I’d appreciate it if you’d trust me more,'” says Teplin.
Then let them know what you’d prefer they do instead. For instance, instead of grilling you when you got home, maybe you tell them where you’ll be going before you go out. “Compromise absolutely exists, as long as it’s within your comfort zone, and you’re not just accommodating because the other person is the stronger personality,” says Teplin.
They always find fault with friends and family
“If your partner constantly finds issue with those you’re closest with—seems to hate your sister and your best friends—that falls in line with a toxic relationship,” says Teplin. A variation of this: when you plan something, and your significant other spoils the plans, ruining the chance for a good time, Greer notes.
Can you fix it? If your partner wants to spend a lot of time together because the relationship is new or because he or she is going through something, you can usually reduce “toxic tendencies … through authentic communication and boundary setting,” says Teplin.
“A boundary is where our comfort zone ends and someone else’s preference begins. If you’re starting to realize that something is feeling toxic, controlling, or uncomfortable, the first thing is to recognize it and recognize what you would prefer,” adds Teplin. And when you bring it up to your partner, try not to say something like, “I don’t like it when you trash talk my sister.”
“That’s great but it’s very accusatory, and it also doesn’t give someone guidance on what we’d prefer,” says Teplin.
They put you down—a lot
Say, for instance, you’re getting ready to go out. “Does your partner say something hostile and hurtful like, ‘You’re going to wear that shirt?’ Or ‘What did you do to your hair?’ These are hurtful behaviors,” says Greer. Especially if they happen constantly. “It’s like you’re a pincushion and every day you’re getting another pin stuck in you.”
Can you fix it? If your partner has gotten used to treating you as a pincushion, it’s time to make your feelings known, says Greer. But don’t lash out. Instead, say, “I find the way you’re talking to me very upsetting,” and leave the conversation or the room. Then check out these tips for making your arguments more productive.
They give you the silent treatment
“Some people will stop speaking to their partner for a day, two days, a week, and control them that way. So they’re saying, ‘If you don’t do what I want, I will cut you off of any kind of emotional support and love,’ ” says Greer.
Another variation: “They play the ‘Alright, that’s it, I’m done’ or ‘I’m out’ card,” says Greer. “And then their partner is backed against the wall. They get anxious. They get frightened that their partner’s going to leave them. And that’s how they get coerced into doing what their partner wants.”
Can you fix it? Well, yes, but you may have to go into therapy, either alone or together, especially if you’re in a rut, says Greer. Here’s added incentive to fix any sort of toxic behavior: Researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that people who were in stressful relationships tended to have more inflammation and more belly fat. And women in strained relationships have a 12 percent higher risk of developing heart disease and a 10 percent increase risk for strokes, according to a study in Journal of the American Heart Association. (If you’re worried, discover other surprising signs that you may have heart disease.)
They manipulate you
The goal of manipulation is to get you to try harder, says Greer. Toxic people bombard you with their demands and needs. And when you can’t meet all of them, you get the message that you’re disappointing them by not being a good-enough partner/child/sibling/friend, so you better try harder, she adds.
Can you fix it? Yes, by putting limits in place and acknowledging their feelings, Greer suggests. Say, “I understand you’re upset or disappointed with me because I’m not able to take you to the airport. I feel badly and I’m sorry. But I’m not able to do it now. Maybe I can do it next time.”
“In other words, you say, ‘I’m doing this and if he or she isn’t able to appreciate it, that’s not on me. That’s their problem,'” says Greer.
You can’t win
This is similar to manipulation and it’s common among toxic people, whether it’s your friend or your mom. “No matter what you do, it’s not going to be what they want,” Greer notes. And, yes, they’ll let you know.
The problem is that you can become resentful—after all, there’s only so much pressure to please you can take without exploding. Of course, when you lash out, the other person will make you feel like a terrible person. So you feel guilty and double down on trying harder to please, says Greer.
Can you fix it? “Silence is your superpower,” notes Campbell, who’s the author of But It’s Your Family… Cutting Ties with Toxic Family and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath. “If you are silent, they can’t get you. You say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to engage.’ And you walk away. You don’t explain why. You just walk away. Go on a drive, go outside, do what you have to do.” (Ready to set more boundaries? Learn how, especially if you’re a people pleaser.)
They gaslight you
Toxic people don’t really care how they make you feel, but they care a great deal about how you make them feel, says Campbell. That makes you question your own version of reality.
“For example, you confront them on something they did, like a lie,” she adds. “And instead of falling on their sword and having a conversation and validating your feelings, they say you’re crazy. They would never lie. You’re too sensitive. You’re the one who lies. You’re lying to me right now.”
“One of the key signs of being in a toxic relationship is being tricked into thinking you’re in control. ‘You chose to be with me. Why would you stay with me if I don’t make you happy?’ ” says Teplin. “So you almost start to question your own judgment, because your partner is constantly reframing or redirecting you.” (Sounds like your significant other? See if they are using one of these gaslighting phrases.)
The bottom line
Here’s what is important to know, say experts: It’s not your fault if you’ve found yourself in a toxic relationship. But it is time for a change.
“Put yourself first, knowing that’s not selfish. Have a vision of what you want your life to be, and then don’t sacrifice that, though you can bend it a little bit,” says Campbell, who advises people who are in toxic relationships to cut the ties, no matter how painful.
“In every relationship, your partner’s intention should be to raise you up, to make you feel supported,” says Teplin. “If you’re in a good relationship, you can shine as bright as you want, and your partner will never feel blinded or intimidated. So work to empower yourself so your voice feels valuable and you trust what you believe. And if you choose to get out of the relationship, realize you will be OK.”
- Jane Greer, PhD, marriage and family therapist, New York City
- Jennifer Teplin, LCSW, therapist and clinical director, Manhattan Wellness, New York City
- Sherrie Campbell, PhD, licensed psychologist, Yorba Linda, California
- PNAS: "Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span"
- Journal of American Heart Association: "Associations of Stressful Life Events and Social Strain With Incident Cardiovascular Disease in the Women's Health Initiative"