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What Is a Toxic Relationship?

Six signs you may be in one.

  • Toxic relationships are based on conflict, competition, and the need to control.
  • Signs of a toxic relationship include jealousy, blame, and gaslighting.
  • Therapy, as well as self-care and connecting with others, can help you heal and move forward.

Relationships fall into one of two categories. Positive or healthy relationships are those where the couple supports each other, shows empathy and compassion to the other person, and where both parties are willing to give and take. Positive relationships are not always perfect, but when the couple has disagreements, they are able to work it out in a way that is mutually satisfactory and does not result in one person imposing their will or desires on the other.

The other type of relationship is unhealthy. These relationships are often considered toxic as they are actually emotionally and sometimes physically harmful to one person. The term was first used by Lillian Glass in her 1995 book Toxic People and was used to indicate a relationship that is built on conflict, competition, and the need for one person to control the other.

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Toxic people do not show their negative side early in the relationship. They are often extremely charismatic and seem to be the ideal or perfect partner. Then, over time, they start to show their true colors and become controlling, demanding, and emotionally abusive to their partner.

Signs of a toxic relationship may take months or even years to evolve. Typical signs of these damaging relationships include:

  • Isolation — the toxic person attempts to isolate the partner from family and friends to limit support and to increase dependence on the relationship.
  • Ongoing disagreements and arguments — it is common for people dating and in relationships to have minor disagreements, but toxic relationships are primarily based on arguments and negativity. The controlling partner is always berating, belittling, and putting down the other person or criticizing their attempts to do anything positive or independent.
  • Blaming — a toxic person has no sense of personal responsibility for negative things and events in a relationship. If your partner is willing to take full responsibility for all the good but none of the responsibility for anything bad or unpleasant, this is a critical sign of a toxic relationship.
  • Jealousy and dishonesty — a toxic relationship is often one of accusing a partner of flirting, dating, or even having a sexual relationship with someone outside of the relationship. At the same time, the controlling or toxic person may actively and openly engage in these same behaviors.
  • Denial and gaslighting — a toxic person is unable or unwilling to see his or her impact on the other person. They deny issues, attempt to gaslight the other person, manipulate events, or attempt to recreate history to put themselves in the best light.
  • Giving in on everything — while it is important to be willing to give and take, compromise, or even do what the other partner wants in a healthy relationship, this is expected behavior in a toxic relationship. If you find you are giving into everything, even things you find morally, personally, or ethically objectionable just to keep the other person happy, you are in a toxic relationship.

Recovering From a Toxic Relationship

It is possible to get out of a toxic relationship and move forward to find a positive, supportive and healthy relationship. The following tips can help to break free from toxicity:

  • Self-care — finding time to care for yourself and to learn to care about yourself again is a critical step in healing and re-balancing your priorities.
  • Reconnect — rebuilding or reconnecting with friends and family who love and care about you helps to align your emotional healing with positive relationships with trusted people.
  • Therapy — therapy and counseling are instrumental in understanding the destructive relationship dynamics of a toxic partner. Therapy also helps to establish self-assurance and self-esteem, which is necessary to prepare for a healthy relationship.

It is possible for a toxic partner to make changes and rebuild the relationship. However, he or she must be willing to do the work to make these changes and to learn new ways to communicate and interact as a healthy, supportive partner.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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