Frequently Asked Questions About Toxic Relationships

Toxic relationships can dictate our mental wellness and safety.

Posted May 27, 2020

How do you define a "toxic relationship? A toxic relationship exists when one or both partners act maliciously, either consciously or subconsciously, to hurt themselves, the relationship, or their partner. Toxicity manifests in many forms: name-calling, manipulation, relentless control, physical abuse, lying, or gaslighting, which pour into internal turmoil that can ruin your self-esteem and wreak havoc on your relationship. Toxic relationships do not have to be defined as romantic relationships. Toxicity can leak into professional relationships, family ties, and platonic friendships. Often, an individual does not recognize that they are in a toxic relationship until something terrible happens or until they leave the relationship and realize in hindsight how unhealthy it was.

Is there a difference between a partner not necessarily being a good boyfriend/girlfriend and being actively toxic? Yes, sometimes partners are just not a good fit for us. Personalities or lifestyles do not align, and this can often be seen as not being a good partner. Maybe their likes and dislikes are opposite or they have different views on communication; often, fights will ensue because of their core values. However, acting in a toxic manner is harmful and involves malicious thoughts and actions that hurt the other partner. There is a massive difference between not buying flowers on a birthday and screaming at your partner because they did not clean up their mess. The first act may be out of pure forgetfulness, whereas the latter is malicious even if stress or unhealthy underlying triggers provoke it. Toxic people usually have underlying triggers such as a history of abuse or trauma, depression, poor interpersonal skills, or low self-esteem. 

How do you look for signs that a family member or friend is dating someone toxic? Are there telltale signs? There are lots of red flags associated with toxicity:

  • Lying
  • Apathy
  • Narcissistic personality
  • Refusal to deal with conflict
  • Unapologetic
  • Unwilling to admit mistakes
  • Constantly blaming others
  • Any form of abuse
  • Talking poorly about others
  • Controlling
  • Manipulation
  • Refusing to listen to your concerns

What are some tips on how to address your concerns to a loved one about their partner being "toxic" without making them pull away? Being able to recognize and willingly admit that you are in a toxic relationship is often complicated and sometimes impossible, as many of us are blinded by superficial love and temporary happiness. (True happiness and love do not coincide with toxicity.) With time, we may intellectually realize that we are in a toxic relationship. However, our emotions may have more influence over our cognitive ability to make the correct decision. 

Additionally, many of us are terrified of being alone. As a result, we do not want to leave a relationship out of fear of isolation and loneliness. It is essential to be honest with your loved one while practicing empathy. The most important point to address is that they can be happy either by themselves or in another, healthier relationship. No relationship should be the “end all be all” and many individuals in toxic relationships feel that their world will end if the relationship does not last. 

Many people who grew up in toxic homes find it hard to accept loving relationships because they’re not familiar with them. In these cases, familiarity breeds comfort rather than contempt. It is easier for others to see the toxicity. One of the most challenging therapeutic problems I see is helping patients who have been preyed upon, or “toxified,” to accept a kind and loving experience without fleeing. They are attracted to what is familiar: more toxic relationships, which they often experience as normal. It may be scary for them to cut these ties. It’s sad but true that they may even believe what the toxic person said about them: that they’re stupid, ugly, worthless, or whatever. The good news is that this toxicity can be reversed with therapy, self-love, setting boundaries, establishing positive relationships, and self-help groups. 

Can a relationship evolve from being toxic to healthy once it's been identified, and the issues have been addressed? I believe it truly depends on the person, the extent of the toxicity, and the specific relationship. I think it is necessary to go through therapy to figure out if the relationship is deemed “fixable,” as often when toxicity enters a relationship the rift is so big that that relationship can never truly be the same again.

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