5 Signs That a Relationship Has Turned Toxic
Beware these five signs of controlling and manipulative partners.
Posted June 13, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Nothing affects our well-being more than the quality of our relationships—for better and for worse. If you've ever been in a toxic relationship, you know the toll it takes on your mind, body, and spirit.
But what if you don't even realize your relationship is toxic?
Many people find themselves in exactly this situation. They may be unhappy and know something isn't right, but might not suspect that it's because they're with a controlling and manipulative partner.
I recently spoke with author Renee Linnell about her experience of leaving a manipulative relationship, which she described in her memoir The Burn Zone. Her relationship was actually with a cult, or more specifically, the two cult leaders. One of the things that stood out the most from her story was the confusion she experienced. She often felt unhappy and uncertain and felt like something wasn't right, but couldn't find clarity on what the problem was.
It's clearer in hindsight what the telltale signs were that she was in a damaging and manipulative cult. These five signs apply to any toxic relationship, whether with religious figures, romantic partners, family members, co-workers, etc.
1. Denying your intuition
You may have a gut-level feeling that something is amiss in your relationship, and yet somehow you find a way to talk yourself out of it. "Our intuition tells us to get out, yet for some reason, we stay," said Linnell.
You might second-guess yourself and wonder if you're not seeing things right. You might even manage to blame yourself for any problems you're experiencing, and imagine that your relationship would be fine if only you could be the perfect partner. "When we doubt our intuition, we lose our power," Linnell said.
It's especially easy to doubt your intuition when your partner is actively encouraging you to do so. Gaslighting partners will make you question your own reality—if you suggest they're being selfish and inconsiderate, they'll convince you that you're the selfish and inconsiderate one.
In one way or another, they'll "make you doubt your own inner knowing," said Linnell. "It's what most toxic relationships do—you have the intuition that your partner's cheating, and then the partner says, 'No, no, I would never do that—you're just crazy.' And suddenly you're on the defensive, having to explain why you're being 'paranoid.'"
Part of the destructive skill that gaslighters bring to relationships is the ability to mask their manipulation, making it hard to recognize it and call it out.
3. Intermittent reinforcement
An important dynamic that gaslighters and other manipulative people use in relationships is intermittent reinforcement, a concept that comes from psychological research on animal behavior.
Linnell gives the example of a chicken in a research lab that receives food pellets for pecking a button—the food reinforces the pecking behavior, making the chicken keep pecking. Researchers found that if they gave the pellet of food only some of the time that the chickens pecked, they would continue to peck for much longer when no pellet was given because the next peck might always be the one that was rewarded.
"The moral," said Linnell, "was that to strengthen behavior, use intermittent reinforcement" (which is exactly what slot machines and other forms of gambling rely on). In relationships, intermittent reinforcement is a "push-pull dynamic where you never know when you'll get love or acceptance or validation."
You might find that your partner builds you up at times, making you feel so good about yourself. Then at other times, they tear you down, criticizing you, making you feel not good enough—and then they put you on a pedestal again. It's emotionally exhausting and bewildering.
Individuals who were raised with extreme forms of intermittent reinforcement may be more attracted by it as adults, as Linnell described. She found that she attracted romantic partners who gave intermittent reinforcement, because that's what she experienced from her mother when she was young.
Manipulative partners want to be able to control you and what you experience, and outside relationships can be very threatening to their desire to define your reality. For this reason, they will often make efforts to isolate you socially—trying to distance you from your friends, criticizing your family, declining social outings with other people.
"It's an important part of mind control," said Linnell. The cult she belonged to required that members cut themselves off from their family, their friends, even from activities they loved.
"Without realizing it, I was letting go of my entire support structure," she said, which meant losing the grounding we find when we're with people we've known since childhood. Without these connections, "your relationship with the manipulator becomes the new norm, and so they really have control."
Manipulative partners may try to isolate you even from your past—from having a history that doesn't include them. Thus they get to define your new reality.
5. Feeling like you can't be yourself
When you're in a healthy relationship, the other person loves you for who you are. They encourage you to be yourself—maybe a "better version" of yourself, but still fundamentally you.
In contrast, toxic manipulative relationships tell you that you're never good enough and that you need to be someone else. Linnell described being told that she needed to be "a stripped-down, sterile version" of herself when she was in the cult, and leave behind everything that made her unique. Thankfully she realized that "the enlightened version of ourselves is the loudest, brightest, truest version of each one of us."
Eventually, Linnell was able to see through the manipulation and gaslighting, and break free from the cult. In the process, she became free once again to express the full force of her personality. "When we dim our light in any way," she said, "when we try to blend in, when we try to hide what makes us different, we deprive the world of our unique energy imprint—which is such a shame."
If you recognize your partner in these descriptions, consider whether you may need to break free from your relationship. Gaslighting expert Stephanie Sarkis offers very helpful guidance in this post on whether to leave a gaslighter.
The full conversation with Renee Linnell is available here.
Facebook image: best_nj/Shutterstock
Linnell, R. (2018). The burn zone: A memoir. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press.