couple near a tree.

7 Signs You May Be in a Toxic Relationship

By Erica Patino
Reviewed by Rebecca Thurston, Ph.D.
July 21, 2023

No partnership is perfect, but in general, a healthy romantic relationship should have an even balance of power, with two partners who listen to and support each other—at least most of the time.

In a toxic relationship, however, one partner has an undue amount of power and control over the other, according to Liz Coleclough, Ph.D., a therapist at PNW Trauma Therapy, in Seattle. A “toxic relationship” refers to an unhealthy relationship that can sometimes become abusive if allowed to remain unaddressed.

The imbalance may occur in different aspects of the relationship. “It can happen physically, sexually, emotionally, verbally, and financially,” Coleclough says. It’s not healthy—and could even become dangerous.

7 Toxic-Relationship Red Flags

Are you in a toxic relationship? It isn’t always recognizable to the people involved, says Coleclough. But there are some signs that your relationship isn’t a healthy one. Here’s what to look out for:

1. Your partner is always telling you what to do

Power-hungry partners impose rules as a way to exert their control. “These can be rules about what you can do with your time, how you spend money, where you go, and how you look,” says Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and marriage counselor in Lake Forest, California. The partner may also be jealous of your other relationships, regardless of how platonic or familiar those relationships might be, and may even forbid you from spending time with other people.

2. Your partner doesn’t make you a priority

Withholding time and attention can be another way to exercise control. You shouldn’t have to beg your partner for a date night. Being made to wait around for their affection isn’t only inconsiderate; if it happens consistently, it’s a toxic-relationship red flag.

3. You feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells

“If you’re always worried about saying or doing just the right thing to avoid upsetting your partner, you're probably in a toxic relationship,” Nickerson says. Beware of partners who blow up over the most minor things—especially when those things involve you.

Regardless of your efforts, you probably won’t be able to keep them calm. “The reality is that you don't have control. It's the other person who is controlling that dynamic,” Coleclough says.

4. Your partner puts you down—and then denies it

A toxic partner can relentlessly chip away at your self-esteem by condescending to you, shouting at you, calling you names, making insinuations, and then, when they’ve finally gotten to you, making you question the way you view their behavior. Some of these may even veer into verbally abusive territory.

Toxic partners may also gaslight. Gaslighting is a way of controlling the definition of reality, and the controlling partner makes the less dominant partner question their own sense of reality.

5. Your partner doesn’t respect your boundaries

“They may spy on you, go through your things, look through your phone, or contact your friends and family without your consent,” Nickerson says. They may even scare you, your family, your friends, or your pets.

6. Your partner wants to be the only person you need

A toxic partner may ask you to give up activities that are important to you, or they may demand that you let them handle your finances. They might also try to cut you off from your friends and family. "This is because they don't want you to talk to other people and get feedback that their behavior is out of line," Nickerson says.

They may try to make this isolation sound romantic, like it’s you and them against the world. In reality, they’re cutting you off from your support system.

7. You go through dramatic breakups and makeups

Does this sound familiar? Your partner lashes out; you become fed up; the two of you split. Then they try to woo you back with gifts as well as promises that they’ll never behave that way again. You reunite, and all is well—until the cycle starts again.

The peaceful period is called the honeymoon phase, Coleclough explains. It leads you to believe that things between the two of you can improve. "It’s what often keeps people in their abusive relationship," she says.

Why People Get Stuck in Toxic Relationships

Toxicity can exist on a spectrum. But a lack of severity doesn’t necessarily lead to ease of decision-making. It can be less clear what to do if the toxicity is milder, such as experiencing frequent, small boundary violations, Nickerson says.

The solution to an abusive relationship may seem obvious: Leave. But it’s rarely that simple. If you’ve invested years in your relationship, have children together, or are financially and logistically dependent on your partner, it can be hard to walk away—especially if you’re afraid of how your partner will react. A financially controlling partner can also be toxic, and feeling like you’re unable to leave because you will be financially devastated can be part of that.

It may also be too hard to leave emotionally. "There are a million reasons why somebody might not leave, but an underlying one is that the person might truly love their partner and really hopes and believes that things will get better," Coleclough says.

However, some relationships are unlikely to improve, no matter how hard you try. "If a relationship is truly toxic, I doubt that it’s fixable. Toxic individuals have serious character flaws that love alone can’t repair,” says Michael Tobin, Ph.D., a board-certified marriage and family therapist who leads workshops in Jerusalem (where he lives) and in the United States. “It’s self-destructive to remain in a relationship that brings out the worst in both people.”

It’s also worth noting that anything that falls under physical abuse (such as if your partner tries to choke you) is a major indicator that your situation is progressing to a potentially fatal one and is a sign that it’s time to leave.

What to Do About a Toxic Relationship

For some toxic relationships, it may be possible to see improvements if both people are willing to go to therapy and work on their issues (it can’t just be you trying to “fix” what isn’t in your control). If you want to stay in the relationship, you can, as long as you feel comfortable and understand the risks.

“Depending on the level of harm, I think it's appropriate to start with educating yourself about the issue and trying to manage it,” Nickerson says. “Develop some new coping strategies, work on new communication skills with your partner, and set clear expectations and boundaries.”

However, the relationship does need to get better. “Give yourself a timeline for some improvement and make yourself a deal: If it doesn't improve, I will take these X next steps,” Nickerson adds.

If your relationship is truly abusive and you don’t feel safe in it, stop second-guessing yourself and reach out for help. Find allies. You can talk to a trusted friend or family member to make a plan, or if you don't want to involve someone close to you, consider talking to a therapist. "A local women's shelter may be able to provide guidance and resources," Nickerson says. "Depending on the situation, you might also want to reach out to an attorney."

Once you have a solid support system, you can start taking steps to leave an abusive relationship. Nickerson advises frequently changing your passwords for email and social media to keep communications private. The most secure way of communicating is through in-person conversation, she says, so make an effort to meet up whenever you can.

If you decide to part ways, try not to blame yourself or let your partner shame you for “ruining” the relationship. Also try not to blame yourself for getting into the relationship in the first place. Toxic behavior emerges over time, slowly, so it can be hard to know you are in this situation.

And although ending a toxic relationship can be tremendously difficult, remember that you deserve to be treated with love and respect. As Coleclough says, “Nothing [and no one] should come before your self-esteem and emotional wellness.”

Where to Get Help

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or you feel unsafe at home, these organizations can provide assistance:

You May Also Like: