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20 Warning Signs of a Toxic Relationship


By Jim Hall, MS, Love Addiction Specialist 
 

When we find ourselves in a relationship that might be described as controlling; manipulative; tainted; venomous; unsafe; and/or malignant (all words describing toxic), then guess what?... We are in a relationship that is damaging to our emotional health--  yes, a toxic relationship.  

Although any type of relationship we have with a person can be toxic, the focus here is on romantic relationships.


A toxic relationship is a relationship that is unhealthy and harmful to a person's health and wellbeing, and in some cases, physical health. These relationships lack intimacy, closeness, and mutual connection. They are often painful, messy, and chaotic. Moreover, a couple in toxic relationships experience little, if any, love or gratification.

A toxic relationship is not something most of us strive to experience in our lives. We do not transition into adulthood, and think to ourselves, “I want to have a romantic relationship that is toxic, that would be so wonderful.” And yet, so many adults do (unintentionally) find themselves caught up in, often feeling trapped, in such relationships (think love addicted relationships). 
 

LOVE IS NEVER TOXIC ... TOXIC IS NEVER LOVE


While a healthy relationship contributes to emotional health, self-esteem, and the ability to thrive, a toxic relationship damages self-esteem and drains emotional vitality. Healthy relationships involve mutual love and caring; regard and compassion; as well as a sense of safety and freedom to be ourselves. In healthy relationships we can feel supported, comfortable, and secure around a relationship partner.  In a nutshell, individuals in a healthy relationship genuinely care for and about each other’s happiness and well-being.

A toxic relationship is quite the opposite of a healthy relationship-- as they tend to be characterized by selfishness, control, insecurity, and domination. Essential relational needs and wants are continuously un-met (for love addicts, important relationship essentials include intimacy, connection, safety, and reassurance). * While a love addict has underlying fears of intimacy, they also tend to have a great capacity for intimacy, that is, IF they have a partner who is securely attached; unlike those they commonly choose in relationships- e.g., love avoidant and/or a narcissist.
 

NOT ALL TOXIC RELATIONSHIPS ARE ADDICTIVE - BUT ALL ADDICTIVE RELATIONSHIPS ARE TOXIC


Often a person can be in a toxic relationship and not even realize it. Because many people have grown up in a toxic family environment— it is not surprising that they end up falling into toxic relationships as adults. It makes sense, since if our relational model in childhood was toxic (unhealthy, drama filled, chaotic, hurtful, less- than nurturing, etc.), we will often enter adulthood and seek out relationships that bring familiarity to that of which we experienced growing up. Toxic feels normal. And consequently, falling into toxic relationships becomes the norm, despite them being so hurtful and damaging.

Additionally, western culture worships and idealizes romantic love — but not the healthy/functional type of romantic love, but the highly irrational and bewildered romantic love that somehow finds obsession and the turmoil of shattering dishes against a wall amid weeping, so enchanting.

But let us be very clear!...

Toxic Relationships are NOT normal or ideal... and no human being deserves to tolerate them— including you.


So how can you determine if you are caught up in a toxic relationship? 

The following is a list of twenty common warning signs that can indicate your romantic relationship is toxic.

20 Signs of a Toxic Relationship:


1. You constantly feel hurt by his/her behavior's or choices.

2. You want him/her to change, but change never occurs- and if it does, it is short lived.

3. You suffer in silence-- often feel lonely, unsupported, unheard, unimportant, or invisible.

4. Your relationship feels off balance-- there's a constant push-pull 'dance', where one gets close (pursuer), the other pushes away (distancer); these roles may switch at times.

5. You constantly run into the same conflicts/arguments/fights-- and nothing ever seems to get resolved.

6. You feel like you don't really matter to him/her, that somehow you don't measure up.

7. More often than not, you live in a state of unease, tension, and/or deliberation. 

8. No matter how much time, effort, and energy you put into bettering the relationship, it does no good.

9. You often feel like the ‘enemy’ - nothing you ever do/say seems to be 'enough', in the eyes of your partner.

10. You feel like he/she wants you to ‘be’ or act like someone you are not (e.g., dress, talk, eat, etc.);  he/she may control or belittle you to conform.

10. Jealousy or possessiveness is prominent (e.g., becomes angry and/or controlling when you spend time with friends or family; or look at or talk to certain people).

11. You constantly long for your partner to understand that his/her behaviors are tearing you up inside-- he/she never does; empathy is low or non-existent.

12. You constantly convince yourself that things will get better, that positive change is ‘right around the corner’- it never happens.

13. You feel like you can never be yourself; you walk on egg-shells; or tend to monitor or think twice about anything you say or do.

14. When you express positive emotions, feel good about yourself, or take some action that contributes to your health or well-being, he/she overtly or covertly condemns you.

15. You bear the brunt for any relationship problems; moreover, he/she holds you responsible (blames) for his/her negative emotions (or behavior's) in the relationship.

16. You never (or very rarely) receive expressed appreciation or gratitude from him/her.

17. You feel relief whenever you do something that generates even a crumb of validation or approval from him/her, instigating just enough 'hope' to keep hanging on.

18. If you communicate your needs, wants, feelings (vulnerability)— he/she responds with anger, resentment, or keen silence; eventually you shut down and give up communicating anything of importance.

19. Increasingly, you and/or friends or family members wonder why you’re not the same fun, relaxed, happy go lucky, confident man/woman you once were.

19. It feels as though your needs, wants, thoughts, or feelings don't really matter to him/her--- if at anytime they seem to matter, a hidden motive is usually behind it.

20. When you assert yourself or communicate a boundary (e.g., say 'no')--- he/she resents you for it; becomes passive-aggressive; and/or demeans you in some way.

There are many warning signs that indicate that a relationship is toxic. A toxic relationship at its core, is a relationship that is unfavorable and unwholesome to emotional health and wellbeing, and for some, can lead to physical harm, or even death- (see Pathological Obsessive Love - extremes of love addiction).


Toxic Relationships Are NOT Loving Relationships
 

Healthy romantic relationships may have short-lived periods of toxic behaviors played out by one or both partners. After all, we're human, flawed and imperfect. Nevertheless, healthy relationships are not reliably and steadily toxic, such that toxic relationships are. Moreover, people in a healthy relationship tend to be content, happy, and satisfied a majority of the time, whereas individuals in a toxic relationship are chronically dissatisfied, embittered, and unhappy.

Two toxic people will result in a toxic relationship. But-- a toxic relationship is more often instigated by one toxic individual (relationship partner).

It is a given, two problematic (toxic) individuals will bring about a toxic relationship. But it is typically one toxic individual in a relationship who produces most of the poisonous relational environment. For example, if you identify yourself as a love addict and your relationship partner is narcissistic, borderline, psychopathic, or substantially love avoidant, then it is safe to say you would be entangled in a toxic relationship, and that the venomous atmosphere is largely brought on by your partner. This is not to say however that you do not have any responsibility in it, since, if you think about it, you are an adult and are freely choosing to relationally engage with a toxic person-- this would be a important issue to be addressed in your recovery process and/or counseling, as to why and what you can do about it. 

Keep in mind: If you are in a toxic relationship... You are not at fault or are the cause of a toxic partner's behavior, feelings, and/or maliciousness. What is more, you, nor any other person on this earth can strip away any poisonous dysfunction that may spew from a toxic partner— it is not your job or responsibility to change a person.

Is a toxic love relationship worth fixing or saving?

The answer to this question really depends.

Single in a toxic relationship

If you're in a toxic relationship, unmarried, and have no children— then it would likely NOT be worth putting your energy and time into trying to save it. Move on, and perhaps run, fast-- especially if he/she is abusive, narcissistic, psychopathic, or avoidant and has no intention or commitment to make changes. * see Signs of a Love Avoidant.

Leaving a relationship is hard and painful (yes, even if toxic). Nevertheless, continuing one will end up causing you much more misery in your life, by far. Keep in mind, the chance of him/her changing are minuscule. And even if change were to be possible, it would be a long and difficult path to travel. So you would do yourself a favor by breaking away, grieve the fantasy, get a whole lot of support, and focus on your personal growth. You can’t fix or change a toxic partner, nor should you try. Focus on your healing by learning a lot about healthy love/relationships, intimacy, self-care, healthy boundaries, and overcoming self-esteem issues... all-important elements of love addiction recovery.

In a toxic marraige (w/or without children)

If on the other hand, you are married and/or have children- I would encourage that as a couple, you seek help through couples counseling (and likely individual counseling, for each of you) – which could allow the both of you to heal from unresolved relational wounds, as well as to learn how to care and nurture, effectively communicate, and respect each other as dignified and loving human beings. There is no gaurantee, but I believe in this case it is worth a try. HOWEVER!... I only say this if, and only if, there is no threat of harm or physical violence occurring in the relationship by a toxic partner (if a threat or violence is present—then seek help, guidance, and safety; and get out, if possible, asap).

There also could be other factors in a toxic relationship that could determine whether would be worth saving, or not (addiction issues, for example). So no matter what, seek professional help and consultation if you’re in a marraige which is toxic, to better help you determine whether it is worth saving.

A willing partner is essential to any possible change

If you feel your toxic relationship is worth trying to save, then the only way this is possible is if your partner has the courage and willingness to do what it takes. So you will want to ask yourself: Do you have a willing partner? Is your partner open and committed and ready to take responsibility and do the work necessary with a helping professional, along with you, side by side?

If he/she is unwilling, makes excuses, or declares you’re the problem and he/she has no problem…etc., then you have to ask yourself:  “What am I gaining from this relationship?” - “Am I willing to stay in a relationship where my needs and wants consistently be unmet; where distress and dissatisfied will be a norm; where I will continue to sacrifice my emotional health and wellbeing? The answer is clear.

Feeling stuck and unable to leave a toxic relationship

If you’re in a toxic relationship and feel frozen and unable to leave the relationship because of love addiction (addicted to a relationship partner), even if you are clear he/she is bad for you, the best thing you can do is to seek professional guidance to help you find the solutions, clarity, and tools to gain the internal strength to leave the relationship (seek a love addiction/relationship specialist- counselor, therapist, and/or relationship coach/specialist). By doing so, you will eventually take comfort in knowing that such a painful experience was not a waste of time (even if it is your 3rd, 10th, or 20th toxic relationship). Pain, distress, or toxic experiences in our lives can be a great teacher- as long as we allow them to be.

I've had a lot of people ask, "Why do I always get involved in toxic relationships full of pain and misery when romantic 'love'  supposedly isn't supposed to feel this way?" And usually the answer is simple-- the relationships chosen have been toxic; largely because relationship partners that were chosen are toxic (e.g., narcissists, psychopaths, avoidant). Which is why it so important to recognize if or when you're in a toxic relationship.

After all, identifying the problem is always the first step to any problem. Once you can identify a problem, you can then seek the answers of what to do about it. Awareness is Power. With power comes freedom-- the freedom to choose whether to participate in toxic relationships or instead to participate in relationships that give fuel to your emotional health and well-being. You must come to learn at your core, you deserve love, real love that enhances your life, and nothing less.

One a final note: Give yourself permission to declare... 'F-You' to Toxic Relationships!

The Moment You Start Thinking, I Deserve Better, It Means YOU DO!

Toxic Love 

Brings hurt and distress
Feels unstable & chaotic
Degrades emotional health & wellbeing

Healthy Love 
  • Brings fulfillment and comfort
  • Feels safe and secure
  • Promotes emotional health & wellbeing


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