Recognising the unhealthy dynamics indicative of a toxic relationship is often easier said than done. For the victim of toxicity, emotional attachment to the other person, hopes for a better future and a desensitisation to toxic behaviours can make it difficult to spot the warning signs. This makes it harder for those trapped in a toxic relationship to take action to safeguard their wellbeing.
What are the signs of toxic relationship?
The question of what makes a relationship toxic is nuanced. While all abusive relationships are inherently toxic, not all toxic relationships are downright abusive.
A relationship between two well-meaning individuals can become toxic due to consistent breakdowns in communication, unhealthy coping mechanisms, or a lack of emotional support. Two people who are well-adjusted on their own may simply be a poor fit together, with each bringing out the other person’s worst traits. In some cases, the issues can be worked through; in others, the relationship becomes toxic and detrimental to one or both parties.
Recognising the signs of a toxic relationship is the first step towards making a positive change. That change could mean seeking expert support to repair the relationship or taking steps to escape the situation. Common red flags include:
- You’re unhappy in the relationship: If a relationship leaves you feeling hurt or drained more often than you feel happy and supported, it could be toxic. Whether your partner is withholding emotional support on purpose or simply isn’t emotionally equipped to meet your needs, ongoing feelings of hurt and unhappiness are a clear sign of toxicity.
- Communication issues: If small misunderstandings often lead to bigger arguments, and you find yourself walking on eggshells due to unresolved conflicts and ongoing tension, your relationship may have become toxic.
The breakdown in communication could be happening with no prior intent, but it is also possible that your partner is gaslighting you. Either way, communication issues must be resolved to create a healthy and nurturing relationship.
- Unhealthy patterns: Passive-aggressive behaviour, jealousy, or emotional manipulation are often present in toxic relationships. Day to day, these behaviours can manifest in a number of ways. Your partner may be exceedingly negative for long periods of time for example, or they may disregard your boundaries and feelings. Anyone can have a bad day, and none of us behave at our best all the time, but a constant pattern of such behaviour is a serious red flag.
- The relationship is extremely exclusive: Having few friends or hobbies outside of your relationship could be a signal that it has become toxic. Healthy couples will have their own interests, friendships, and hobbies independent of their partner.
How can a toxic relationship affect mental health?
Toxic relationships can have an enormously detrimental effect on mental health. There is a misconception that if a relationship is not overtly physical or emotionally abusive, it won’t cause serious harm – but that is not the case. Any kind of toxic relationship can have profound and negative impact on mental and emotional wellbeing.
As toxic relationships are often marked by conflict, emotional turmoil and uncertainty, stress and anxiety are common. Constantly walking on eggshells to avoid an argument, or having affection withheld can lead to depression as well as poor self-esteem. In more extreme cases, those trapped in a toxic relationship can exhibit signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
How can being in a toxic relationship change your personality?
Inevitably, toxicity can cause changes in behaviour and personality. If you’re a victim of a toxic relationship, you may often feel anxious and depressed, or become withdrawn. This could lead to feelings of anger, cause you to become defensive, or provoke feelings of aggression. It is not uncommon for people in a toxic relationship to start exhibiting toxic behaviour themselves as a coping mechanism – which can make it difficult to form healthy relationships in the future.
Leaving a toxic relationship is never easy. You may fall into the ‘sunk cost fallacy’, where the more you have invested into a relationship in terms of time, money, and emotional commitment, the more difficult it becomes to leave – even when it’s clear that doing so would be the healthy choice. No one wants to feel like months or years of their life have been wasted, but remaining in a toxic relationship continues that pattern, with more time then lost.
If you’re concerned that your relationship has become toxic – or you fear for a friend or loved one – seeking professional support from a counsellor or therapist can help to end the cycle. Should a toxic relationship become violent or abusive, a family solicitor can help you to access legal protection from your abuser.