Relationship experts explain the common signals of toxicity among couples.

By Stephanie Cornwell
April 30, 2021
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Relationships are hard. Even the ones that seem perfect have their flaws. But there's a difference between occasional arguments and an unhealthy, potentially harmful relationship. Relationships are meant to make you flourish, but when a relationship turns toxic, you're left feeling depleted, defeated, and oftentimes lost.

Debra Roberts, LCSW, an interpersonal communication and relationship expert and author, says that an extreme of an unhealthy relationship is a toxic one. We often toss the word around casually, but what actually qualifies an interpersonal relationship or dynamic as "toxic"? Bottom line: It usually involves chronic disrespect and lack of emotional safety for one or both parties.

Is my relationship toxic?

It boils down to this: How do you feel around your partner? Do you feel that your partner is adding drama to your life? Are they twisting your words and being argumentative?

Lillian Glass, PhD, a communication and body language expert, defines a toxic person as anyone who makes you feel uneasy in their presence or bad about yourself. Glass claims to have first coined the term toxic people in her book Toxic People: 10 Ways Of Dealing With People Who Make Your Life Miserable.

Toxicity is subjective, and it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. "We're all toxic to some degree, to somebody," Glass says. Some people find narcissists unbearable, for example, while others find them amusing. Toxicity can also exist on a spectrum and vary by degrees.

But it's important to understand what you want and need from your partner if you want a sustainable relationship. Toxic relationships are lousy and subtractive with feelings of inconsistency and instability, and they can manifest in myriad ways. Here's an overview of common, telltale signs of a toxic relationship—and that it might be time to either address the situation head-on or cut ties completely.

1
You don’t feel comfortable being yourself with them.

If you notice yourself changing your speech or behavior around your partner for fear of judgment or ridicule, then that’s probably adding a considerable amount of stress to your life. Glass says this can also manifest as feeling unattractive, controlled, and unhappy. Whether they are intentionally putting you down or not, if you don’t feel like your best self in your partner’s presence, then something needs to be addressed.

2
You’re having visceral—or physical—reactions around them.

When you’re in a toxic environment, the negative feelings can make you sick to your stomach. Breathing can change, you can break out or develop a rash on your skin, and you may stammer when you speak. Your appetite and eating patterns can also be disrupted when under high stress, resulting in either overeating or restrictive eating.

3
Your partner shuts down your attempts to communicate your feelings.

Communication is the hallmark of any sustainable relationship, romantic or otherwise. If you communicate to your partner that they’ve done something that hurt you, and they respond with, “that’s just who I am,” or they get defensive, or they make you feel crazy and question your own experience, then you’re not in a two-way relationship. When you care about someone, you genuinely care about their feelings, you listen, and you respect their boundaries.

Glass urges people to pay attention to how their partner reacts when confronted with an issue. Do they listen, apologize, and try to do better? Or do they get angry, turn it around on you, and make it worse?

RELATED: 7 Meaningful Questions That Deepen Relationship Intimacy, According to Therapists

4
You’ve become protective of yourself.

Roberts refers to this as “turning away,” where you or your partner are interested in “I, me, or my feelings—not yours.” The communication is about power and control in the relationship, rather than being supportive, open, or balanced. You constantly feel like you’re playing games, defending your place, or fighting for the upper hand. If you’ve ever been around someone who constantly jabs below the belt or makes snarky remarks under their breath, then you know the feeling.

“This is stressful, exhausting, and isolating,” she says, “These are big words and aren’t easy feelings to deal with.”

This can also make you and your partner very hostile toward one another. You may start speaking to each other in sarcastic, short ways with the mentality of I’m making you feel bad because you make me feel bad.

5
Your partner constantly plays the victim.

This ties into lack of communication and is characterized as avoidant behavior. Incessant victims will blame anything but themselves for their issues. Having a partner who cannot (or will not) recognize their shortcomings makes progress or vulnerable conversations nearly impossible. 

6
You’ve become isolated from your support system.

If you aren’t sure if your relationship is toxic, Roberts suggests asking a friend. There are often red flags too hard for you to see from deep inside the dynamic. Or ask yourself, has this person pulled you away from your family and friends? Isolation is an attempt to control, especially in abusive relationships.

7
You’re not in the same place in life as your partner.

Sometimes problems arise simply because two people want different things. Maybe you’re ready for kids and your partner is more focused on their career. Not every toxic situation has to be dramatic or explosive—it could just be that one person feels held back or that their needs aren’t being met. These situations can add pressure and unspoken expectations to relationships, leading to harmful resentment and dysfunction later on.

RELATED: 5 Conversations You Need to Have Before You Get Married 

8
You feel relieved when they leave.

It’s healthy to have alone time, and it may make you appreciate your partner more if you aren’t constantly around them. But you probably aren’t in the healthiest relationship if you constantly want to escape their company. In other words, the good should outweigh the bad. If you do feel this way, ask yourself why. Maybe they’re adding too much stress to your life, or they aren’t holding space for you when you need it. It may sound obvious, but you should want to be with your partner more than you want to be without them. 

9
Everything is a competition.

You and your partner should be, well, partners—not competitors. You should celebrate each other’s successes and be proud of your accomplishments. There is no room for jealousy or score-keeping. And each of you should be OK playing a supporting role now and again. While friendly competition might be funny at first, long term, it can lead to serious insecurity and resentment.

10
You often think, “If only they were like this...”

If either of you is trying to fit the other (or yourself) into a mold that simply doesn’t make sense, or can’t stop wishing you could change fundamental characteristics of the other, that’s a real red flag. For the most part, what you see is what you get. People are who they are, and not who you want them to be—and you should be with them because of who they are, not despite who they are. Glass believes that people can (and should) adapt in certain areas, but often they snap back to form like rubber bands.

11
You give far more than you receive.

If you consistently feel like you’re giving more than your partner, then you probably feel drained, insecure, and confused. There’s a healthy balance give and take in every partnership, but the energy put in must ultimately even out. Selfishness, Glass explains, can look like someone demanding a lot of attention but ignoring their partner’s needs.

What to do if you're in a toxic relationship?

Most toxic situations don't start that way, and by the time they get bad, you're already connected or invested in the other person. If a lot of these signs remind you of yourself, your partner, or your relationship dynamic, Roberts suggests taking a step back emotionally, and asking yourself: Do you feel like you've lost yourself? Do you have a low self-esteem? Do you feel trapped?

If the answer is yes, start by fully recognizing that, and then show yourself some kindness.

"If people are motivated to change, capable of change, and willing to show up to do the work, then a good therapist can help them learn healthier behaviors and ways of communicating," Roberts says. If you do decide you want to work to make your relationship healthier and less toxic, it is possible. But always remember that you can only control yourself. If your partner is unable to change or unwilling to put in the work, it's not always in your best interest to stay.