Research-Backed Advice

This is What a Toxic Relationship Feels Like: 4 Signs

Highlights:

  • When evaluating whether your relationship is toxic, think about how your partner makes you feel.
  • Your partner shouldn’t make you feel bad about yourself or be overly controlling or critical.
  • Toxicity might start out unintentional, but if you try to work things out and nothing changes, it might be time to leave.

If you and your partner are always fighting and you’re constantly feeling emotionally drained and invalidated, you may wonder, “am I in a toxic relationship?”

While some conflict is typical in romantic relationships, research suggests that an average of 80% of Americans have experienced emotional abuse, a possible element of a toxic relationship. 

This article outlines what a toxic relationship feels like and what to do about it.

What is a toxic relationship?

Defining a toxic relationship is difficult. The answer is complicated and depends on your situation.

However, researchers of a 2021 study define a toxic person as someone who is self-centered and displays behaviors that are damaging to their partner, either physically or emotionally.

“Toxic relationships aren’t an officially recognized diagnosis, so we can’t look at two relationships and say A is toxic and B isn’t,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Ryan Howes

However, he points out that popular psychology classifies it as a relationship where one person has a harmful impact on their partner and any others who might be involved. Through clinical experience, he’s seen varying degrees of toxicity — ranging from someone having a bad day to someone’s repeated attempts to undermine their partner.

That said, if your partner is critical, judgemental, or passive-aggressive when stressed, this isn’t necessarily cause for immediate concern, says Howes. “These are very common in many otherwise healthy relationships, but they are behaviors that can do harm over time, especially if there isn’t an apology or some attempt to repair the damage.”

This is what a toxic relationship feels like

There’s no definitive answer to “what does a toxic relationship feel like?”

But if many of the unhealthy situations below resonate with you, it might be time to re-evaluate your relationship.

1. Your partner makes you feel bad about yourself

One sign of an unhealthy, possibly toxic relationship is that your partner constantly criticizes and scrutinizes you. 

For example, the following may signal it’s time to sit down and set some boundaries:

  • They regularly embarrass you in public settings.
  • They’re overly sarcastic when talking to you.
  • They frequently behave in a passive-aggressive way.
  • They often minimize your self-worth.

Unlike a relationship with a person who is abusive, toxicity is sometimes unintentional. But it’s still important to address and work toward fixing the behavior.

2. One person does all the compromising

How often do you make sacrifices for your partner? This can include bigger decisions that are work-related, discussions about where to go on vacation or whose family to spend the holidays with.

While always being the one doing the sacrificing might make decision-making feel easier, it can be harmful to your relationship, even if it’s just the simple stuff like deciding what to eat or what to watch.

If one person’s needs consistently are not being met in the relationship, it could lead to negative relationship outcomes. The person with unmet needs may feel resentment and relationship dissatisfaction.

Bottom line: if you don’t feel comfortable talking to your partner and working together to find a balance between both of your needs, you may be in a toxic relationship.

3. It feels toxic to you

Trust your gut. If you’re worried your relationship is toxic, it probably is.

Howes suggests reflecting on how you feel when you’re with your partner and when they’re not there.

Think about how healthy you feel now, compared to before the relationship began — not only mentally but also physically and emotionally.

Is your partner encouraging or discouraging you from pursuing your passions? Have any of your relationships with family or friends suffered since you’ve been in this relationship?

Research has found that feeling socially isolated can have a negative long-term effect on your health and well-being.

So if you feel increasingly isolated and stressed and notice a decline in your physical or mental health, your relationship may be in unhealthy territory.

4. It’s reminiscent of your childhood trauma

Some people who grow up in toxic households with violence, abuse, or heavy substance use end up in similar relationships during adulthood, explains Howes. “They’re often perplexed at how they got there and ask, ‘my childhood was horrible. How did I end up in the same place?’”

“The answer is often that those circumstances feel familiar, in the most literal definition of the term: it’s like their family,” he adds.

Additionally, evidence suggests your childhood informs how you relate to relationships in the future. For example, because of your childhood, you may know how to relate to someone who is emotionally manipulative or explosive. Reencountering these types of people in adulthood can feel like a chance for a do-over.

Finally, childhood trauma may also make you feel you don’t deserve anything more than a toxic relationship. This is when a commitment to growing, healing, and breaking old patterns becomes crucial, says Howes.

When to leave a toxic relationship

It can be hard to know when to let go. Every relationship has its ups and downs, and Howes stresses that even an unhealthy relationship can improve if you and your partner are committed to personal growth and change.

“I think it is fair to give [your partner] a chance to change and grow after you point out the problems and what you would like to change,” he said. “If they don’t agree or agree and don’t change anything, it’s probably best to go.”

How to leave a toxic relationship

If the relationship is only mildly toxic, and setting boundaries doesn’t work, Howes recommends simply telling the other person: you’re not feeling the connection but that you wish them the best. 

However, if you have children or live together, you might want to seek advice from friends, family, and an attorney to help you untangle your life from theirs.

If you’re living with the person you’re planning to leave, consider finding another place to stay. During this time, support from someone you trust, like a friend, family member, or therapist, is crucial.

If you’re experiencing threats of violence, consider reaching out to your support network or a domestic violence hotline for assistance.

If you’re experiencing abuse or think you may be in danger from an intimate partner, please call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline for free, confidential assistance in the United States. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.

The final word

There’s no exact definition of a toxic relationship. In addition, toxicity can range from mild to severe. 

It’s possible to mend an unhealthy, toxic relationship. But it’s also important to recognize when your partner isn’t willing to change. 

In some cases, toxic behavior can lead to abusive behavior. If you fear for your safety or the safety of others around you, consider reaching out to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional for help. 

Bridget Stringer-Holden
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Bridget Stringer-Holden is a journalist in Vancouver, British Columbia. She's currently pursuing her Master of Journalism at the University of British Columbia as a recipient of the Vancouver Sun David Bains Scholarship, and she has bylines in Vancouver Magazine, Western Living, BC Business, Radio-Canada, Healthline, and the Capilano Courier. Bridget finds meaning in uplifting the voices of others.

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