10 signs you’re in a toxic relationship

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When you’re in a bad relationship, sometimes everyone around you can see it’s not working before you do. 

Not to say that they know your relationship better than you do, but sometimes love gives you tunnel vision that stops you seeing the full picture. 

If you’re finding that your partner isn’t treating you well, is always putting you down or is possessive and jealous – you might be in a toxic relationship and not even know it. 

We sat down with Sex and Relationship Therapist from Good Vibes Clinic, Christine Rafe, so she could help us understand the intricacies of toxic relationships, how to spot one and how to end one for good. 

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What is a toxic relationship?

Christine describes a toxic relationship as one that is volatile, and where one or both partners are not able to respond to concerns or problems in a reasonable or proportionate way.

“Often, toxic relationships are filled with drama, arguing and upset, sometimes over nothing”, she explains. “Toxic relationships can also be used to describe ones that border abusive, and often people interchange the two, but there are some differences. A toxic relationship can impact your own view of yourself, your mental and physical health.”

So what is the difference between a toxic relationship and an abusive relationship?

Toxic and abusive relationships have quite a bit in common,  and it’s for this reason the lines can be quite blurred. 

Christine notes some key differences, however. “Typically speaking, ‘toxic’ behaviours may not be conscious behaviours, and the person or people who are being toxic may not know that their behaviours are considered in this way. This tends to link back to how they have perceived the behaviours they observed growing up and what they learnt about what is and isn’t appropriate in relationships,” she says.

“Toxic behaviours can also come from an insecurity of the individual presenting with those behaviours. For example, a person who had previously been cheated on may be overly jealous and obsessive over how you spend your time.”

In the end, Christine says, both of these types of relationships are cause for concern. “Abuse is a conscious choice to behave in a way that is damaging to someone else and can be physical, emotional, financial, sexual and/or psychological. All abusive relationships are toxic and many toxic relationships include some form of abuse. Neither are healthy and you should certainly seek support if any of the information in this article relates to you.”

What is the difference between a healthy relationship that’s going through a rough patch and a toxic relationship?

“Every relationship has its ups and downs. Quite honestly, not every relationship is made to last, and that’s okay. No matter how long or short a relationship may be, it always has the capacity to be healthy. People grow and change over time, and sometimes two people are just not right for each other. In a relationship that is going through a rough patch, there is bound to be some difficult feelings and emotions, as well as some reflection on yourself. Sometimes this can come out in ways that are not helpful, and this does not necessarily mean you are in a toxic relationship. You and your partner may not have learnt how to handle conflict (most people haven’t), and if both you and your partner can see this, and are motivated to resolve the issue (and take steps to do this), this is the sign of a functioning relationship.”

But, there are usually clear signs if your relationship has become a toxic one – “If during conflict your partner is abusive in any way, insults or berates you personally, blaming you for the issue, this is one sign that it could be toxic.”

What are some of the most common signs of a toxic relationship?

Christine says these are the 10 of the most common signs of a toxic relationship:

  • You feel like you cannot have an opinion or thoughts on something, without being told you are wrong for thinking/feeling that way.
  • There is no trust in the relationship and/or you or your partner are unnecessarily jealous.
  • You or your partner require access to all devices and go through each other’s private messages.
  • Your interactions almost always end in an argument, which you always lose.
  • You do not feel that your partner prioritises you.
  • Your partner does not allow you to maintain relationships with friends and/or family members etc.
  • Your partner puts you down, either on your own or around other people.
  • Physical and/or sexual abuse.
  • Your partner controls your finances and/or diary.
  • Arguments are happening where there are no issues – every relationship has issues, you are two people trying to navigate your own personal goals as well as couple goals, but if you are finding that you are arguing over something that is not real, over and over again, this may point toward a toxic relationship.

Why does a relationship that starts out great turn into a toxic one?

Aside from the aforementioned ‘tunnel-vision’ and infatuation that comes with a new love interest, Christine says that in the early stages of a relationship we’re also “out to impress the other, and therefore our insecurities and unfavourable behaviours and traits often remain well-hidden until the novelty begins to wear off.”

“Not liking the way your partner doesn’t clean up after themselves, what clothes they wear, or sharing the same values, are not signs of a toxic relationship, but maybe just that you aren’t as compatible as you originally thought. There is a difference between noticing some unfavourable or interesting habits that your partner has, and them becoming jealous, overbearing, controlling and/or abusive. This distinction is an important one for the transition from an early relationship into long-term life for a couple.”

“Relationships that feel as though they turn toxic likely always were, as they relate to a pattern of behaviour and thought process that has likely formed throughout the course of someone’s life, not just related to the specific relationship you are in.”

Is it possible to turn a toxic relationship into a healthy one?

It can be possible, but it’s going to take a lot of work from both parties. “So long as the relationship is not consciously abusive, and you and your partner can both see respect and fondness for one another, there is scope to turn a relationship around and learn how to better work together. I caution that if your relationship has almost every sign listed above, that you may find your partner is committed sometimes, but not all the time, it may not be possible.”

The first, and most important, step Christine says you’ll need to take is your communication. “If you really believe that you and your partner are both engaged in improving the quality of the relationship, the first step would be to acknowledge that you need to develop a better language to communicate with each other that does not include name-calling, blaming or attacking. It can often be helpful to seek support from a Relationship Therapist to open the conversations and teach communication skills in a way that is productive. We are talking about attempting to address a behaviour that has been conditioned throughout your relationship, and often holds a vulnerability or insecurity which has formed the toxic behaviour, and this requires ongoing commitment, compassion, love and respect for one another. I see many couples at Good Vibes Clinic who are in healthy relationships but have unhealthy communication styles. On improving the quality of communication, it can transform a relationship from blaming (including self-blaming) into problem solving in as short as a few sessions.”

How can I get out of a toxic relationship?

“If you do not feel the relationship can be improved, or you do not want to remain in the relationship, develop a plan to leave.

If you live together, consider where you could go on the interim, what supports do you have with friends, family and financially. If you do not want to discuss your plan with a close friend or family member, if you have any concern over your safety, or are in a relationship that is abusive, seek support from someone with experience in this area such as 1800RESPECT (specialised women’s crisis support), your GP or therapist. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.”

How would you help if your friend was in a toxic relationship?

Image credit: HBO

Share your thoughts

Comments 22

  1. I’m feeling suffocated by reading this article! Haha! I’ve got a problem with relationships. I need a lot more space & solitude than most people.

    With friends in a toxic relationship, it’s difficult. Unless they ask for help, poking your nose in is not going to be appreciated.

  2. This is a good article. Nice to open up a language and conversation for these issues. I’m glad they mention evolving in different directions being different to actual toxicity. Communication style is so difficult. I am an introvert so I need space to think and process. My last partner was an extravert so he did not understand nor accept my style. So there was no way we could work through that eventually. We will always love each other. Doesn’t mean we are a good couple though. Sad when our values and interests align. Life is life. We only get one. Listen to your heart and do what is best for you. Thanks for the article BH.

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