You probably have heard the words “toxic relationship” thrown around at one point in your life—maybe when your friend has spoken about her not-boyfriend boyfriend or maybe when reading a review about a movie like 365 DNI. But the truth is, it’s hard to fully understand what it means to be in a toxic relationship.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of “toxic” is “relating to or being extremely harsh, malicious, and harmful.” So, yeah, you can only imagine what that looks with someone who supposedly loves you and vice versa.
“At their core, toxic relationships typically manifest as someone asserting power over another and with someone questioning their self-worth or value,” says Mackenzie Piper, MPH, CHES, senior manager of programs at Power to Decide. “But there is no perfect or complete definition, as all relationships are subjective.”
Here’s where it gets tricky though: Toxic relationships can be extremely hard to navigate because oftentimes, you don’t even know you’re in one in the first place. This, my friends, is what I like to call having relationship blinders on.
Once feelings and emotions are involved, it can get to the point where you’re oblivious to the toxicity. This is especially the case if your friends or family have ever mentioned things to you before about your relationship that you’ve never noticed yourself.
So to help, we’ve tapped a ton of mental health experts who have provided a list of not-so-obvious signs that you may be in a toxic relationship—whether with a romantic partner or coworker or friend or whatever else. But don’t worry, we also have some tips and advice for WTF to do when you realize this list is a lil too familiar.
Signs You Are in a Toxic Relationship
1. Your partner gaslights you by either telling you how you feel or devalues your feelings when you share them, says Piper. (Aka if anyone has ever said the words “you’re being so sensitive right now” after you expressed an issue with them.)
2. Your partner blames you for a problem they caused. This is called scapegoating, and it happens “when an individual will displace their problems onto someone, leaving them to feel guilt and shame when they were not the source of the problem,” says Lori Nixon Bethea, PhD, owner of Intentional Hearts Counseling Services. (Like, has your significant other ever blamed you for the fact that they cheated?)
3. They isolate you from friends, family, or plans. “Many times in toxic relationships, the toxic individual will seek to isolate you in order to gain control over you or feel that they have control over you,” says licensed therapist Oddesty K. Langham. A prime example: Maybe you tell your partner that you have plans Thursday night, but they say, “Ah, no, I was going to surprise you with a special dinner that night,” and this happens over, and over, and over again to the point of seeming intentional.
4. They are notorious for playing the victim card. “If every time you tell your significant other how you feel about something, they find a way to make it about them or somehow become the victim despite you bringing awareness to your feelings,” says Langham. “It is impossible to create balance in a relationship with a person who is only concerned with their own feelings.”
5. You are experiencing more stress, anxiety or excessive worry—or maybe even a weakened immune system. “Toxic relationships tend to make us go into fight or flight response, which in turn causes our bodies to work overtime, which can lead to health issues,” says Langham. That explains the headaches.
6. You have nightmares. JSYK, Sigmund Freud was definitely onto something because your inner psyche is smart as hell. It’s possible that nightmares frequently involving your significant other could be a major signal that something not okay is going on, says blogger Candice McCoy, who has a background in psychology. It could be the body’s way of letting you in on something you’re not seeing yourself.
7. You hide things that have happened from your friends or family. If you’ve ever told a story about your significant other to someone else and purposefully left out a key detail in hopes of making them look better than they are—hi, yes, guilty—this could be a maje problem. Psychiatrist Ndidi Onyejiaka, MD, confirms that it could be a sign of a toxic relationship if “things are done or said to you which you are too ashamed to tell anyone about.”
8. You make excuses for their shitty behavior. Oh, they haven’t texted you all day despite being active on social media? They’re just busy. Oh, they forgot your birthday? Understandable. Oh, they yelled at you and called you names? They had a rough day at work. If this sounds familiar, it’s not a super great sign, says Dr. Onyejiaka.
9. They are controlling. Umm, yeah, if someone is telling you what is and isn’t okay to (1) wear, (2) post on social media, or (3) eat, that’s a no from me. “That’s a sign of a toxic relationship,” says Sandeep Kumar Aggarwal, CEO of Skaology.
10. You would never date any of their friends. No, not saying you should actually casually hookup with one of their friends. But “it is necessary that the people in your partner’s life are good, smart, thoughtful people,” says love coach Jocelyn Jackson-Williams. “If your new person is surrounded by friends who lack morals and common sense, your relationship will suffer at some point because of it.”
And in some cases, toxic people tend to have toxic friends who justify their behavior.
How to Fix a Toxic Relationship
If the list above speaks to you, it is likely you have found yourself in a toxic relationship. But if you’re here because your partner does one, maybe two things listed above and not everything mentioned, remember that “determining whether you are in a toxic relationship is not about checking off any number of red flags,” says Piper.
“It is more about whether you feel you are losing parts of yourself to keep the relationship alive and if your values are being compromised for someone else.” And if that’s the case, you have some options.
Piper says that if a relationship only works when you cannot be your truest self and it requires giving too much of yourself, then the relationship is likely not worth staying in. “It is unhealthy to enter a relationship acknowledging that there are red flags, making excuses for the person you are in a relationship with, and just hoping they will change over time.” In this case, it may be best to completely go your separate ways.
If that feels like too much, you can also try couples therapy to help build and restore the relationship. And yes, you may be able to restore some toxic relationships with the help of a therapist or counselor if there is shared effort to acknowledge wrongdoing or reasons for toxicity, says Piper.
But ultimately, at the core of any healthy relationship, there should be trust, honesty, and communication. And some characteristics are often irreconcilable, says Piper.
If you need help processing these feelings or revelations with a licensed professional by yourself, you can always download an app like TalkSpace, which is an online therapy option that connects you with mental health professionals and counselors whenever you need.
But remember, you deserve to be your truest, healthiest, best version of yourself in all of your relationships. Romantic ones especially.
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