What Is a Toxic Relationship? 7 Signs and What to Do

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published May 19, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Toxic relationship concept illustration. Violence against women.

What are the signs of a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is one where your well-being is threatened in some way, whether this by emotionally, psychologically, or physically.

While signs of abuse are definitely toxic in any relationship, there are some more subtle ways in which a relationship can be toxic.

If you notice any of the following 7 signs, it is possible you may be in a toxic relationship.

  1. Feeling unsupported

The relationships can become very negative if there is a lack of support from one or both sides. A person in a toxic relationship may feel misunderstood and undermined in their relationship and may not feel encouraged to achieve their goals. 

A toxic person may see every achievement of the other person as a competition and will always try to one-up them.

You may feel as if there is no point in progressing towards your goals if it will never be enough for the other person to be proud of you. You may be left feeling as if your successes and interests do not matter as much as theirs do. 

  1. Toxic communication

Often, you can recognise that someone is toxic in the way they communicate to you and others. They may be very sarcastic and be very critical of you, while covering it up by stating that they were ‘only joking’. 

They may always find fault with everything you do and blame you for everything negative that happens, never accepting blame themselves. They may also lie and gaslight, making you confused and have you questioning your sanity. 

You can also observe how they treat others, especially those they don’t know. For instance, they may be unnecessarily rude to a waiter at a restaurant or pick a fight with someone who cuts in line. 

  1. Distrust 

While it is normal to experience a bit of envy from time to time, especially when you are in a new romantic relationship, constant suspicion and mistrust can become draining for the other person. 

A partner may never trust you even when you have given them no reason to not be trusted, which can prevent you from enjoying your relationship.

A partner may monitor your location, keep wanting you to check in with them via text messages when you’re apart, and may question you if you are late back from work or a social event. 

You may feel as though your behaviours are restricted because you do not want to do anything that your partner feels unhappy about, and you may feel as if your life is being micro-managed by someone who needs to know where you are and what you’re doing every minute of the day. 

  1. Disrespect 

A toxic person can show disrespect in many ways. This can be through embarrassment, criticism and putting them down, especially in front of others. They may not value boundaries and make the other person look bad. 

A toxic person may stonewall, meaning that they shut down and refuse to communicate to someone, especially when they are being confronted about their behaviour.

They may refuse to acknowledge or listen when someone is expressing their feedback or wanting to share their emotions.

Disrespect can also be displayed through lying to the other person, name-calling, and being verbally unkind. 

  1. Controlling behaviour 

A toxic person may have a need to control another person in a relationship. This is where there is an unequal power dynamic, usually with one person dominating another in a self-serving manner. 

Some controlling behaviour can include wanting to always track your location and making comments about what you wear or do in a way to control. For instance, they may say ‘I don’t like when you wear that outfit. Don’t wear it again’. 

The toxic person may always want to have things go their way, disregarding any other way. They may even want you to spend all your free time with them, which could isolate you from friends and family and deprive you of your independence and other activities you may enjoy. 

  1. Walking on eggshells 

Someone who is in a relationship with a toxic person may try to do anything they can to not provoke the other person, avoiding any kind of conflict wherever possible. 

You may never know what type of mood the toxic person will be in that day, and they may get extremely angry at the smallest thing. If you are afraid of the response you are going to get, you may end up behaving in ways or doing things you may not want to do to avoid the other person becoming upset. 

Likewise, you may not want to share your true feelings or unhappiness with someone if you think they are going to become angry or put you at fault for something which you brought as feedback for them. 

  1. Needs being neglected

When you go along with whatever the toxic person wants to do, even if it goes against your comfort level or wishes can mean your own needs get neglected.

You may go above and beyond to make sure the other person is happy and safe, but they may not do the same for you. 

You may try to bring up your emotional needs to them, but they turn it around so that you end up comforting them instead, thus there is a lack of emotional reciprocity.

You may not be offered what you need, whether this be some space on your own or more independence.

You may also feel too independent if the other person constantly neglects you, leaving you to deal with your troubles on your own. 

Toxic vs healthy behaviour

It is normal to have differing opinions in every kind of relationship. Having disagreements does not necessarily mean that the relationship is toxic.

If a relationship is caring, encouraging, and respectful then it is probably healthy.

However, if there is a continuous pattern of selfish, negative, and disrespectful behaviour then this may indicate that the relationship is toxic. 

Toxic behaviours in a relationship are often inherently damaging, are emotionally draining and can damage other’s self-esteem and self-worth. Toxic behaviours include:

  • Jealousy 

  • Selfishness 

  • Distrust 

  • Abuse 

  • Disrespect

  • Criticism 

  • Unequal power balance 

  • One-sided effort

  • Closed communication 

Healthy behaviours in a relationship should positively contribute to self-esteem and emotional energy.

They are often inherently uplifting, secure, and have an equal power dynamic. Healthy behaviours include:

  • Positivity 

  • Encouragement 

  • Patience 

  • Understanding 

  • Respect

  • Compassion

  • Sharing

  • Trust

  • Open communication

  • Effort

  • Compromise 

What types of toxic relationships exist?

While many would think that toxic relationships are exclusive to intimate relationships, they can exist in other contexts.

Toxic relationships can occur in families, in the workplace, and among friendships. In each context, there can exist different types of toxicity: 

The belittler

This type of toxic person is likely to criticise you, make fun of you, and set out to embarrass you in front of others, with the goal to make you look inferior.

If you express that you are upset about how they are behaving they may say ‘Can’t you take a joke?’, although you know that they are far from joking. 

The goal of the belittler is to keep your self-esteem as low as possible so that you are not likely to challenge their control and manipulation.

You may come to believe that you are not worthy of being treated better, so you are more likely to deal with this toxic behaviour as your self-worth becomes so low. 

The ‘bad tempered’

This is the type of toxic person who you may feel like you are walking on eggshells around. You may never know what mood they are going to be in that day, and they are likely to have aggressive outbursts at you. 

You may avoid arguing or discussing anything with this person as you fear that they will lose their temper. 

You may not know what triggers their outbursts and be constantly vigilant of their actions. The ‘bad tempered’ toxic person may blame their anger on your actions and may not take any responsibility.

Moreover, they may not show this aggressive behaviour to anyone outside of the relationship. 

The guilt-inducer

Someone who induces guilt is controlling someone else by making them feel guilty anytime they do something they don’t like.

The guilt-inducer may express that they are disappointed or hurt by your behaviour, or they may get someone else to tell you this on their behalf.

They may also remove guilt from a situation if you do something that they want you to do. 

This type of toxic person is commonly seen in parent-child relationships, especially with adult children.

For instance, a parent may list all the things they have done for their child growing up as a way to induce guilt and now be owed something in return. 

The deflector

You may try to express your unhappiness with something that the toxic person did, but by the end of the conversation, you end up being the one to comfort them.

The deflector may end up convincing you that your issue is your own problem and has nothing to do with them. They may make you feel bad for bringing something up that is upsetting for them, leaving you feeling like you are being selfish. 

In this way, you are often deprived of addressing your own feelings of hurt and are likely to continue to put up with the behaviour that upset you because you do not want to bring it up and upset the other person again.

The passive controller

A way in which someone can control another person is to be so passive that the other person has to make most decisions.

The advantage for the passive controller is that you will be held accountable for any negative outcomes of your decision.

You will often know if you have made the wrong decision because the other person will display passive-aggressive behaviour such as stonewalling you. 

You may become very anxious about the consequences of your decisions, and it can also be very draining to be the one making all the decisions in a relationship.

The ‘independent’ controller

This type of toxic person may disguise their controlling behaviour as asserting their ‘independence’. They may often say ‘I am not going to let anyone control me’ and will use this to explain away their toxic behaviour. 

They may agree to plans but then don’t turn up, rarely keep to their commitments, and have unpredictable behaviour.

They control others by keeping them uncertain about what they’re going to do. It can be near impossible to make plans with them and they do not make other people in the relationship feel safe and secure.

You may ask them for reassurance, and they give you vague answers in response to leave you constantly guessing about their intentions. 

The user

As long as this type of toxic person is getting what they want from the relationship, they can be extremely pleasant to be around. If they are not getting what they want, then the user can become very unpleasant.

These are often one-sided relationships where one person is giving everything they can to the toxic person, while not getting the same energy in return. 

You may find that you can never do enough for the user, and this can drain your energy. They may sometimes do small things for you which do not inconvenience them much.

They will then hold this small gesture as an obligation. If you ever question their behaviour, they will hold onto this gesture they did for you and induce guilt, so you keep doing things that they want you to do. 

The possessive controller

While some jealousy is normal, especially at the beginning of an intimate relationship, someone who becomes possessive can become more suspicious and controlling even later into the relationship.

A possessive controller may always check up on you to make sure you are where you said you would be and may interrogate where you were if you come home late from work or a social event.

They may never truly believe you are faithful to them and may accuse you of cheating on them even if there is no reason to think that.

They may over analyse your relationships with others and insist on looking through your phone or emails and track your location to make sure you are staying faithful. 

They may also work hard to diminish any relationships you may have with others such as friends and family. In this way, you become isolated from others and dependant on your partner for all your needs. 

Narcissists and sociopaths 

It could be that some toxic types of people would fall under the category of a narcissist or sociopath.

These types of people tend to feed off other people’s attention and admiration and cannot bear for other people to be in the spotlight. 

Narcissists and sociopaths feel like they must one-up others to feel superior. They may intentionally put others down or insult them when they achieve something. They are not likely to admit to any fault and if they are made to seem less than perfect then they feel threatened. 

What type of person would be susceptible to toxic behaviour?

Although anyone can fall victim to toxic behaviour, there are certain types of people who are more susceptible to toxic people. 

Those who are high in empathy may be a target for a toxic person as their caring nature means they are likely to do as much as they can to ensure other people are happy. Empaths are probably more likely to want to change someone’s toxic behaviour as they can see the good traits in that person.

Likewise, those who are people pleasers may be more vulnerable to toxic people. They may worry that they have no value unless they are doing something for someone else, which toxic people can take advantage of. 

Also, if someone has grown up in a toxic household or they had a chaotic upbringing, they may be more likely to continue having toxic relationships when they are adults.

They may be so used to being around toxic behaviour that they see this as normal. They may be suspicious of anyone who is not toxic and be looking out for what the catch is.  

Sometimes, people recreate patterns. They may be drawn to someone who confirms what they think about themselves.

For example, if someone believes that they don’t deserve to be heard, they may find it acceptable to be with someone who disrespect them or does not listen to them.

In this way, they are unintentionally triggering the emotions and responses they were used to having as a child or in a past relationship. 

What is the difference between toxicity and abuse?

It is important to make the distinction between toxicity and abuse. Toxicity can include emotional and verbal abuse, but toxicity is not always abusive in nature, and may not even be intentional.

Abuse stems from the desire to hold power over someone else and control their behaviour. Some signs that someone may be a victim of abuse include: 

  • Diminished self-worth 

  • Feeling very anxious and having self-doubt 

  • Being isolated from family and friends

  • Feeling fearful and intimidated 

  • Feeling put down and humiliated 

  • Being gaslit – questioning sanity

  • Experiencing physical violence or threats of violence

If you relate to any of the signs of abuse, it is advisable to seek help as soon and as safely as possible through a trusted friend or family member, a therapist, or a domestic abuse advocate. 

Can I be toxic without realising? 

As previously mentioned, people can be toxic unintentionally. Oftentimes in relationships, people need to take a step back to reflect on their behaviour and whether what they are doing is indeed toxic.

Below are some of the signs which may indicate that you are acting toxic:

  • You are always sarcastic – you may often mask your emotions behind humour instead of talking them through with someone.

  • You deal with conflict in a passive manner – you may present with sullen behaviour, stubbornness to change, give subtle insults, or use passive-aggression.

  • Everything is a competition – if someone shares an issue they have, you may tell them how you have it much worse than they do. This is different from relating to someone who is going through a tough situation. Likewise, if someone shares an accomplishment, you may not be able to help yourself in boasting about your own accomplishments. 

  • You may secretly crave disaster because of the care and attention you receive from it – you may seek pity and comfort from others or wanting someone to give you advice although you have no intention of following through with it.

  • You think that pointing out someone’s flaws will help them to change but it will instead make them feel hurt. 

What to do if you’re in a toxic relationship

If you notice that a relationship is toxic and you want to work through the issues, then there are some steps you can take to address this.

Also, not every toxic relationship can be avoided, especially if you work with toxic people or have family members who are toxic.

Having healthy conversations, boundaries, and awareness may be able to help in some situations. 

Acknowledgment 

The first step to manage a toxic relationship is to acknowledge that there is a problem to be addressed. Usually, you can sense when something doesn’t feel right and that things need to change.

You may feel that the atmosphere is very negative and that your interactions with the person leave you feeling uncomfortable or decrease your self-esteem. 

Identify the toxic behaviour

It will be useful to determine what it is about the relationship that feels toxic. This could be the way that someone communicates to you, their jealousy, their controlling tendencies, or how they make you feel unsupported.

It may be one or many toxic behaviours that need to be tackled but putting a name to the behaviour can help to address it. 

Take accountability 

It may be that all the toxicity is coming from someone else. However, it is important to reflect inwards and see if there is anything that you are doing which is toxic towards the other person. It could be that both parties are equally as toxic towards each other.

Recognising your own behaviour and taking accountability is a necessary step to take to address the issues in the relationship.

This may also encourage the other person to reflect on their own behaviour and feel less targeted for their toxicity if you also accept that you are part of the problem. 

Communicate the issue

Once you have identified what you want to address with the toxic person, clearly and assertively communicate to them what the issue is.

The use of ‘I’ statements when describing your feelings and emotions should help keep the other person from feeling defensive. 

Once you have addressed the issue and how it makes you feel, clearly explain to the person what it is you need from them instead and what the consequences of not meeting this need are.

An example for how to communicate this can be ‘I felt bad about myself when you called me stupid. It made me feel worthless. Instead of doing this, I will need you to take a moment to calm down and think before you say things like this.

This is something I am not going to tolerate, and if this happens again, I worry that I will not be able to spend so much time with you’. 

Notice any changes 

After you have clearly communicated your needs, notice if their behaviour changes. If they have made a clear effort to change and the toxic behaviour is no longer present, then this was successful.

If they have not changed their behaviour then you need to decide as to whether this is something you can live with, or whether you need to end the relationship or set boundaries.

Remember that you can only control your own behaviour so there is only so much you can do to make a positive change.

Set boundaries 

If you can leave the toxic relationship in a safe way, then this may be a consideration if you feel the toxic person is not going to change.

If you are not able to leave the toxic relationship because they may be your co-worker or a family member, you can put boundaries in place to ensure you are limiting the amount of toxic behaviour you are exposed to. 

If you have a toxic co-worker for instance, you could ask your boss to work in a different location away from this person or ask for your breaks to be scheduled at different times.

If the toxic person is a family member or a friend, you could limit the number of times you visit them or cut back on how much you text or phone them. 

How can I leave a toxic relationship?

If you decide that the relationship cannot be saved from someone’s toxic behaviour, there are some ways in which you can safely leave:

Seek emotional support

Try to open up to your loved ones about what you are going through. They may be able to give you suitable advice for how to cope with the toxic behaviour, leave the situation, and can give insight as an outside perspective.

They may also be able to offer you a place to stay if you plan to move out of a home that is shared with a toxic person.

Get additional support

It may be helpful to get support from a therapist or domestic violence advocate who may be able to help you make a safety plan and any additional resources you may need to leave the toxic relationship. 

Bring a trusted person

As well as being able to give emotional support, a trusted friend or family member could come with you to end the relationship with the toxic person.

This is especially useful if you do not feel completely safe having this conversation with the toxic person. If a trusted person is present, you may also be less likely to be swayed by the toxic person to stay in the relationship. 

Stick to your boundaries

If you have decided that you are going to cut contact with the toxic person then it is important to stick with your decision.

If you continue to let them back into your life after you have given them multiple chances, they may think that they have gotten away with their behaviour and that there are no consequences.

Be assertive with the toxic person and clearly set out what you plan to do. 

Change your phone number

If you think you may be tempted to get back into contact with the toxic person or think they are going to bombard you with calls and text messages, it may be wise to change your number or at least block them. 

Seek therapeutic support afterwards

It can feel very distressing to leave a toxic relationship. You may have lowered self-worth and confidence from being in a negative situation for a long time.

You can seek therapy to help build yourself back, increase your self-esteem, and make it less likely that the effects of the toxic relationship will follow you into new relationships.

If you need to talk to someone...

USA

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

1-800-799-7233

or text “Start” to 88788.

UK

If you want to access support over the phone, you can call:

National Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0808 2000 247 – www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/ (run by Refuge)

The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327 (run by Respect)

The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK – 0808 808 4994

National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428 (run by Galop)

Women’s Aid is the national charity working to end domestic abuse against women and children. We are a federation of over 180 organisations providing just under 300 lifesaving services to women and children across England - 1-800-799-7233

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, May 19). What Is a Toxic Relationship? 7 Signs and What to Do. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/toxic-relationships.html

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