The Toxic Relationship: Signals, Red Flags, and What You Can Do about It – Part 1

Amanda Luzzader

Common signs of unhealthy or toxic relationships

It's not difficult to tell if you're in a healthy relationship. No matter if it's a partner, friend, sibling, or workmate when the relationship is healthy, encounters with that person leave you feeling upbeat, comfortable, safe, and energized. You look forward to seeing people with whom your relationship is healthy and stable. That's one reason you're not reading an article describing ten signs of a healthy relationship---when it's healthy, you know it.

If a relationship is unhealthy, it may be a little more complex to know why and how. You might tell yourself you and your spouse are going through a "rough patch." Or you might think you and your sister have simply "grown apart." You and your workmate just have "different approaches."

Fortunately, there are ways to know if you're in an unhealthy or toxic relationship. There are certain behaviors one can identify and possibly rectify and repair. In this first part of a three-part article, we'll look at common signs of unhealthy or toxic relationships, and then furnish some ideas about what to do about it (assuming that's what you want).

What is a toxic relationship?

Toxicity in interpersonal matters does not merely mean negativity or conflict. Toxicity is deeper than occasional disagreements. Dr. Lillian Glass, a California-based communication and psychology expert who coined the term in her 1995 book Toxic People, defines a toxic relationship this way: "any relationship [between people who] don't support each other, where there's conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there's competition, where there's disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness."

What are some signs of a toxic relationship?

There are many indicators of toxicity---dozens of them. Many are similar and interconnected, and some experts can probably identify a hundred or more markers, signals, red flags, and warning signs. In this article, we'll discuss ten of the most common signs. It's important to remember that if a relationship is indeed toxic and unhealthy, it's not necessarily the fault of one person. Being in a toxic relationship doesn't mean that one or both people in the pair are toxic, nasty, rotten, or evil. Just as toxicity in the body can be handled with treatment or antidotes, toxicity in a relationship can be addressed if both people are willing.

1. Unhappiness

In a 2018 feature in Time Magazine, Glass says the first simplest sign of a toxic relationship is "persistent unhappiness." If your relationship makes you feel like you have "resigned, like you've sold out," it may be toxic, Glass asserts. She said if you feel envious of other couples or friends, that's also a sign.

2. Lack of Trust.

The number-one toxicity red flag in many relationship advice columns from across the Internet is trust problems. If you can't trust someone implicitly, there's likely some unhealthy element embedded in the relationship. This is because most friendships and interpersonal bonds start with trust, even if that merely means that you trust the other person to be friendly and fun. Trust is especially important in romantic partnerships. Jeni Woodfin, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist  J. Woodfin Counseling in San Jose, California had this to say in a 2021 article for Insider: "Without trust, and not just trust that their partner will be faithful, but trust that their partner will behave in the best interest of the agreements of the relationship, there cannot be a sense of security."

3. Hostile Communication

Most friends, partners, family members, and workmates have conflicts and perhaps even spirited disagreements. However, therapists and conflict-resolution experts will be the first to tell you that what matters more than fighting is how the fighting is handled. In other words, communication during a conflict is more important than the conflict itself. Woodfin warns that the following communication tactics may be a warning that toxicity and unhealthy ways of coping are present:

  • Yelling
  • Name-calling or hurtful statements
  • Throwing and breaking things
  • Use of physical intimidation or force
  • The silent treatment
  • "You" statements or blaming statements
  • Constantly interrupting
  • Listening to respond instead of listening to hear and understand

4. Controlling Behavior

If one person in the relationship is attempting to control the other, it's a sign of toxicity. In cases where controlling behavior is in play, the objective is not accord and harmony, and it may often take the form of trying to separate one partner from others. In a 2019 article for Women's Health, Gary Lewandowski Jr., PhD, a professor of psychology at Monmouth University, has this to say about controlling behavior: "Ideally, relationships are a union between equals. Surely, every aspect of a relationship won't have perfectly balanced power dynamics [or at least not all the time], but overall, it should balance out." Controlling behavior may also take the form of "enmeshment" or "clinging." Lewandowski says, "A partner who insists on being hyper-close and doing everything together---or doesn't allow you to be by yourself and is constantly monitoring or questioning your whereabouts and intentions---is indicative of a toxic relationship."

5. Insecurity

Very few people can say that they feel secure all the time. Even the most diligent employee may question her job security. Someone in a decades-long marriage may wonder at times if it will last. However, if you feel constantly insecure in a relationship, it's a sign the relationship may be toxic. Rachel Sussman, a licensed Clinical Social Worker and marriage and family therapist in New York, told Women's Health that a healthy relationship is a continuous back-and-forth exchange of reassurance, compliments, and encouragement. If you constantly feel "on the bubble" with your sibling, friend, or boss, or if you always feel worse after encounters with a certain person, it's time to dig deeper and decide the relationship might be unhealthy.

In part two of this article, we'll talk about five more signs of toxic relationships. We'll then discuss root causes and possible solutions.

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