Toxic relationships are not only unsatisfying, they can take a heavy toll on your mental health.No matter if it’s a romantic partner, longtime friend, parent, or employee, unhealthy relationships are exhausting and frustrating. In the first part of this three-part article, we discussed toxicity and outlined the following five signs that a relationship may be toxic: (1) unhappiness, (2) lack of trust, (3) hostile communication, (4) controlling behavior, and (5) feelings of insecurity.
Now we’ll continue the discussion with five more signs of toxicity—and these may be the kinds of signs that you may not have considered before. To wrap up this topic, in part three, we’ll discuss possible ways of improving, addressing, and removing yourself from toxic relationships.
What is a toxic relationship?As a reminder, Dr. Lillian Glass, the California-based communication and psychology expert coined the term “toxic relationship in her 1995 book Toxic People, and defines it like this: “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. Here is the second set of five.
6. Love BombingThis manipulative technique has been discussed as long ago as the 1970s. It is generally thought of as a way for toxic people to smooth over or “reset” a relationship after an instance or period of abuse. Love bombing can be characterized as excessive affection, flattery, gifts, favors, and other behavior that would ordinarily be viewed as kind and caring, but is actually part of a cycle of abuse. In a recent article in the New York Times, Dr. Chitra Raghavan, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that love bombing is far from sincere or loving. “The reality is, the person who is doing the love bombing is creating or manipulating the environment to look like he’s the perfect or she’s the perfect mate.”
7. GaslightingOver the past ten years, gaslighting has become a better-known tactic of the toxic friend or partner. Gaslighting takes its name from the 1940 British film Gaslight, which was based on a 1938 play Gas Light. In both stories, a nefarious husband isolates his wife from society and slowly convinces her that is mentally unwell by managing and manipulating her surroundings and reality. The husband keeps the gas-powered lamps of their home at very low levels, keeping his wife unsure about what’s happening around her. Likewise, in the practice of gaslighting, one person tries to alter and manipulate the memories and feelings of another, usually to negate their own abusive behavior. In gaslighting, phrases like, “That never happened,” “I was only joking,” “You’re exaggerating,” “You’re too sensitive,” and many others are used to invalidate the other person’s feelings and objections. Keep in mind that gaslighting isn’t necessarily a one-way manipulation technique—in some relationships, partners may gaslight one another.
8. Eagerness to Please an Abusive Friend or PartnerIn some toxic relationships, especially in those in which domestic abuse is involved, the person who is experiencing the abuse may develop a deep-seated need to please the abuser. According to a 2021 article published by Everyday Health, this technique is referred to as the “fawn response,” and it is a common way to cope with trauma. In a perverse reaction, a person traumatized by mistreatment in a relationship may try to grow closer and redouble their affection for an abuser. This trauma response may take other, less-obvious forms. From the Everyday Health article: “For example, a person may check in with her abuser before making any decisions, no matter how small. They may also avoid responding to questions in front of others without seeking permission from their abuser.” The article goes on to say, “The fawn response can often give way to entrapment and codependency in abusive relationships.”
9. “I apologize, but…”Toxic people have trouble admitting wrongdoing and apologizing. Medium author Margaret Pan points out that adding “but” to their apologies allows toxic people to appear to take responsibility, but then redirect, justify, and ultimately evade responsibility altogether. For example, “I’m sorry for what I did, but you provoked me.” Pan says, “An apology that contains a ‘but,’ isn’t a real apology. A person’s inability to apologize without adding a ‘but’ reveals selfishness, immaturity, a fragile ego, and an unwillingness to be held responsible for their actions—traits that constitute a toxic personality.”
10. Criticizing Your CirclePan also points out the toxic trait of roundly criticizing the friends and family of the other person. “You see, that’s a strategy a toxic person might use to shut you off from everyone outside your relationship and isolate you,” she says. Of course, it’s always possible that someone in your social or family circle is deserving of criticism, and this sort of interpersonal dynamic may occur in the healthiest of relationships—your spouse may clash with your parents, for example, or your best friend may be wary of a new friend you’ve made. However, any attempt to isolate you in a wholesale way, and cut you off from most or all of the other people in your life, is more than likely a toxic attempt to increase their influence over you.
In the final part of this three-part article, we’ll take a look at some of the ways to address a toxic relationship.