The Toxic Relationship: Signals, Red Flags, and What You Can Do about It (Part 3)

Amanda Luzzader

What can be done about a toxic relationship?

It’s not difficult to tell if you’re in a healthy relationship, but you might have trouble identifying a relationship that is truly toxic. That’s why we’ve been discussing toxic warning signs in this three-part article.

What is a toxic relationship?As we’ve discussed previously, toxicity goes deeper than occasional disagreements or even fights. Dr. Lillian Glass, the 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?In the first two parts of this article, ten signs that you might be in a toxic relationship were outlined. While there are many, many more than ten of them, the signs we focused on are listed below.

  1. Unhappiness
  2. Lack of Trust
  3. Hostile Communication
  4. Controlling Behavior
  5. Insecurity
  6. Love Bombing
  7. Gaslighting
  8. Eagerness to Please an Abusive Friend or Partner
  9. “I apologize, but…”
  10. Criticizing Your Circle

As a reminder, it’s important to bear in mind that if a relationship is indeed toxic and unhealthy, it’s not necessarily the fault of one person. Also, being in a toxic relationship doesn’t mean that one or both people are unavoidably toxic, nasty, rotten, or evil. Just as a toxin in the body can be handled with treatment or antidotes, toxicity in a relationship can be addressed if both people are willing.

What can be done about a toxic relationship?In this final installment of a three-part article, we’re ready to talk about what to do if you’ve determined that you’re in a toxic relationship. But first, a disclaimer. Sometimes a toxic relationship can go far behind simple frustration and unhappiness. Sometimes a toxic relationship can involve physical and mental abuse, and this type of trauma can have serious and lasting effects. If you’re wondering if you’re in a toxic relationship, articles about warning signs and advice can of course be a starting point, but professional and legal help may also be called for, which brings us to our first piece of advice for those in toxic relationships.

1. Seek professional help.Toxicity in a relationship doesn’t necessarily arise from bad people. It usually arises from things like poor decisions, unresolved conflicts or disagreements, personality clashes, and even psychological disorders. And if a relationship has soured to the point that it can be classified as toxic, a third party with training and experience may be able to help. A licensed therapist, family counselor, or a mental-health professional can help everyone involved find the sources of a relationship’s toxicity and then provide tools for improving the situation.

2. Accept responsibility.As mentioned earlier, a toxic relationship may be a two-sided matter, and this may become apparent after seeking professional advice or by merely communicating with the other person in the relationship. Be willing to take responsibility for your part of the problem, and be willing to change your behavior going forward. Sometimes, when both partners or friends are simply ready to take this step, it may be all that is needed to rid the relationship of toxicity.

3. Be truthful.This may seem obvious–accepting your own responsibility in a toxic relationship will of course require a lot of difficult truth-telling. However, clear-eyed truth will also be required when stating what you expect from a relationship going forward. Be clear and bold in laying down boundaries and expectations, and avoid the temptation to let things go back to the way they were before. There are many toxic tactics that are designed (intentionally or not) to make you think that your relationship is in fact acceptable, so be careful when it’s time to declare that the toxic issues have been satisfactorily resolved. Telling the truth will help you determine if your partner, friend, or coworker is sincerely ready and willing to work together with you to make things better. If you’re seeking advice about your toxic relationship, whether from a friend or a therapist, be totally truthful in those situations, too. Understating, exaggerating, obfuscation, or aggrandizing will only result in counsel and advice that is skewed and ineffective.

4. Involve family and friends.Opening up to those around you about a toxic relationship part can have a powerful effect. First, you may receive empathy and advice from those who’ve experienced the same thing. Second, it can negate the tactic of isolation that is often used in toxic relationships, which will strengthen you as you examine solutions and future expectations. Friends and loved ones may not always know exactly what to say to you, but they can provide perspective, a listening ear, and other support.

5. Break contact.When you’re in a toxic relationship, frequent and close contact with the other person is not always helpful at resolving or improving the relationship. Try establishing a little distance from the other person. Give yourself time and mental space to clear the fog of war, consider what to do next, and perhaps to consult others. This might consist of a day or two, or the separation may need to be much longer.

6. Be willing to leave.Toxic relationships are, by definition, dangerous. They can affect your mental and physical wellbeing, particularly if actual abuse is involved. Leaving a relationship with a spouse, family member, job, or longtime friend can seem drastic, but sometimes it’s the only way.

7. Be willing to stay.Along with accepting responsibility for your own part in a toxic relationship, you should be willing to invest energy and effort into the relationship in order to improve it. The mere act of investing time and effort into a relationship may be exactly what it needs in the first place.

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