7 Signs That You Might Be In a Toxic Relationship
To most people, being healthy generally means striving for balanced eating and consistent fitness. But it's important to remember that a healthy lifestyle includes healthy relationships, too. Studies show that being in unhealthy relationships can cause a number of health issues, such as heart problems and strokes, and research suggests chronic stress — which can stem from toxic relationships — can lead to serious diseases, an impaired immune system, and depression. In short: unhealthy relationships make unhealthy people.
The definition of what constitutes an unhealthy relationship might be different from what you assume. "An unhealthy relationship is one in which there is no real connection — or a very poor connection between partners," says Gary Brown, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., F.A.P.A., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. "At worst, it is a relationship that suffers from either malignant neglect or chronic high-conflict."
Generally speaking, "unhealthy relationships are the result of basic needs not being met; feeling threatened or unsafe with your partner; poor communication; and a general lack of real love and emotional intimacy," says Brown. (FTR, there are a few things you might not want to tell your partner.)
But just like most things in life, relationships are not black and white. Love is complicated. Sometimes you're in love with people who treat you like crap (I'm looking at you, me in my early twenties), and sometimes you're simply in a relationship that's well past its expiration date. On the same token, not all the signs of a toxic relationship are universal, and what might be a non-issue for one couple may be a major problem for another. So, if you're unsure if you're in an unhealthy partnership, look to the common signs of a toxic relationship below, think about how much they resonate with your situation, then read Brown's advice on how to move forward no matter the path.
1. You have unresolved issues.
Brown says an easy indicator you're in an unhealthy relationship is if conflicts never seem to get resolved — the same complaints and arguments continue to happen on a regular basis. Are you constantly getting into arguments about who should initiate sex? Do you keep fighting about their work schedule after they missed date night for the umpteenth time? Do they never seem to listen to you when you express how uncomfortable their relationship with their ex makes you feel? While disagreements are to be expected, there should be an emphasis on gaining a deeper understanding of your partner's complaints or needs. If the arguments are less about understanding and more about "winning" or dominating over your partner, this may be a sign of a toxic relationship and indicate your partnership needs re-evaluating. (Related: 6 Tips for Healthier — and Less Hurtful — Relationship Arguments)
2. You're afraid to speak up.
On the other hand, you don't want to avoid conflict altogether. Studies show arguing with your partner is actually healthy, and suppressing your anger can result in resentment or deterioration of the relationship over time. If you find yourself constantly in the "I'm fine" camp when clearly things are not fine, you may be afraid to speak up when something bothers you for fear of setting your partner off. Two words: not healthy. (Sound like you? Try Kristen Bell's fave tips for healthy communication.)
3. You feel unsafe (in any way).
One of the most obvious and crucial ways to tell your relationship is unhealthy is if your feeling of safety is compromised. While physical safety is paramount (you and your partner should never be violent or physically intimidating one another), emotional safety is also crucial. For example, "when you are trying to have a discussion with your partner, they berate you, call you names, tell you that you're stupid, belittle you, and/or publicly ridicule and shame you," says Brown. Phrases like "your opinion doesn't matter" or "you aren't smart enough to talk about this (subject)," or any other attempt to diminish your self-worth are clear signs of a toxic relationship.
4. You've drastically changed.
Relationships should encourage growth and self-betterment, but they should also involve two people who love and accept each other without ridicule. If a person's personality or lifestyle changes dramatically, especially in a short period of time, "it means that one partner is essentially surrendering their own sense of self, and subjugating their own needs in order to please their partner and avoid any confrontation when they have a legitimate difference of opinion," says Brown. Examples of this could include (extreme) changes in your look or style to please your partner, abandoning your passions, or deferring to your partner's views and opinions in excess. While these aren't sure-fire signs of a toxic relationship for everyone, they might signal that it's time for a serious conversation with your S.O. (Related: Becoming a Vegetarian for My Boyfriend Was the Worst Decision Ever)
5. Nearly all of your friends and family disapprove.
This isn't just about your parents having unrealistic expectations for their baby. If almost all of your friends, family members, and colleagues ask "why are you dating this sleazebag?" it could be a sign of a toxic relationship — or at least an unhealthy one. Love is powerful, and it can blind you from noticing red flags or major issues. If the people you love most are concerned about you or don't approve of the person you're dating, it's worth examining.
6. You feel manipulated or controlled.
Essentially, manipulation is using various tactics (such as threats, isolating a partner from friends and family, and/or gaslighting) as a means of control over another person. This can lead to serious health effects for the person being controlled, including depression, anxiety, and distrust of others. Does your partner threaten to leave if you don't do "X, Y, or Z?" Have you noticed, since the beginning of your relationship, that you have become more and more isolated from friends and family? Does your partner expect you to ask permission to go out or spend money? If yes, these are highly controlling patterns that could be signs of a toxic relationship and damaging to your mental and physical health.
7. You're super dependent on one another.
While there's nothing wrong with relying on your partner to help you get through some tough days, they shouldn't necessarily be your whole world like a romantic drama might make you believe. "I'm of the firm belief that a relationship should never be your entire life, or even as high as 80 percent of your life," relationship expert Monica Parikh previously told Shape. "That's unhealthy, and just leads to codependency. Instead, your life should be filled with so many other things — like friends, hobbies, spirituality, exercise — that the relationship is simply the cherry on top, as opposed to the whole sundae."
In fact, this dependency can become a sign of a toxic relationship when you become so invested in each other that you can't function independently, according to James Madison University's Counseling Center. For example, you might lack confidence in taking care of yourself or have trouble making decisions on your own, while your partner becomes more dominant and gains satisfaction from taking care of you, according to JMU.
It may seem like NBD at first, but codependency can leave one person with an inflated fear of being abandoned, feeling guilty about caring for themselves, or not trusting themselves to do something without advice from others. On the flip side, the other person might feel good about themselves only if they're helping others or develop the mindset that their S.O. wouldn't be able to live without them. And this unhealthy relationship ultimately harms both individuals, as they can't move forward to better themselves or reach their personal goals, according to JMU.
To figure out if your dependency is a potential sign of a toxic relationship, ask yourself a few questions, as recommended by JMU: Does your self-worth depend on the approval of someone else? Are you supporting your partner at the cost of your own health? Are you afraid of being abandoned? Do you feel like you're spending the majority of your time trying to change your partner? If you answered yes, you may want to talk over the issues at hand, re-evaluate the relationship, or seek help from a professional. (Read more: 5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Sex and Dating, According to a Relationships Therapist)
What to Do If You Think You're In an Unhealthy or Toxic Relationship
If you feel that you've noticed signs of a toxic relationship and you want out, there are several options. Try reaching out to a trusted loved one or friend who can help you start the process of moving forward. There are also several hotlines and organizations that can help you if you feel your safety is at risk.
If you are committed to staying together, it is definitely possible to work through these issues if you and your partner are willing to do the work. "If the two of you generally like one another and are aligned in your life values...then it is certainly possible that your relationship may be salvageable," says Brown. Reach out to a trained couple's counselor or therapist who can offer tools and practices to better your communication and habits. And remember: No relationship is worth your mental and physical health. You don't have to settle for less.