7 Ways to Recognize a Toxic Relationship & What You Can Do About it

Along with physical wellness and financial security, having healthy relationships is one of the biggest contributors to a balanced and fulfilling life. Sometimes, even when we appear to have achieved these things on the surface, there are indicators that we’re lacking the necessary ingredients to sustain them. When they go unaddressed, these detrimental factors will eventually undermine the contentment we desire. By learning to recognize the signs of imbalance, we can begin to take steps to correct them and ensure our satisfaction with life stays on an upward trend.

Unhealthy or “toxic” personality traits or dynamics have a negative effect on all relationships, whether they’re romantic, platonic or professional. Lack of awareness or ignorance of these in our own lives will invariably lead to
unhappiness. In this article, you’ll discover some of the most common indicators these negative factors are present, and become equipped to examine your own relationships to begin making the necessary changes.

Fear of Vulnerability

Vulnerability is about sharing the deepest most intimate parts of ourselves. It allows the relationship to grow stronger over time because both partners are aware of and respect each other’s differences. When both partners come into the relationship truly knowing who they are and what they need, they are not afraid to share who they are. People who are afraid of being vulnerable may start avoiding topics that make them feel vulnerable because they fear that their partner will be hurt or angry. In a healthy dynamic the relationship strengthens with vulnerability yet while in a toxic relationship one partner tends to use that sensitive information as ammunition against the other. If growing up we have a parent who uses sensitive information against you in an argument, we may learn very early to stop sharing. Or when in a relationship, we share something very personal with our partner and they leave or make us miserable after, we learn that it’s better not to be vulnerable with others because it hurts us. The real issue is that the information was shared with the wrong person. A healthy person would hold space for whatever you are sharing which would allow you to get more comfortable and grow together.

Lack of Healthy Communication

A healthy relationship is one in which both partners are comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns with one another. Many people did not learn healthy communication from their parents. If we grow up in a home where there is a lot of yelling and screaming, where no one apologizes or learns how to adequately let their feelings be known, then as adults we don’t have the basic tools either. Then when we get into a relationship we tend to repeat patterns of childhood against our better judgment, because that is what feels known and comfortable. Toxic communication is aggressive, controlling and competitive. If you have more arguments over who is right than discussions about what is right, that’s a sign the relationship isn’t healthy.

Keep in mind that even if we did not learn how to communicate effectively as children, we can still learn it as adults. When expressing yourself, make sure to use “I” statements and focus on feelings rather than accusatory statements
which can make someone feel defensive. It can take time to learn how to communicate effectively but it is very worth it. When you don’t feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings with your partner, the relationship is going to

Disrespect of Boundaries

In a relationship with healthy boundaries, we can share our wants and needs with our partner and then expect for them to be acknowledged and respected. Most of us have never learned about boundaries growing up because we were too busy trying to meet the expectations of others. Boundaries depend on our self-esteem and self awareness. If each partner knows what the other wants and needs and allows space for finding common ground, boundaries can be easy. What we tend to find is that most people don’t have clear and firm boundaries, making them pretty much obsolete. It’s important to remember that boundaries are important for each of us, so they go both ways. The right people in our lives will not try to step over them or put them down.

Manipulation and Lack of Trust

Unhealthy romantic partners don’t start off as overtly controlling or untrustworthy. These traits first appear in behaviors like questioning who we were talking to or what we were doing. Someone who is codependent may feel like they need to control the situation because they don’t trust that someone else can handle it themselves. Or they control their environment because they felt a loss of control as a child. Healthy relationships are marked by equality. When we speak about control we mean an imbalance of power so that one acts like everything that they want and need is important and the other person is powerless and must follow what they are told. Controlling people may dictate how someone dresses, who they hang out with, whether or not they work and even how much they shower! This often happens subtly through shaming, guilt, or fear. The partner who is being controlled may feel as if they are “bad” or “crazy” for not doing something their partner wants them to do. This type of manipulation is incredibly toxic to a relationship.

We may have a lack of trust because we have been hurt in the past but this doesn’t give the OK to go through someone’s phone, emails, etc. If someone is calling or texting the whole time we are out with friends and then getting angry when we don’t answer this is not only controlling but a lack of trust. If someone is constantly accusing us of cheating, they may be projecting what they are actually doing or know that a healthy person wouldn’t put up with someone like them. If you find yourself doing this you need to consider the importance of this key to healthy relationships. If you do not trust the person you are with, then why are you with them?

Isolating from Friends and Family

This tends to get tricky when you are going through it. It starts off with being told your partner doesn’t like a certain person you are hanging out with, and trying to give reasons to turn you against them as well. At first we might agree and spend less time with that person. Over time they may estrange more friends and even family, and eventually you are left with only them. A relationship should not demand all of your attention. You should have friends outside of the relationship and activities that you enjoy without your partner. If they’re trying to keep you from your circle of friends and family members that are important in your life, they are doing this as a way to make you feel isolated and dependent on them.

This makes it harder to leave a toxic relationship because we seem to have lost much of our supportive network.


This sign should be glaringly obvious. When we are in survival mode we sometimes justify irrational behavior in defense of our pride. We are smart people and abuse doesn’t happen to “someone like us.” But it does. Smart
successful women deal with abuse all the time but we tend to compartmentalize it because we are embarrassed of how things are at home. The definition of abuse is “a pattern of behavior used by one person to gain and maintain power and control over another.” Healthy relationships by comparison are marked by mutual respect, honesty, and vulnerability. In toxic and abusive relationships these do not exist. If you are wondering if what you are experiencing is abuse, most abuse falls into one or more of these categories. Physical, sexual Verbal/Emotional, Mental/Psychological, Financial/Economic, Cultural/Identity. A whole article could be written on each of these, but to put it simply these are meant to make you question yourself, rely on the other person, and in general feel inferior. Abuse is used to manipulate. If we believe the person loves us we can fall victim to gaslighting and being made to feel as if we’re crazy. It is important to get help if you are dealing with any kind of abuse. Climbing out of the hole left by abuse is best done with a team of experts. Many things that we might have minimized for survival need to have a light cast on them so we can learn what is healthy and what is not.

Nostalgia for the Good Times

If you find yourself constantly focusing on how things used to be while feeling like you are really unhappy with the way things are going currently you might give excuses for bad behavior. My personal story illustrates this well. In the first long term relationship I was in we had a great few years. Then his father died, and he changed. He stopped coming home at night, got super jealous and started numbing with drugs and alcohol. I kept waiting for him to go back to the person that I had fallen in love with. The one I had fun with and was my best friend. But the longer I waited the worse things got and I had to be really honest that the person he once was, was never going to come back. I could decide to keep living the way we had been living or decide to move on with my life. In retrospect there were red flags even in the good times, but we often overlook those when we are in the beginning of a relationship. Relationships evolve over time but they should still feel good to be in. If you are constantly feeling drained and overwhelmed, wishing for how things used to be, it may be time to do some soul searching on how you want to move forward with your life.


If you find yourself nodding along to some or most of these examples then you may have found yourself in a toxic relationship. The question I always suggest clients ask themselves is “How do I feel in this relationship? Do I feel drained or inspired?” If you are constantly unhappy with the answer then the next step is to take action, get a supportive team to help you move past wherever you are feeling stuck and then make sure that you never get sucked into another toxic relationship again.

By Stephanie McPhail, MS

In addition to being a regular contributor to the #1 Online Magazine For Codependency Recovery, Stephanie is an Author, Speaker, Coach and CEO of Being Loved Shouldn’t Hurt and specializes in helping women thrive after ending toxic relationships. Join her free group to access more trainings here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/beinglovedshouldnthurt/?ref=share_group_link

3 Responses

  1. michaeline snopek says:

    So much wonderful information. I recognize many characteristics of myself in the text. Would appreciate hearing additional info.

  2. Anonymous says:

    All good info. All accurate. Move on while they haven’t drained you so you are unable.

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