THE OCCASIONAL CONFLICT is a fact of life. Fighting, however, doesn’t have to be.
Humans are bound to disagree, especially when difficult decisions are involved. Being able to navigate out of that conflict in a way that allows all parties to comfortably voice their opinions while feeling respected and heard is a sign of a healthy relationship. When those kinds of interactions go south on a consistent basis, though, that’s when things can get a bit gray.
Toxic relationships vary, so there’s no single definition. But there are signs you can see that indicate you might be in one. It’s important to note, too, that a ‘relationship’ doesn’t inherently mean a romantic relationship. Toxic communication styles can be found in any personal connection in your life—a friend, a family member, a roommate, or a coworker. To keep a toxic relationship from taking over your life, we asked the experts to clarify what a toxic relationship is, and what signs to look out for if you think you might be in one.
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What Is a Toxic Relationship?
A relationship becomes ‘toxic’ when your emotional, physical, or psychological well-being becomes threatened in one way or another, says sex and relationship therapist Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.F.T. This typically happens because of an unhealthy communication dynamic between you and your partner(s). Relationships require ongoing maintenance, but when conversations are embroiled more often than not, it may be an unhealthy situation.
“While we all have moments that might seem ‘toxic,’ it’s important to note that toxic relationships show up as an ongoing dynamic and pattern of behaviors that limit the health and well-being of the parties involved,” says Jor-El Caraballo, L.M.H.C, cofounder of Viva Mental Health. “Most often, those in toxic relationships find it hard to change the relationship without some sort of outside intervention.”
Toxic relationships are not inherently abusive. Abusive behavior can come from toxic communication dynamics, but abusive relationships tends to be characterized by a need for power and control of one partner over another.
6 Signs You May Be in a Toxic Relationship
There are many signs that could point to a toxic relationship, and they vary depending on your specific situation. Not all of these signs need to be present to qualify a toxic relationship. You may see a handful, you may see all—regardless, it’s important to seek help if your relationship is taking out more of you then it’s putting in.
Consistent Negative Interactions
If you and your partner(s) are constantly ending up in uncomfortable conversations or fights, that may be a sign you’re not in a healthy relationship. You should feel comfortable and safe to express your feelings around someone you care about—not like you’re tiptoeing on eggshells anytime you’re around them. Not every conversation should turn into a heated one.
“Constant conflict without resolution or effort to fight in a more effective way,” is something to look for in your relationship, Wright says. Remember, too, that healthy communication comes from both sides.
Stonewalling is defined as “a persistent refusal to communicate or to express emotions,” according to Good Therapy. “It is common during conflicts when people may stonewall in an attempt to avoid uncomfortable conversations or out of fear that engaging in an emotional discussion will result in a fight.”
If you’re feeling constantly cold-shouldered, or if your partner(s) refuses to answer questions that you present in an effort to further productive conversation, it might be stonewalling.
Feelings of Resentment
“A relationship may be considered toxic if you tend to have more negative feelings towards your partner (or loved one) than positive ones,” Caraballo says.
You may feel resentment towards your partner for several reasons—for things they’ve said or done to you, or for not making an effort into changing their actions. If these feelings are overpowering affectionate feelings, you may want to consider taking action.
Does your partner say or do things to make you feel bad about yourself? Does your partner attack things that you do or say in a way that makes you feel guilty or resent yourself? If your partners words or actions are causing your self-esteem to lower, that could be indicative of a toxic relationship.
Lack of Trust
Healthy relationships require trust on all sides. Maybe your partner doesn’t return from a night out with friends until very late, and you’re worried they weren’t where they said they were. Or, the late night texts they’ve been getting are making you think they’re not being faithful to you. It can be as little as not trusting that they’ll pick up milk on the way home from work like they said they would. Lack of trust in your partner can make for a shaky base in your relationship, so it’s important to ensure that you’re communicating properly to help build that trust.
Concern From Family/Friends
Those closest to you can sometimes see changes in you that you may not be able to see in yourself. If your inner circle has been expressing concern over the nature of your relationship, that might be a sign that something’s up.
How Can You Help Your Situation?
“It can be hard and scary to get out of a toxic relationship—and depending on if it’s in abusive territory, it could even be dangerous,” says Wright. If you ever feel like you’re in danger, ireach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you’re not ready to give up your relationship and think you and your partner can be better with a little work, there are a few steps to take.
“The first step in moving forward is first naming the problem and accepting that the relationship no longer serves each party well,” Caraballo says.
Once you’ve identified the issue, you both need to decide for yourself if it’s a relationship worth putting the work in for. It’s important that you and your partner make this decision on your own—you don’t want to be stuck in a relationship where one person is invested and ready to work on things and the other isn’t. Sometimes it’s not worth working on, and that’s okay. If you determine you and your partner are on the same page in wanting to work to better your situation, there are several tools you can utilize.
“Self-help books can be quite helpful as well as educational material on non-violent communication, and more broadly emotional intelligence,” Caraballo says. You and your partner may want more individualized help, which is where therapy comes into play. Both couples and individual therapy can help you both break through some of those communication and emotional barriers. “Therapy can help partners unpack their own barriers to being present and attentive to their partner’s needs and feelings more comprehensively.”
What to Look for in a Couples Therapist:
Finding a legit therapist isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially since you want to make sure your therapist is someone both you and your partner are comfortable with. Determining the correct therapist for you partially depends on what kind of therapies you both are open to, Caraballo says. You may find some intensive courses or workshops for couples in a group setting. If you’d rather participate in a more private setting, you and your partner can go to couples therapy to learn more about effective communication styles.
Regardless of the style of care, make sure you do your research before booking an appointment with a new therapist. Find someone with licenses to practice or certifications—look for L.M.H.C., licensed mental health counselor, or L.M.F.T., licensed marriage and family therapist. Once you find someone with the proper credentials, “make sure they have experience in relationship work,” Wright says.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.