The toxicity of a dysfunctional relationship can spread like a disease to all areas of a person’s life, affecting work, family, and friendships—even health. A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that staying in a bad marriage increases your risk of heart disease, which is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. The first step toward breaking free from a toxic relationship is recognizing the warning signs.
If your intuition is telling you something is wrong, but when you ask your partner about it, you’re met with silence that feels like a punishment, that’s passive-aggressive behavior. Passive aggression is the avoidance of direct confrontation and an indirect resistance to the demands of others. This behavior erodes healthy relationships by shutting down open and healthy communication on one person’s terms. If something feels a little “off,” but you keep getting shut down when you bring up your concerns, that’s a warning sign of an unhealthy relationship dynamic.
“Jokes” at Your Expense
If your partner makes hurtful or belittling comments about you, but claim they were “just joking,” that’s a red flag. If you attempt to defend yourself, they might tell you to lighten up or accuse you of overreacting. How can you tell the difference between a good-natured jab and emotional bullying? A good joke makes you feel like you’re included. A toxic joke will make you feel powerless, small, and upset. Emotional bullying has absolutely no place in healthy relationships.
Rollercoaster of Love
Toxic love makes you feel stuck on a never-ending rollercoaster. The brief highs are exhilarating, but they are few and far between. These short-lived bursts of joy are just enough of a boost to keep you hoping that the next one is just around the corner if you just stay on the ride. This unpredictability literally becomes addictive, encouraging the same reward-seeking behavior as a desperate gambler who can’t stop playing the slots. Studies demonstrate that uncertainty takes a physiological toll, not just on humans, but on all animals. Being unable to predict what’s going to happen next causes surges in glucocorticoids or stress hormones. Bathing your brain in stress hormones long-term is a recipe for disaster.
Walking on Eggshells
Does the thought of going out with a friend after work make you hesitate because you fear your partner’s jealousy? Do you hide your phone because a text from someone else might make your partner suspicious? If you find yourself actively avoiding normal situations because of how you predict your partner might react, you could be in a toxic relationship. Open communication and trust build healthy relationships, not feeling like you have to tiptoe around another person’s moods.
The Blame Game
If it feels like you get blamed for everything, even your partner’s bad behavior, that’s a red flag you shouldn’t ignore. A toxic partner will quickly turn the tables on you when you bring up valid concerns about the relationship, and you often wonder if your feelings are to blame for your partner’s mistreatment of you. If your partner never seems to take responsibility for how their actions affect you, that might be a sign of emotional abuse.
It is normal to feel intoxicated when you’re with your partner, especially in the beginning. But if you start having negative “withdrawal symptoms” as soon as your time together is over, that’s a sign of a dysfunctional relationship. Maybe you’re filled with self-doubt, second-guessing the status of your relationship, wondering if your appearance or personality is good enough to hold your partner’s interest while he or she is away from you. You should feel at ease and secure in your relationship, whether you are together or apart. If you’re experiencing separation anxiety, it might be time to take a closer look at what’s making you feel so insecure in your relationship.
While it’s respectful and perfectly healthy to let your partner know your plans, two fully grown adults do not have to ask one another permission before making simple choices. If you sometimes feel like a child who needs to ask for permission before making everyday adult decisions for yourself, such as taking a walk around the block, that’s a sign of a toxic relationship.
It’s not healthy to spend a majority of your time worrying about whether or not your relationship is healthy, mulling over what you can do to improve your partner’s moods, or even justifying their harmful behavior. If you aren’t with your toxic partner, you get lonely, because you’re so obsessively focused on the relationship that you’ve distanced yourself from friends and family. Perhaps one of your deepest fears about getting too close to others is that they might see your toxic relationship for what it is.
Constantly trying to predict or navigate someone else’s moods and behavior is draining, especially if you’ve been doing it for months or years. In normal relationships, both partners can relax around each other almost all the time. If you constantly feel exhausted in your relationship, that’s a warning sign that you’re working much harder at it than you should be.
When you’re in a toxic relationship, you’re worn out by intense and unpredictable interactions, so you lose your motivation to socialize with family and friends. This is especially true if your partner actively discourages you from seeing the people to whom you are close. You’re already too exhausted to deal with any fallout from going against your partner’s wishes, so you go down the path of least resistance—you isolate yourself.