It can be difficult to discern whether or not a relationship has become toxic—especially if you're in love and have been in the partnership for a long time. If you have feelings of uncertainty, though, whether they're coming from a lack of trust, continuous arguments, or controlling behavior on either side of the relationship, it's well worth understanding the signs of toxicity.
What Is a Toxic Relationship?
A toxic relationship is one that makes you feel unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned, or attacked.
"Life is too short to be spending time in a toxic relationship," says Jamie Bronstein, a licensed relationship therapist. "It's easier said than done to leave a toxic relationship, however, trust your gut and know that you deserve a healthy relationship."
Signs of a Toxic Relationship
Here, Bronstein explains the signs to look out for in your relationship if you're feeling like things have turned a corner and become unhealthy.
Feeling Unsafe and Physical Abuse
First and foremost: both partners should always feel safe—emotionally, mentally, and physically—in a partnership. If there is any kind of physical abuse, you need to tell someone, seek professional help, and make a plan for exiting the relationship. "Once is too many times," says Bronstein. "If it happened once, it will happen again, and even with a therapist or a counselor, it could still happen again."
If you are worried about your safety or the safety of your loved ones, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
One of the main signs of toxicity in a relationship? "An overcritical partner who makes you feel bad about yourself," explains Bronstein. There is a fine line between having honest conversations and outright criticism that makes you feel down about yourself. If you find that your partner is constantly criticizing every little thing you do—big or small—this could be a sign that the relationship has become toxic.
It's nice to feel wanted in a relationship, of course. But there is a difference between expressing love and being possessive. "If your partner is over-possessive and keeps tabs on your whereabouts, doesn't approve of you having alone time, and always insists on doing everything together, this could mean you are in a toxic relationship," says Bronstein. If you're detecting early signs of possessiveness (from you or your partner), consider having a serious conversation about trust and boundaries.
Do you find yourself arguing with your partner constantly? And not just arguing—we mean fighting angrily, shouting, and saying hurtful things. If one or both partners are experiencing outbursts of intense anger, Bronstein says that this is a telltale sign of toxicity.
Family and Friends Are Concerned
If you're feeling unsure, take note of your family's and friends' observations about your relationship. That's what your support system is there for—to be a sounding board for whatever you may be going through. If the people you're close with begin to express concern, try to really listen and process this information (rather than getting defensive). They might be seeing something that's hard for you to see, especially if you're deeply in love with your partner.
Steps for Exiting a Toxic Relationship
Once you've identified the signs of toxicity in your relationship, it's time to make an exit plan. Here, Bronstein breaks down the steps to safely getting out of this type of unhealthy partnership.
Tell a Friend or Family Member
When you're ready to take the next steps, Bronstein suggests confiding in someone you're close with. "Your loved ones need to know what is going on," she says. "Their support will help you to get empowered to leave the relationship.'
Seek a Safe Space
If there is physical abuse in the partnership, you need to prioritize finding a safe place to be. "Do your best to get to a loved one's home and stay there," advises Bronstein. "Having an in-person breakup conversation with an abusive partner is not safe."
Talk to a Therapist Before the Breakup
While the path forward may seem simple if you've already made up your mind about ending your relationship, it's a good idea to still seek professional advice from a counselor or therapist. "When dealing with a toxic person, they may try and talk you out of going to therapy," warns Bronstein. "They will use any means they can to keep you in the relationship; they will manipulate you and try to lure you back in if they sense you are going to leave. The threat of you leaving the relationship will bruise their ego, and they might lash out, so it's best to talk to a professional first."
Prioritize Self Love
The road to recovery after leaving a toxic relationship isn't an easy one. It's important to surround yourself with people you love and trust—and to work on loving yourself and prioritizing your mental health. "Find comfort with those you love and who love you unconditionally," says Bronstein. "Work on unconditionally loving yourself and heal what needs to be healed."