It’s a common refrain: relationships are hard work. Fights are normal and rough patches are par for the course.
True as that may be, however, these platitudes can distract from legitimate causes for concern in one’s social and romantic life — including signs that a relationship may have become, or always was, toxic.
Here’s what you need to know about toxic relationships, and how to tell if you’re in one.
What is a toxic relationship?
Dr. Lillian Glass, a California-based communication and psychology expert who says she coined the term in her 1995 book Toxic People, defines a toxic relationship as “any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”
While every relationship goes through ups and downs, Glass says a toxic relationship is consistently unpleasant and draining for the people in it, to the point that negative moments outweigh and outnumber the positive ones. Dr. Kristen Fuller, a California-based family medicine physician who specializes in mental health, adds that toxic relationships are mentally, emotionally and possibly even physically damaging to one or both participants.
And these relationships don’t have to be romantic: Glass says friendly, familial and professional relationships can all be toxic as well.
What makes a relationship toxic?
Fuller says people who consistently undermine or cause harm to a partner — whether intentionally or not — often have a reason for their behavior, even if it’s subconscious. “Maybe they were in a toxic relationship, either romantically or as a child. Maybe they didn’t have the most supportive, loving upbringing,” Fuller says. “They could have been bullied in school. They could be suffering from an undiagnosed mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, any form of trauma.”
That was the case for Carolyn Gamble, a 57-year-old, Maryland-based motivational speaker who says she fell into toxic relationships after a tumultuous childhood marked by losing her mother to a drug overdose, and suffering physical abuse at the hands of her father. When she grew up, she found some of the same themes in her marriage to her now-ex-husband, who she says became verbally and emotionally abusive. “I realized in this life, regardless of the cards that we’re dealt, sometimes there are things that we have to let go,” she says.
Sometimes, Glass says, toxic relationships are simply the result of an imperfect pairing — like two people who both need control, or a sarcastic type dating someone with thin skin. “It’s just that the combination is wrong,” she says.
Heidi Westra Brocke, a 46-year-old chiropractor living in Illinois, is familiar with these mismatches. Brocke considers herself an empath and a people-pleaser, and grew up “assuming everybody was nice and everybody wanted what was best for you.” Instead, she says her personality attracted controlling partners who forced her to sacrifice her needs for theirs, and constantly work for approval that never came.
Though they had very different stories, both Brocke and Gamble say they endured toxic relationships for years — underscoring that no two bad relationships are exactly alike.
What are the warning signs of a toxic relationship?
The most serious warning signs include any form of violence, abuse or harassment, which should be dealt with immediately. But in many cases, the indicators of a toxic relationship are much more subtle.
The first, and simplest, is persistent unhappiness, Glass says. If a relationship stops bringing joy, and instead consistently makes you feel sad, angry, anxious or “resigned, like you’ve sold out,” it may be toxic, Glass says. You may also find yourself envious of happy couples.
Fuller says negative shifts in your mental health, personality or self-esteem are all red flags, too. These changes could range from clinically diagnosable conditions, such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders, to constantly feeling nervous or uncomfortable — especially around your partner. Feeling like you can’t talk with or voice concerns to your significant other is another sign that something is amiss, Fuller says.
You should also look out for changes in your other relationships, or in the ways you spend your free time, Fuller says. “You may feel bad for doing things on your own time, because you feel like you have to attend to your partner all the time,” she says. “You cross the line when you’re not your individual self anymore and you’re giving everything to your partner.”
Finally, Fuller says concern from family or friends should be taken seriously, particularly since people in toxic relationships are often the last to realize it. Brocke says that was true of her relationships, which perpetuated the damage for years.
“By the time I actually started realizing I was in something that wasn’t healthy, it was so normal to me that it didn’t seem like that big a deal,” Brocke says. “You get paralyzed in it, because you’re just used to it.”
What should you do if you’re in a toxic relationship?
If any of those red flags sound familiar, it’s time to take action. If you feel that you’re in physical danger, you may need to involve the authorities. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also available for 24/7 guidance at 1-800-799-7233.
If the harm is emotional or mental, you’ll have to decide if it’s possible to work through the issue. If underlying triggers such as depression or trauma are influencing one or both individuals’ behaviors, Fuller says therapeutic or medical treatments may help. Glass agrees that getting to the root of the problem is important, but says that sometimes, the answer may be to walk away.
“I really am a firm believer that you have to try to work everything out and understand why the person is toxic. You may be able to live with it — but on the other hand, you may not,” Glass says. “[If you can’t], you’ve got to get out of it. We have to not put ourselves in that position.”
Brocke and Gamble took that advice in their own lives, and both say they’re better for it. Brocke is now happily remarried and coaches women who are leaving toxic relationships. Gamble is purposefully single and runs a nearly 7,000-person toxic relationships support group on Facebook.
“Love should never cost you your peace. It should never cost you your joy. It should never cost you your happiness,” Gamble says. “If there’s more negative in the situation than positive, something has to change.”