We all crave meaningful relationships with other people, whether those relationships be romantic, friendships, or family relationships. However, if those relationships are unhealthy, they can venture into the realm of toxicity which can be extremely harmful to all involved.
In order to free yourself from a toxic relationship, it’s important to note what characterizes a toxic relationship, the types of toxic relationships that can exist, and ways to end a toxic relationship safely. The purpose of this eBook is to explicitly outline these categories and offer clarity regarding how to get free from toxic people and toxic relationships.
What Is A Toxic Relationship
While all relationships require a measure of work in order for them to be successful, toxic relationships go far beyond that. Defined, toxic relationships are characterized by behaviors carried out by the toxic partner that are emotionally, mentally, and physically harmful to the other partner.
Toxic relationships destroy self-esteem and energy and are unsafe places for the nontoxic partner to reside. The toxic individual generally displays selfishness, insecurity, dominance, and control in the relationship, among other damaging traits (Cory, 2020).
Types Of Toxic Relationships
Toxic relationships can take place within several forms. The most common of those is within an intimate partner relationship (i.e., someone you are dating or married to). People tend to overlook toxicity in other relationships because they primarily think about toxic relationships in a romantic context. However, being aware of other forms of toxic relationships can help you clearly identify toxicity and take steps to alter or exit the relationship.
Intimate Partner Relationships
As the most common and well-known type of toxic relationship, this relationships between individuals engaged in a romantic relationship i.e., dating, married, engaged). Intimate partner toxic relationships can be particularly dangerous because they often involve individuals who spend a lot of time together, and even people who frequently live together.
This gives the toxic partner a lot more time, opportunity, and secrecy to carry out the harmful behaviors without outside people being aware until long after the behavior has been taking place. Intimate partner toxic relationships are often the most difficult relationships to leave as well because of the immense control and isolation that often occurs within these types of relationships.
Friendships can also be toxic. Healthy friendships provide positive support and accountability, whereas toxic friendships drain you of energy, rob you of time, and contribute to feelings of lack of support.
Some tell-tale signs of a toxic friendship can include a friend who always puts you down and makes you feel bad about yourself, a friend who tries to keep you away from other friends, or a friend who attempts to control your behavior.
Other signs of toxicity in the friendship can include constantly blaming you, intentionally embarrassing you, emotionally blackmailing you, and projecting their own flaws on you (Hurst, 2017). These types of friendships lead to increased stress, lack of confidence, and even loneliness despite their presence.
This may be hard to believe, but business partnerships and relationships can also be toxic if one of the partners engages in certain patterns of behavior. Much like other forms of toxic relationships, a toxic business relationship tends to be defined by lack of transparency (or blatant lying), efforts to control the actions and decisions of the other partner, and even the use of guilt or intimidation to force things to go their own way.
While a business relationship is not personal, it can still lead to many of the same negative effects experienced in other more personal types of toxic relationships such as increased anxiety, lack of confidence, and feeling out of control.
There can also be toxic relationships between parents and their children, particularly between parents and their adult children. Psychologist Dr. Susan Forward popularized the term toxic parenting in her book Toxic Parents.
Toxic parents can be intentionally toxic and act purposefully to make their kids’ lives more difficult, but more commonly they act without the understanding that their kids have conflicting emotional needs and desires that should be respected.
Some of the most common behaviors exhibited by toxic parents include (Thorpe, 2015):
- Prioritizing their feelings over their kids
- Refusing to let their kids become independent
- Ignoring boundaries set by their kids
- Using fear or guilt to manipulate their kids
- Pressuring their kids to take care of them
- Creating unsafe spaces for their kids, either physically or emotionally
There are various signs that you or someone you are close to might notice about you if you find yourself in a toxic relationship. There are often noticeable changes in your behavior, personality, and thought patterns that can help you see it’s time to leave or alter the relationship you are in.
Some of the most common signs include:
If you constantly feel like you cannot be yourself or at ease around the other person because it might elicit a negative response, this is a key signal of a toxic relationship. This is because the person is so unpredictable that there is a constant need to monitor or alter what is done and said to keep the other person happy. (Dawson, 2020)
This involves putting in a massive amount of energy, time, emotions, or even finances into a relationship and receiving little in return. Healthy relationships involve an equal or pursuit of an equal give and take by each involved party. But when one person continuously bears the brunt of the weight, the unequal balance is toxic. (Dawson, 2020)
A decrease in self-esteem can also denote a toxic relationship if clear lines can be drawn between a partner’s behavior and/or words and those feelings. This requires tracing the root of those feelings of poor self-esteem to specific words the partner might have spoken or things the partner might have done overtime to generate such a negative perception of self. (Dawson, 2020)
“When you’re in a healthy relationship, there’s a significant back-and-forth where you’re complimenting each other, bringing out the best in each other, and letting each other know ‘I care about you. I’m here for you and this is why,’” says Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a marriage and family therapist in New York (https://www.womenshealthmag.com/relationships/a19739065/signs-of-toxic-relationship)
Whenever you are chronically insecure in any relationship it is not healthy but highly toxic to your wellbeing and self-esteem.
One or both partners are unable to take responsibility for their roles or behaviors is toxic. “Part of being in a healthy relationship of any kind means owning your feelings and working through them—not pointing fingers.” (https://www.womenshealthmag.com/relationships/a19739065/signs-of-toxic-relationship)
Psychology Today says, anger, verbal, or physical abuse cause feelings of being unsafe, and are very real threats to your physical, mental, and emotional health.
Either the communication has stopped altogether or there are no mutually respectful talks. The ability to listen and really hear is lacking, so either one or both partners never feel heard. Conversations are fueled by criticism, anger, and hostility.
According to Psychology Today, occasional jealousy is a normal and healthy human experience, but when jealousy becomes chronic, obsessive or beyond a reasonable state it is a problem that injects toxicity into relationships.
You don’t feel free to be yourself. You don’t feel free to say what is on your mind for fear of bringing on a fight or causing tension. You avoid all conflict.
If a partner prevents you from being able to do things on your own, this can signal a toxic relationship. This can look like having to go places with you, monitoring behavior/activity, controlling finances, or even monitoring calls and conversations. Fostering co-dependence is a form of control that limits your freedom and ability to make choices for yourself. (Dawson, 2020)
When constant mind games start to make you feel like you are going crazy it is a sign of toxicity in the relationship.
When you are constantly worried, thinking about and brooding over the relationship to the point that you are drained, the relationship is likely to be toxic. Healthy relationships uplift you, you feel supported, they bring out the best in you and make you stronger not weaker. (https://www.womenshealthmag.com/relationships/a19739065/signs-of-toxic-relationship)
If your partner keeps you from forming meaningful relationships with others or limits your attempts to spend time with meaningful people in your lie, this can prove to be a sign of toxicity as well. Patterns of trying to keep you from others denote control and a desire to minimize your interactions with others. (Dawson, 2020)
Trust is the natural foundation of any healthy relationship, without trust there is no true intimacy, and no feelings or being safe or nurtured.
Controlling partners will question where you are at all times, and who you are with and what you are doing. Extreme cases include partners (usually female) being told what to do, their access to finances greatly limited and their every move in day-to-day life controlled by their partner.
In healthy relationships both people are autonomous adults who are free to make their own choices. There is also trust that allows both people to enjoy their separate lives while existing together as a healthy unit.
Happy supportive relationships make you and your life better, constant drama and turmoil is toxic and this makes your life and your inner self more toxic and out of control.
If you are ignoring your own needs, desires, and fulfillment in life for the relationship it is a sign of toxicity and will eventually harm you greatly in the long run as you lose yourself slowly over time.
Disrespect is a huge red flag that either one or both people in the relationship has serious issues and disrespect will always lend major toxicity to your relationships and harm your emotional and mental wellbeing. (https://www.womenshealthmag.com/relationships/a19739065/signs-of-toxic-relationship)
Disrespect can come from one or both people in the relationships and includes but not limited to not caring about the other’s needs, not listening, name calling, uncaring actions or words, lack of empathy, lack of support, criticism, judgement, lack of being a friend, lack of caring, speaking badly about a partner or the relationship to other people, and much more.
Holding on to resentments makes for growing grudges that eventually erode intimacy and good feelings toward a partner that leads erosion in how the other person is treated.
According to Healthline, any type of dishonesty, such as cheating or lying about what you are doing, thinking, or feeling all contribute to toxicity in relationships.
The healthy.com states that remaining in the relationship despite feeling hurt, disappointed, stressed out and unhappy more often than not is a sign of a toxic relationship. When you are not getting your needs met, and you cannot walk away, there is a problem.
You constantly think things like, “this will get better,” “they will change,” “he/she has so much potential” or “once they hear me, all will be great.” The truth is you can only change yourself, the other person has to want to change and you can’t make a healthy relationship out of a pipe dream.
This type of partner dominates the relationship using their anger to manipulate their partner. These partners are described as having an unpredictable temper and their partners often recount feeling as though they are walking on eggshells so as not to trigger that temper. The partner is worn down mentally and emotionally by the constant task of trying to remain vigilant to avoid an angry outburst.
These toxic people also use the practice of disengaging with their partners for prolonged periods of time. This is known as controlling by intimidation, which is typical of this kind of person. If confronted about their behavior, the toxic partner will blame their temper on their partner, making them responsible for that person’s behavior rather than claiming responsibility for their own behavior (Cory, 2020).
This type of partner consistently engages in talk and actions that deprecate you. Belittling can take place in the form of making fun of you and downplaying the significance of your ideas and beliefs, even to the point of referring to them as stupid or silly.
The belittling is not limited to intimate spaces and moments but can and often does occur in public as well, in front of friends, family, and other individuals. Belittling also involves a concerted effort to destroy self-esteem as a means of maintaining control in the relationship and keeping the other person dependent upon them.
These individuals will often tell their partner that they would be unwanted or unloved by another person, causing their partner to doubt themselves and their value (Cory, 2020).
The deflector redirects any expression of feelings by their partner and makes the situation or scenario about themselves. When the partner tries to share their feeling of hurt or anger or disappointment, the deflector subtly ends up making the partner comfort them.
This behavior can also be seen when a partner attempts to bring up something that is the deflector’s fault and the deflector flips the script by either making that situation the partner’s fault or bringing up a situation that was the partner’s fault.
This is toxic and manipulative because it allows the deflector to avoid responsibility by preventing their partner from ever being able to confront them about anything. Thus, they never have to change their harmful behavior because it can never be addressed (Cory, 2020).
A toxic person in this category uses guilt to control and manipulate the other person. Whenever a person engages in an activity that is disliked by the toxic partner, guilt is used to make the other person feel bad about what they’ve done.
Sentiments of disappointment and hurt are expressed as a means of trying to get the person to do what they want. When a person goes along with their wishes and desires, guilt is then removed from that person. This type of toxic relationship is most common between toxic parents and their adult children (Cory, 2020).
The independent toxic individual can disguise their toxic behavior as asserting independence over the other person. They frequently break commitments as a means of keeping others uncertain about what they will do.
Control is exerted by preventing you from being able to follow through with your plans or intentions. This type of behavior induces feelings of insecurity and uncertainty in the relationship, and there are often a lot of doubts about yourself, the relationship, etc. This persistent anxiety eats away at mental and emotional health (Cory, 2020).
An over-dependent partner can also be a toxic partner because their passiveness causes the partner to have to make most or all of the decisions for them. This is toxic because it makes the partner responsible for the outcome of every decision made.
It creates a huge sense of anxiety and fatigue as the partner bears the weight of how decisions they make will impact the toxic individual. If a decision made has a negative outcome the toxic individual will often use guilt to make their partner feel bad by either directly confronting them or engaging in passive-aggressive behavior (Cory, 2020).
This kind of person uses jealousy to control their partner. Initially, the jealousy of this person may be flattering and perceived as care and concern, but it quickly escalates into abusive and manipulative behavior.
Their constant checking up on and questioning of actions wear their partners down mentally. This type of person will also work to gradually eliminate and destroy meaningful relationships (family, friendships, etc.). This is done to minimize outside influences and establish complete control. This type of relationship is characterized, not by the idea of being in a relationship with you, but rather by owning you (Cory, 2020).
This type of person benefits in a one-way relationship where they are on the receiving end. They request and demand things from their partner incessantly to the point where the partner feels they are not able to do enough for them.
Advanced users will occasionally do small, insignificant things for their partner that come at no sacrifice or inconvenience for themselves This is done as a leveraging tool so that if the partner expresses dismay over something they’ve done for the user, the user can throw that small thing in their face and use it to induce guilt.
The ultimate goal of the user in this instance is to get as much from their partner as possible. If the opportunity arises where they see another target who can/will give them more they can and will easily move on to the new person (Cory, 2020).
There are some effects of being in a toxic relationship that can be seen and experienced almost immediately. These effects can either be experienced as a direct result of the toxic relationship or an indirect result (Gist Ping, 2020).
Being in a toxic relationship can cause you to lose control of your emotions, both in the relationship and when dealing with other people. The impact of the toxic behavior on you can make you feel scattered and lead to emotional outbursts that are unpredictable and even unwarranted in some cases.
When in a toxic relationship, the toxic partner often engages in manipulating behavior that can wear down your ability to stand firm on the boundaries you’ve set or prevent you from even setting any at all. This can mean making exceptions for unacceptable behavior and allowing yourself to be walked over within the toxic relationship, and when dealing with others (i.e., work relationships).
As the toxic relationship persists, it can lead to high levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression. As a means of coping with these things, many people turn to unhealthy behaviors as a means of coping. Such behavior can include drinking, smoking, partaking in drugs, and over/under eating among other things. These methods of coping simply act to mask the negative feelings and emotions, but actually do nothing to solve the issue of the toxic relationship.
It is inevitable that being engaged in a toxic relationship with someone is bound to have negative impacts on other personal relationships. This can be seen as a direct result of the relationship itself if the toxic person is engaging in possessive and controlling behavior that limits interactions with others. This can also be seen as a byproduct of the toxic relationship, where the fear of the toxic person, or the anxiety of the relationship itself simply causes you to withdraw and isolate from others.
Often, people who are victims of toxic behavior within relationships unintentionally go on to perpetuate that behavior in other relationships.
Mental health can be significantly impacted by being in a toxic relationship. Over time, your sense of self-worth and confidence can deteriorate drastically, leaving you to feel invaluable and useless.
It is common for individuals who have been in toxic relationships to deal with anxiety, depression, paranoia, and even post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what was experienced while in the relationship. Ongoing therapy or treatment can commonly be needed in order to sort through feelings, thoughts, and behaviors experienced following a toxic relationship (Sewdayal, 2020).
Following engagement in a toxic relationship, the view you have of the world is likely to change for the negative. There is often an inherent distrust of others that leads you to assume others will behave or be like the toxic individual.
There can be the expectation that you are bound to experience bad things or attract bad people, thus creating a sense of hopelessness. Future decision-making may be driven by fear and anxiety because of the impact of the toxic relationship (Sewdayal, 2020).
There will likely be great hesitance to pursue or enter another relationship (friendships, close family bonds, etc.) following involvement in a toxic relationship. It’s normal for walls to be built as a means of keeping people out or pushing them away in order to protect and preserve oneself. It’s also common to interact with future partners with great scrutiny because of fear and struggles to trust. Also, lack of self-confidence and worth may cause you to doubt whether someone is genuinely interested or if you’d have much to offer in the relationship, which may cause you to stray away (Sewdayal, 2020).
There are some cases where a toxic relationship can be worked on by both parties to achieve a healthier result. A person must assess this on a case-by-case basis, and perhaps even with the help of a trained therapist to determine if the investment of energy will likely result in a positive outcome and be worth the time (Dawson, 2020).
Talk To Your Partner: Time must be spent talking with your partner about what your concerns are and the toxic behaviors that are present. A person who is unaware of toxic behavior cannot begin to make any reasonable changes to it.
Thus, at the very least expressing yourself and the concerns you have can open a door to resolution. However, it can be expected that when a toxic partner is first confronted, they will generally escalate the controlling behavior. It’s important to remain firm, calm, and clearly reinforce the request (Cory, 2020).
Seek Therapy: Joint therapy can be an essential key in rebuilding a toxic relationship. On one hand, a therapist’s office can be a safe and neutral place to express concerns, while also getting the help of the therapist to ensure both parties are fully heard by and understood by the other person. Therapists can also aid in the development of action items and steps to be taken by both individuals in order to eliminate the toxic behavior and establish more healthy patterns.
Set Boundaries: It is very important to set boundaries within the relationship so that the toxic partner understands what will no longer be tolerated and what the response or consequences will be if that behavior is practiced again.
Boundaries hold toxic partners accountable and protect the person experiencing the toxic behavior from future harm. These boundaries can be set with the help of a therapist and should be clearly communicated to the toxic partner.
Have An Accountability Partner: It is also important for the person being victimized to have some accountability. This ensures they are able to stand firm on the boundaries set, especially when/if the toxic behavior persists or the toxic person tests set boundaries (which is common). A trusted friend or family member or perhaps even a therapist can aid you in remaining strong and consistent, as well as helping you to leave if it comes to that point in the relationship.
Have An Exit Strategy: While the hope is that working through toxic behavior will produce positive results, it is always good to be prepared in the instance that the behavior does not cease and the relationship continues to deteriorate.
Being prepared with a plan to leave ensures you are not caught off guard if things become too intense or if the toxic partner crosses the boundaries you’ve firmly set. Ultimately, if a person resolves to continue behaving in a manner that is harmful to you, it is best for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being to prioritize yourself and leave.
Additionally, it’s important to note that if the behavior of the toxic partner is physically abusive, the priority should be leaving the relationship for personal physical safety (Cory, 2020).
In some instances, the relationship may not be worth or simply may not be able to be repaired. At times, leaving a toxic relationship is the healthiest and safest decision for overall health and wellness.
However, it’s not just as simple as walking out never to hear from that toxic partner again in most situations. You must take calculated steps in order to ensure that you are able to leave safely and to ensure that you are able to stand firm on your own after you leave.
Set Boundaries: When you leave a toxic relationship, you must set firm boundaries that prevent the person from engaging with you, or at least from engaging with you in a harmful manner. This can look like changing your phone number, blocking them on social media, not physically meeting with them, or even more drastic steps such as an order of protection. The point is to clearly communicate what you will and what you will not accept/tolerate and to stand firm in these convictions.
Pursue Support: Whether you reach out to sympathetic family and friends, a support group, a therapist, or a combination of the three, it is important to leave a toxic relationship knowing you have people in your corner. The experience of being in a toxic relationship is often very isolating in and of itself.
Additionally, the decision to leave can be a daunting one with many moments where you may feel like backing down or giving up. Having the support of others will help hold you accountable and give you the emotional support needed to carry through with your decision and commit to your boundaries.
Prioritize Self-Care: Self-care is anything that promotes overall health and wellness of the body. So much is lost when in a toxic relationship that it is very important to be intentional about pouring back into yourself, since the likelihood of neglect was high while in the relationship. What consists of self-care is personal to each individual.
For some it might look like getting into therapy, for others it might look like regularly pampering oneself, and for others it may mean a pursuit of healthy eating and physical activity.
Whatever you need to do to intentionally take care of yourself will go a long way to helping you feel better and be able to pursue leaving a toxic relationship, which is also a part of caring for yourself.
Become Autonomous: When leaving a toxic relationship there can be a big whole in your life that can lead to feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
Thus, it is important to create a life for yourself that doesn’t revolve around that relationship or that toxic person anymore. Pursuing friendships, work, hobbies, sports, and other activities can help you become more independent and feel less of a need for that person/relationship.
When you do leave a toxic relationship there are a series of things you can expect to experience and feel. On one hand, toxic partners tend to respond quite negatively when their partners finally muster up the courage to leave the relationship. Taking the step to create distance between yourself and the toxic partner initiates their attempts to draw you back in.
This is because many toxic partners tend to be codependent and have narcissistic tendencies, so they feel the need to keep you as a means of feeding their ego and meeting their personal needs. Many toxic partners will use their same tactics such as charm, guilt, threats, empty promises, or minor kind gestures to attempt to control your emotions and behavior. It is important not to give in when this happens.
Continued commitment to your choice to leave will also likely illicit anger and negative behavior directed towards you. The toxic partner will ignore boundaries, attempt to make you jealous, talk poorly about you to others, and even escalate to harassing you. Again, it is vital to stay firm. With time the individual will likely back down and move on (Lancer, 2019).
It is also normal to expect some negative feelings on your part. While you would think you’d feel relieved or excited, often leaving a toxic relationship will make you feel sad, guilty, ashamed, or other complex emotions. Some of this might be because of the negative behavior of the toxic partner after you leave.
While some of this may simply be the effects of being in that relationship for a prolonged period of time. The low-self-esteem, fear, and anxiety among other things that was fostered while in the relationship isn’t broken immediately after the relationship ends. Knowing this will help you have patience with yourself and seek the support and therapy you need to help yourself heal and move forward (Lancer, 2019).
Once a toxic relationship has ended, it is important to take active steps to cope with the scramble of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and likely behaviors the toxic partner has left behind. Being intentional about dealing with those things will help you be able to move forward, rather than getting stuck and becoming stagnant (Dawson, 2020).
Toxic relationships wreak havoc on your life. It is necessary to adequately heal from the trauma endured so that toxic patterns aren’t repeated. This can look like getting therapy, meeting with a support group, or a host of other tasks that work to help you address the complex feelings you may feel and deal with the impacts of the toxic relationship.
Toxic relationships of any kind can really destroy self-confidence. The toxic behaviors practiced by partners can make you doubt yourself, your abilities, and your value. In order to be able to move forward you must take the time to rebuild self-esteem, otherwise you run the risk of allowing doubts about yourself and abilities to keep you from progressing, and you can possibly end up in a similar toxic situation.
Hobbies are a way to help fill the space the toxic partner likely consumed, while also participating in activities that bring happiness and joy to yourself. Take time to reflect on those things that you enjoyed prior to the relationship and revisit them, taking steps to make them a daily part of your life so that you can implement self-care, boost your spirits, and regain a sense of self outside of the toxic partner.
When a toxic relationship ends and the toxic person is removed from the equation, there can be a void that leads to significant feelings of loneliness and emptiness. Taking the time to reinvest in other relationships with family and friends can help fill this void and rebuild a support system that will help you navigate the tough emotions and moments that come after a toxic relationship ends.
While many people run from the idea of a relationship with anyone else after being in a toxic relationship, others still find themselves feeling such an emptiness and a void that they feel like they need to get with another person soon after the toxic relationship ends.
The danger of this is that if you aren’t healed and whole prior to entering another relationship you run the risk of either attracting another toxic person or perpetrating toxic behavior yourself. While the loneliness and emptiness will not feel comfortable, it creates the space for you to pursue autonomy and true healing.
This way you’ll be able to seek out healthy relationships and engage in healthy behavior when in those relationships (Dawson, 2020).
It is evident that toxic relationships, in any form, can be damaging for the individual on the receiving end of the toxic behavior. The trauma of being in a toxic relationship can impact you in both the short-term and the long-term.
From low self-esteem, to broken family/friend relationships, to participating in negative coping strategies, to adopting toxic behavior patterns and perpetrating them against others- it is evident that the impacts of being involved in a toxic relationship can go beyond just impacting those in the relationship, but also those attached to those in the toxic relationship.
Thus, taking steps to avoid being in a toxic relationship in the first place can go a long way to save you from any of the negative impacts. The primary of those steps being knowing the signs of a toxic relationship and a toxic partner so you can stop it early and get out before things escalate.
However, if you find yourself deep within a toxic relationship, you aren’t doomed to suffer in silence. There are steps that can be taken to either work to repair the relationship or exit the relationship.
A risk assessment should be conducted, ideally with the aid of a professional (therapist/counselor) to help determine whether the relationship can be saved or is worth the investment of time/energy. For instance, a low-risk toxic relationship might involve a partner, parent, or friend who is controlling and demeaning.
This relationship might have a better chance of being improved by expressing concerns about the toxic behavior to the other partner and going to therapy to address that behavior Meanwhile, in a high-risk toxic relationship involving physical abuse, an exit from the relationship is almost always required.
It is also important to remember that you don’t have to deal with the aftermath of a toxic relationship by yourself. There are people and resources available, as well as personal steps you can take in order to promote healing, wholeness, and well-being. In doing so, recovery from a toxic relationship is possible and will allow you to move on to have a happy and fulfilled life once again.
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