Recognising a Toxic Relationship

Do you feel unsupported, misunderstood, or unable to be authentic with your partner? Is your relationship often exhausting and emotionally draining? Do you and your partner tend to treat each other in ways that make the relationship unenjoyable? There is a lot of noise around what a toxic relationship looks like, and what to do if your relationship is unhealthy.

Healthy relationships are meant to enrich your life. You should feel supported, cherished, and encouraged to be yourself. They should give you energy and make you feel more capable of taking on life’s challenges. This is especially true for romantic relationships since you invest so much into each other.

This means that unhealthy romantic relationships also have the greatest potential to negatively impact your mental health. You could be with someone who you aren’t compatible with, so by being yourselves you often make each other miserable. Or one of you might not know how to be a good partner. You could also have ways of acting that make the relationship less rewarding.

Many people in unhealthy relationships have a toxic relationship. A toxic relationship takes more energy than they give, leave your needs unmet, and put pressure on you to act a certain way. This leaves you feeling exhausted and emotionally spent. All relationships can be challenging at times and take effort to maintain, but a toxic relationship is consistently draining and putting in more energy than you comfortably can is the norm.

Some relationships are clearly unhealthy and you know how they affect you. But not all toxic behaviours are obvious. Partners can have subtle ways of behaving that, despite not being clearly damaging, harm your mental health. If you’re in a relationship that isn’t meeting your needs, you can better understand how this affects you by knowing some of the more common types of toxic behaviour that makes relationships unhealthy.

What is a toxic relationship?

Do you give a great deal of your energy and time to your relationship? Does your partner often lower your self-esteem or expects you to act in ways that don’t feel natural? Do many of the interactions between you and your partner leave you feeling upset?

Healthy relationships meet people’s emotional needs and help them feel empowered to be their ideal version of themselves. The support and encouragement they receive from their partners gives them the energy, motivation and courage to make decisions they’ll be happy with long-term, while spending time together generally improves their mood in the present.

Relationships that don’t meet your emotional needs; take more energy than they give; are characterised by a lack of respect, understanding, compassion, or support; and are more negative than positive can be considered toxic. They are called this because they make people feel like their partners poison their mood.

There are many different ways relationships can be toxic. Toxic relationships can be characterised by general and nearly constant feelings of unease, or there can be very specific circumstances that tend to set things off.

For example, some partners have highly damaging approaches to conflict. When they disagree and get into arguments, they tend to behave in ways that are very hurtful and take a long time to recover from. Usually one or both partners will do what they can to avoid conflict, even if they have to suppress their feelings, deny having certain emotions, or avoid discussions that could lead to a fight.

A toxic relationship can also be full of rules and expectations that one or both partners must follow, such as letting one partner make most decisions, not being silly, or needing to be emotionally strong. These rules are often difficult to follow and take a great deal of energy, while also impacting how satisfied you can be long-term.

Relationships can even be toxic without either person having unhealthy habits because the couple is incompatible. If one partner likes routines, they will likely struggle to have a healthy relationship with someone who feels controlled when their time is planned. Even being too similar can strain relationships – two people who are highly competitive can develop an unhealthy relationship if they’re always trying to out-do each other. These aren’t necessarily toxic habits, but they can bring toxicity into the dynamic, thereby contributing to a toxic relationship.

Although there are many different ways that partners can be toxic, some of the more common and more damaging ways include:

Making the relationship all about them:

Healthy relationships are based on equality – both partners take turns getting what they want and making sacrifices for each other. They respect each other’s needs and are willing to sometimes be uncomfortable so their partner can be happy, as well as doing things they might not like because it makes life better for their partner, such as folding laundry or watching their partner’s favourite with them.

But some people don’t understand that taking turns getting what they want and being empathetic is important in relationships. They believe that their needs are more important and place high demands on their partner’s time, energy and patience. This could be by refusing to compromise, ignoring their partner when they need emotional support, or never taking their partner’s feelings into consideration.

Behaviour like this makes a toxic relationship because only one person is getting their needs met, while the other likely feels exploited and emotionally abandoned, which leads to resentment or depression.

Being unkind and hurtful:

What is considered unkind and hurtful varies from person to person, such as teasing or taking a tough love to challenges. But some people treat their partners in ways that are deliberately cruel and bring a great deal of negativity into the relationship. This can include name calling, aggressive communication styles, mocking, belittling what is important to their partner, and more. If you have a partner who disrespects you and they continue to treat you in ways you find hurtful after you’ve explained how it makes you feel, your feelings aren’t being respected.

If you both tend to communicate this way, you may think that this is just the nature of your relationship. But being routinely being disrespected will make the relationship a negative experience. Relationships can only take so much negativity before they become unhealthy.

Refusing to communicate:

Communication is necessary to a healthy relationship so you don’t have to guess what your partner is thinking and feeling, while also learning about who they are, who they want to become, and what they’re experiencing in their daily lives. This brings you closer and keeps you together. The amount of communication that is needed for relationships to be rewarding for both partners depends on their personalities, but partners should be willing to discuss their thoughts and feelings, while agreeing on how much sharing is needed for both of them to be happy.

If one partner is emotionally closed off and won’t communicate with their partner, this is likely to make their partner feel emotionally isolated and dissatisfied with the relationship. Even if this is unintentional, if a lack of communication causes strain and fights, it can cause a toxic relationship.

Not trusting you:

Trust is essential to healthy relationships so you can view each other as equals and confidently plan your future together.

People who don’t trust their partner spend a great deal of time questioning what their partner tells them. If their partner says they’re meeting up with friends or texting their mother, they will second-guess if this is true and often look for evidence that it isn’t. This is exhausting and creates distance because they’re sending their partner the message that they aren’t trustworthy.

Having a partner who doesn’t trust you is also exhausting. You likely spend quite a bit of time being interrogated and providing evidence you’re telling truth. It’s also insulting because your partner is implying that they expect you to betray them and ignoring you when you deny this.

Although trust takes time to be built between new partners, refusing to trust someone after they’ve shown they can be trusted keeps a relationship from progressing and stops partners from fully engaging with each other as equals committed to each other, which undermines the relationship and how partners feel about each other.

Expecting you to act a certain way:

Some people want their partners to act in certain ways and react badly when they don’t. People who expect their partners to suppress parts of their personality might not realise they’re doing this, or they could be deliberately shaming them for their behaviour. But regardless of their motivations, having a partner who expects you to behave in ways that don’t feel natural will harm your mental health and prevent you from feeling comfortable in your relationship.

The ability to be yourself in necessary to healthy relationships, because otherwise you can’t relax and feel confident that your partner loves you for who you are. Needing to keep up an act is exhausting, and being ridiculed for what feels like natural behaviour usually leads to you resenting your partner or disliking yourself.

These are some of the more obvious ways that partners can be toxic, but others are more subtle. They can even seem kind and loving, especially to people who have mistaken ideas about what is healthy behaviour in a relationship. Some of the more common types of subtly unhealthy ways partners can act in relationships include:

Feeling responsible for each other’s emotions:

Empathy and compassion belong in relationships. But everyone must realise that they are responsible for how they feel – if you’re angry that’s because of you and if you want to have a good day it’s your job to make sure you do. If you make your emotions your partner’s responsibility (or vice-versa) you’re requiring too much from each other.

If you or your partner think that when you’re feeling a certain way – happy, angry, sad, etc. – your partner is to blame, then you aren’t taking enough responsibility for your emotions and are putting pressure on the relationship instead.

Never hurting each other’s feelings:

Partners need to be respectful of each other’s emotions, but this shouldn’t get in the way of being honest. If your partner is excited about plans they made for both of you, you should be comfortable saying you don’t feel the same way. Or if you’re partner joins a band that’s terrible, you don’t need to be their number one fan.

Telling each other how you really feel is a sign of a healthy relationship because you’re confident your partner will still want to be with you even after you make them unhappy.

Needing to be together and staying in contact all the time:

Always ‘checking in’ on your partner when you’re apart can be a form of abusive control, but some partners think that always texting or messaging each other and spending all their free time together is part of being a couple. People need to spend time apart to do things they enjoying on their own.

Always being together or in contact will erode your independence and your sense individuality. Spending time apart gives you a chance to be you. There’s no right or wrong amount of time to spend together, but this should be enjoyable and optional, rather than a requirement.

Doing anything to stay together:

Relationships are challenging and can take a lot of work. But some people won’t be able to make each other happy. People can also grow apart as they mature and things they once enjoyed about their partner now annoy them.

If your partner doesn’t make you happy anymore and you’ve both tried to make the relationship better, then you should be willing to leave.

You shouldn’t believe that you have failed if your relationship ends. Leaving someone is often very painful, but it should at least be an option besides staying with someone who makes you miserable for the rest of your life.

Behaviour that is meant to strengthen the relationship and keep you together can end up make the relationship more difficult. You and your partner could have misguided beliefs about how you should treat each other, which may contribute to a toxic relationship so you should be willing to consider how even behaviour carried out with good intentions can have negative effects.

Your reactions to toxic relationship behaviour can range from angrily lashing out, blaming yourself, shutting down, or insisting that nothing is wrong and you’re happy. No matter how you respond to toxic behaviour, it makes you feel like a worse version of yourself.

Therefore, rather than asking yourself if your relationship fits a definition of toxic, you should ask yourself how it makes you feel. If your relationship doesn’t meet your needs, takes your energy and makes you feel limited in what you can do and how you can act, then it likely has toxic qualities.

Questioning if you’re in a toxic relationship is a sign that there are at least areas of your relationship that would benefit from improvement. You might have a relationship that is healthy in most areas but can be strengthened in others so it meets your needs and benefits your mental health even better.

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Unhealthy behaviours aren’t always obvious – they can be subtle and difficult to notice

Having a healthy relationship with a loving partner should be the goal of anyone who wants to be in a relationship.

While some relationships are clearly unhealthy and certain types of behaviour are obviously toxic, not all of the ways partners can make relationships unhealthy are easy to recognise. Toxic behaviours can be subtle and don’t register as harmful, especially for people without a strong understanding of healthy relationships.

Wondering if you’re in a toxic relationship is a strong sign that you and your partner would likely be happier if you both considered how you behave in the relationship and treat each other. One or both of you may have habits that make the relationship unhealthy that you aren’t aware of.

Romantic relationships, when they’re healthy, can be a tremendous source of happiness and support. Therefore, if you’re in a relationship that isn’t healthy or meeting your needs, you should be willing to address what is making it unhealthy and do what you can to improve.

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