It’s not always simple to spot the signs you’re in a toxic relationship. And it’s not always simple to build a healthy relationship.
If you think about it, it’s hard. Because it takes two emotionally mature individuals to make it work.
It takes two people who already feel complete as individuals and who don’t expect a potential romantic partner to resolve all their problems or to fill a void.
To put it another way, a good relationship can only exist between two people who are in love with themselves and with their own life, who are okay with being alone if things don’t go as expected.
Unfortunately, this is not always what happens.
Sometimes, someone who is ready for a healthy relationship meets someone who is emotionally immature and, over time, the relationship becomes unbalanced.
Even worse, sometimes two emotionally immature people meet and the relationship they build inevitably becomes toxic.
What follows are nine warning signs of a toxic relationship.
Recognizing the Signs of a Toxic Relationship
Why listen to me? I’m Sira Mas and I’m a relationship coach. I write about self-improvement, love, dating and psychology. My work has been featured on large publications such as Mamamia, Plenty of Fish, Ladders, Entrepreneur and Thrive Global.
A woman I know, Lisa, once told me about her unhealthy relationship with her ex-husband, Mark. More than once he told her he would go back home around midnight but then stayed out all night.
When the following day she asked him where he had been he replied he had been home all night, that he had come back home around midnight.
She knew he was lying, as she had woken up early in the morning around 5:30 a.m. and he wasn’t there, but started to question her own reality, “Maybe I was just dreaming,” she told herself.
Every time he behaved like that he was basically trying to convince Lisa of something that wasn’t there — to hide something he didn’t want her to see.
He was gaslighting her.
How gaslighting works
If your partner gaslights you — or you gaslight your partner — the relationship will likely end up being unhealthy.
Gaslighting happens when an abuser has this constant need to control a victim by twisting their sense of reality, said Ashley Laderer in an article published in Insider.
Some examples of gaslighting are:
- Someone denying something happened;
- Someone denying they said something;
- Or someone changing what they told you or twisting facts, saying you have a terrible memory.
2. The Silent Treatment
The silent treatment is one of the most unhealthy behaviors someone can display in a relationship.
Lisa often found herself in the situation where she couldn’t get Mark to talk to her.
He didn’t even acknowledge her presence.
Usually, when this happened, she didn’t know why Mark was behaving that way, and she had to beg him to tell her what was wrong.
After several hours, sometimes after days, Mark would tell her why he was mad at her — it was always about something she did inoffensively without even realizing it and without bad intentions.
Mark basically used silence to punish her and make her feel guilty.
This behavior is also called silent treatment, which is the refusal to communicate with another person — who is usually willing to communicate, instead.
If you are often dealing with this kind of behavior, you are probably dealing with an abusive partner.
As explained in an article published in Healthline, “sometimes, going silent may be the best thing to avoid saying things you would later regret.”
However, this type of silence lasts just a few hours, and it’s usually followed by a healthy conversation about what went wrong.
The problem is some people – well, toxic people – use the silent treatment as a tool for creating emotional distance and gaining emotional control over someone.
Silence is a sign of emotional abuse when, as explained in Healthline, “it’s coming from a place of punishment, not a need to cool off or regroup.”
Here are a few examples of silent treatment
- You laughed at a friend’s joke and your partner doesn’t talk to you for two days — they won’t tell you what’s wrong;
- You didn’t wash the dishes when your partner expected you to do so, so they won’t talk to you for three days;
- Or you tried to ask your partner to help you more around the house — walking on eggshells — and they avoided you for two days because they “felt offended.”
“The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse that no one deserves nor should tolerate. If an individual experiences this absence of communication, it is a sure sign that he or she needs to move on and heal.”— Andrea Schneider
3. You Always Feel You Walk on Eggshells
This is another sign you might be in a toxic relationship.
If you feel you “walk on eggshells,” it’s because you might be dealing with a toxic person.
You know how your partner tends to react and you know you might be punished if you do or say the wrong thing.
Your partner should uplift you, make you feel good about yourself, and encourage you to be the best version of yourself.
However, when you find yourself in an “eggshells relationship,” you feel just the opposite, because you feel insecure: you know that, no matter what you do or what you say, your partner might tell you they expected something more or something better from you.
Some examples of walking on eggshells are:
- You want to call your partner out on something they did, with respect and empathy as usual, but you know that no matter how you talk to them, they’ll get defensive, start denying things, and shout at you, so you don’t say anything;
- You’re at a friend’s party with your partner, and you’re afraid your partner might get jealous if you talk to other people— because he or she didn’t react well to it in the past — so you don’t talk to anyone;
- You would love to tell an almost innocent joke to your partner, but you’re afraid he’ll take it personally, so you keep it to yourself.
This is one of the most important signs of a toxic relationship.
Stonewalling in a relationship occurs when one person – usually a toxic individual – refuses to communicate or cooperate with their partner becoming like “a stone wall.”
As explained in Stowe Family Law, “stonewalling can also mean a partner dismissing everything as if the other person is ‘making a big deal out of nothing,’ belittling what they say or pretending ‘everything is fine,’ when clearly it is not.”
The difference between stonewalling and the silent treatment, is the silent treatment is just one form of stonewalling.
Some examples of stonewalling are:
- Someone walking away when you’re trying to communicate your point of view or how you feel,
- Your partner invalidating your feelings, telling you you’re exaggerating things, and putting their headphones on so they won’t hear you;
- Someone walking away when you’re trying to talk about something important to you, and locking themselves in another room.
Recommended read: 13 Signs You Are in a Love-Hate Relationship and How to Fix It
5. Mixed Signals
Being in a relationship with someone who plays hot and cold is like living on a roller coaster. An emotional roller coaster.
When Lisa told me about her relationship with her ex-husband Mark, she also told me she woke up everyday wondering how Mark would behave that day.
Mark acted hot and cold with her, one day he was nice and caring, and the following day he treated her like garbage.
Mark’s behavior stemmed from several issues — he was an alcoholic, had mental health problems, and was addicted to gambling.
Lisa tried to help him for a long time, but then realized that she clearly couldn’t save him, as he was the only one who could save himself by recognizing he had a problem to work on and seeking professional help.
During the process, being in that roller-coaster relationship had a negative impact on Lisa’s mental health.
And in the end, she understood walking away was the best and healthiest thing to do, as the relationship was toxic, even if she had done all she could to prevent that.
Some examples of mixed signals in a relationship are:
- Your partner making you feel like the center of the universe one day, and giving you the silent treatment the next;
- Someone treating you with respect and taking care of you one day, and insulting you the next.
Recommended read: 5 Clear Signs A Man Is Not That Into You (Can You Spot Them?)
6. Excessive Jealousy
When Lisa went out with her friends, Mark would video call her at least twice, just to make sure she was “with the right people” — that is, other women.
That behavior was a clear sign of jealousy and insecurity.
There is a difference between normal and unhealthy jealousy.
Occasionally feeling slightly jealous is normal. As Sheri Stritof explained in Very Well Mind,
“When a healthy relationship experiences jealousy, it comes from a place of protection. One person sees a potential threat to the relationship and expresses concern or jealousy. Together, the couple discusses the issue rationally and comes to an agreement on how to move forward.”
Intense, unhealthy jealousy instead, comes from a place of mistrust and insecurity, and is often a sign of a potentially abusive relationship.
Deep down, a jealous person thinks they’re not enough for their partner, and that’s why they see virtually anyone as a threat for the relationship. In their mind, any good-looking, smart person out there can potentially steal their partner.
As Stritof mentioned, “Eventually, jealous people feel so overwhelmed by their emotions and insecurities that they will begin to exert control over their partners.”
7. Lack of Empathy
One day Mark broke a glass, and he blamed Lisa, saying she had put the glass in the wrong place.
Lisa tried to explain to him how she felt every time he blamed her for basically anything.
He started to tell her she was too sensitive and couldn’t handle feedback as a mature person, that she exploded too easily.
In that situation, Mark was clearly showing a lack of empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s feelings and identify and process your own.
However, as explained in Very Well Mind, not everyone experiences empathy for everyone in every situation. And this can have a variety of consequences.
A lack of empathy eventually always damages relationships. It is not always easy to recognize, however a few examples are:
- A person who says you’re too sensitive – instead of trying to understand why you’re upset;
- A partner who dismisses your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors;
- Someone who is unable to listen to your point of view or opinion;
- Someone who starts a fight with you the day you have lost a loved one and you’re dealing with grief;
- A partner who blames you for everything;
- Someone who starts a fight when you have just learned a family member passed away and you’re grieving their loss;
- A partner who is extremely critical toward you, without trying to put themselves in your shoes.
Recommended read: Emotionally Intelligent People: What Makes Them so Attractive
In the previous point, I told you about the day Mark broke a glass and blamed Lisa. That’s an example of blame-shifting.
Blame-shifting is a form of manipulation. It often happens when you call someone out of their behavior. And they reply saying that “they wouldn’t have behaved that way if you hadn’t provoked them.”
Not to hurt you.
It’s like saying “I wouldn’t have cheated on you if you weren’t so focused on your job.”
Basically, these people never take accountability for their actions, because in their mind, somehow it’s always your fault, not theirs.
As you can imagine, it’s particularly hard — if not impossible — to build a meaningful, healthy relationship based on trust and respect with someone who doesn’t recognize their mistakes.
A relationship with someone like that will always be unhealthy.
Recommended read: 5 Signs Someone Is Passive-Aggressive, According to Experts
9. Boundary Violation
Lisa once asked Mark if he could turn down the volume when she had to meditate. It was just twenty minutes per day.
Also, she asked him if he could avoid smoking inside the house, as the tobacco-smoke residue lingered in furniture and the smell wouldn’t go away. They were renting that house.
Any time she asked him these things she did it in a respectful way.
Guess what, when Mark knew Lisa was meditating, he kept watching the TV. Sometimes he even listened to music leaving the volume up. And he kept smoking in the house anyway.
One day she told him she had to spend the entire afternoon working on her Master’s thesis.
Guess what Mark did? That afternoon, he invited his friends over, and Lisa struggled to focus that day. He could have met his friends in a bar or in a park. However, he preferred to stay home and didn’t care at all about Lisa’s needs.
These are all examples of boundary violation.
Boundaries are key to healthy relationships. And when someone tries to set healthy boundaries with you, they’re trying to build a healthy relationship with you.
Instead, when someone continuously violates your boundaries, they’re trying to educate you to normalize their wrong behaviors in the relationship.
And when that happens the relationship becomes unhealthy.
Recommended read: Narcissistic Abuse: Why I’m Glad I’ve Been There
You don’t have to experience all the situations described in this article to be in a toxic relationship.
And you don’t necessarily have to experience physical abuse to consider your relationship unhealthy. There are many different forms of abuse.
If you continuously feel criticized, emotionally unsafe, and you feel a lack of trust, you are probably in a bad relationship.
The most common red flags of an unhealthy relationship are:
- Silent treatment;
- You always walk on eggshells;
- Mixed signals;
- Excessive jealousy;
- Lack of empathy;
- Blame shifting;
- Repeated boundary violation.
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