30 Signs You're in a Toxic Relationship
Relationship red flags
Signs of a toxic relationship are sometimes easy to spot—blatant infidelity or physical violence, for example. But there can often be more subtle signs that something's just not right between you and your partner—or between you and a close friend, a coworker, or a family member. (It's not just romantic relationships that can become toxic.)
No matter what form a relationship takes, it's important to pay attention to how it really makes you feel, says Andrea Bonior, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University and author of The Friendship Fix. "Keeping a finger on your own emotions can help you develop insight about the people in your life, so you can choose healthier situations," she says. To help you do just that, here are 30 signs you've entered toxic territory—and what you may be able to do about it.
You're always walking on eggshells
"One of the first signs of a toxic relationship is when one partner is very controlling," says Bonior. Controlling doesn't always mean physically threatening or violent. "It can simply be that you feel frightened to share your opinions—you're constantly walking on eggshells because you're afraid of your partner's emotional reactions."
You never get your way
A controlling partner may also ignore or overrule your opinions, even when you do have the confidence to voice them. "A lot of times it's a matter of imbalance," says Bonior. "One person is always calling the shots, always making the plans—for simple stuff, like where you're going to eat dinner, and for more important issues, like where you're going to live." If you're truly okay with letting your partner make the majority of the decisions, this arrangement can be fine, she says. "But often in a toxic relationship, one partner eventually gives up because they just don't feel heard."
You don't appreciate each other
All too often, relationships go south when partners start to take each other for granted. In a 2015 University of Georgia study, married people who felt appreciated by their spouse—and were acknowledged when they did something nice— reported higher marital quality than those who didn't. "It goes to show the power of 'thank you,'" study author Allen Barton said in a press release. "Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes."
Bad behavior is encouraged
It's one thing when a friend complains about dating over drinks; it's another when he or she orders round after round (even after you've politely declined) and encourages you to badmouth or betray your own partner. Sure, your pal may be going through a rough patch, but he or she should still have your best interest at heart. Your relationship with this person should come down to one question, says Kelley Quirk, PhD, a clinical research fellow at The Family Institute at Northwestern University: Do you like yourself less when you're around them? "If you are confident in your values and you're not swayed by their influence, it might not be a problem," she says. "But if that person brings something out in you and you feel yourself getting sucked into their bad behavior, that's not a healthy relationship."
Your partner gets physical
You may think you know what intimate partner violence looks like, but it isn't always as obvious as it seems. "Grabbing her arm and saying 'Get back here, I'm not done talking to you,' or gripping his face and saying, 'Look at me when I talk to you,'—these behaviors don't necessarily cause physical damage, but they do represent low-level boiling-over points of conflict," says Quirk. This type of behavior may be especially overlooked when a woman does it, she adds. "For a long time, society accepted it as funny or spunky, but we wouldn't look at it the same why if the genders were reversed."
You've broken a few plates
Punching a wall or throwing objects during fights should also be seen as red flags, says Quirk. Not only are these unhealthy ways of regulating emotions, but they could escalate to actions that really do cause harm. "You could have 10 years of just throwing a plate, and at year 11 you throw the plate at your partner," she says. "It's also about emotional safety: Partners should be able to express themselves without fear of what's going to happen when they do."
You've been lied to
Little white lies aren't always a bad thing, especially when they're told to protect someone you care about. But if you catch a friend or romantic partner in a lie, it's important to look at that person's motivations, says Quirk. "Was in to engage in some behavior they know you wouldn't be on board with or supportive of? That would be a really scary place to be, because it's a strategy they might continue to use," she says. No matter what the reason, make it clear that dishonesty won't be tolerated in your relationship, especially if you've notice a pattern that's likely to keep repeating.
Your friendship is totally one-sided
Maybe you're the one who always reaches out, or you always make more of an effort to actually get together. Or maybe your friend only ever wants to talk about him or herself, and never about you. "Some people just take from friendships without giving anything back," says Bonior. "If it's always about their needs and they never help meet yours, you have to ask yourself if it's really healthy for you." Cut your friend some slack if he or she is going through a hard time, but if it becomes par for the course, make your concerns heard.
Everything's a competition
Close friends can sometimes fall into a trap of competing against each other, especially if they are in the same line of work or have similar lifestyles, says Bonior. "If you're always trying to one-up each other, it can get to the point where you become very passive aggressive—or even happy when the other person fails." Not only can this cause animosity toward your so-called friend, but it can also leave you insecure about whether your own situation is good enough. Do yourself a favor and stop comparing your life to anyone else's, says Bonior; your mental state and your friendships will be stronger for it.
Your partner tries to make you jealous
If your main squeeze feels insecure about your relationship, he or she may try to preserve it by flirting with other people in front of you. "This may have its desired effect, but it's not the most honest, constructive way to address problems in your relationship," says Quirk. It can also backfire: Instead of giving your partner more affection, you may just get angry or decide to retaliate with manipulative behaviors of your own. "Your partner should really come to you and talk openly about feeling neglected or lonely," says Quirk, "not wait for you to figure it out or get your attention in deceptive ways."
Your family oversteps their boundaries
We can't choose our family members—but we can strive to make our bonds with them healthier, says Bonior. "Many grown adults let their parents or their siblings treat them or talk to them in ways they wouldn't tolerate from anyone else," says Bonior. "But if their behavior makes you feel belittled or guilty, that's not okay. Just because she's your mom or your sister, she does not get a free pass." Set boundaries with family members—like what topics are off limits and what your expectations are for visits with them—and don't feel guilty about enforcing them.
Your pal is stuck in the past
Friendships that last a lifetime are very special, but they can also be challenging when people's lives go in different directions. A friend from college may still be partying hard and playing the field, for example, while you're settled down with a demanding job and a family. "This can work, as long as both parties are willing to compromise and acknowledge that things have to adjust," says Bonior. (Maybe you get together for Sunday brunch instead of Saturday night barhopping, for example.) The problem comes when one person is unwilling to accept that change: "If a friend gets mad that you can't hang out at bars anymore or wants nothing to do with your kids or your new life, you may have to do a cost-benefits analysis and decide whether he or she is worth still spending time with."
You're always getting phubbed
If your partner or friend's smartphone feels like the third-wheel in your relationship, he or she may be due for an intervention. In a 2015 Baylor University study, more than 46% of survey respondents said they'd been phone snubbed—or "phubbed"—by their romantic partner, and nearly 23% said the action triggered conflict with that person. The constant distraction of social media is often to blame, say the researchers. In another study from 2014, using Twitter frequently also led to relationship problems. Sometimes, people may not even realize they're phubbing their partners, but if you've brought it up and your significant other refuses to change, that may tell you where his or her priorities lie.
All you do is gossip
You may have a great time with that friend at work who tells it like it is and always makes you laugh, but if that fun is had at the expense of others, you might want to reexamine your relationship. "People who are constantly wallowing in gossip and complaining about other people can really bring down your mood after a while," says Bonior. "Plus, there's the chance they're talking about you behind your back, too." It's true that gossip can help people form bonds in the workplace, but it can also pit them against each other and make for a very unpleasant environment. Try to steer things in a positive direction, and aim to make your friendship less exclusive and more inclusive.
Hanging out feels like a chore
If you approach your monthly dinner date with a friend as something you have to check off your to-do list and not something you actually enjoy, that's a sign something needs to change. Maybe you feel drained by her constant negativity, or you know you'll be frustrated when he shows up late, again. "We find it hard to end friendships that aren't working anymore, but meanwhile they're eating away at our mental health," says Bonior. "You have to take a step back and ask yourself what you really deserve." Try talking with your pal about what's bothering you; if that doesn't work, consider letting this friendship lapse.
Your flight-or-fight response kicks in
Then there are those relationships that don't just feel like a chore; they actually trigger a full-on sense of dread. "It could be seeing your boss's name pop up in your inbox or seeing a text from a friend, before you even read what it says," says Bonior. Your heart skips, your stomach drops—"it's like you've been traumatized; your whole body goes into fight or flight mode." In fact, there's even an app designed to measure these subconscious reactions and identify the most poisonous people in your life.
You're suddenly moody and insecure
Sometimes it's not your partner's actions that signal a toxic relationship; it's your own. If you suddenly feel paranoid and unable to trust your significant other, ask yourself why, says Bonior. "Are you getting more anxious because of something that has to do with you? Maybe you're in a bad place and are worried about other things, and it's spilling over into your romantic life. Or is there something about your relationship that's just not right? Maybe deep down something isn't adding up, and your gut is trying to tell you something." Open up to your partner and share your insecurities; if he or she gets defensive about your questions, that's another red flag.
Your partner teases you all the time
Constant criticism about your appearance, your intelligence, or your personality is more than just innocent teasing, says Bonior. "Some people will defend their partner, and say "It's all in good fun, that's just how we treat each other.' But if they're making fun of you over and over again, you're not going to feel valued or accepted for who you really are." In fact, criticism and contempt—including sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and body language like sneering and eye-rolling—are two of relationship scientist John Gottman's famous " Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," or signs of a failing relationship.
Your boss uses emotional blackmail
Not everyone likes their boss, and it's normal for supervisors to be hard on their employees. But some head honchos are worse than others—and if you have a truly toxic relationship with your higher-up, your work (and even your health) can suffer. "When your boss uses a lot of emotional manipulation, like guilt trips, threats of embarrassing you, or pitting you against your coworkers, those are signs that he or she is not playing by the rules of a typical workplace," says Bonior. Standing up for yourself against a hostile boss may help you feel better, suggests one study, although your best bet is to find a job where everyone gets along.
You feel isolated from other friends
An emotionally abusive partner doesn't always use anger to exert control, Bonior says. "Sometimes they use guilt or shame to make you feel like you've hurt them. They might say, 'If you go out with your friends tonight I'll be so lonely,' or 'I can't believe you did that without me.'" When you start dating someone new, it's normal to see your friends less often. "But if you feel isolated from other people, that's definitely a very troubling sign," says Bonior.
Your friends tell you something's wrong
You may not realize you're in a toxic relationship until things get really bad, especially if your situation has slowly gotten worse over time, or has gone on for so long it seems normal. That's why it's important to listen to other friends who voice their concerns. "You need to take those objections seriously, especially when you respect those people's opinions and they don't have ulterior motives," says Bonior. "Sometimes you need an outsider's perspective to realize how dysfunctional something really is."
Your fights don't get resolved
Fighting can be healthy as long as both partners truly feel better afterward. Arguments only become toxic when situations don't get resolved, says Quirk. "People hold grudges when they feel like their partner doesn't understand why they're upset, or they feel that things wouldn't be any different even if their partner did understand," she says. "In order to feel like equals, each partner needs the reassurance that, yes, their voice is heard, and yes, things will be different next time."
You don't talk about the serious stuff
"A lot of times, it's the stuff that goes unsaid that kills a relationship, not the stuff you argue passionately about," says Bonior. A person's reasons for not bringing up a big issue could vary; maybe they're scared of how their partner will react, they've tried talking about it before with little success, or they don't value their partner's opinion. If you find yourself withdrawing or avoiding a serious topic, ask yourself why that is—and what you can both do to make the conversation easier.
Jealousy gets the worst of you
Jealousy is a hard emotion to escape, and there's certainly nothing wrong with feeling envious of a friend's good fortune. But in some situations, those feelings can become overwhelming. "Say your best friend just got pregnant after only two months of trying and you've been struggling with infertility for three years," says Bonior. "If you're feeling really bad about that, the best thing for you may be to get some space from that person for a little while." That doesn't make you a bad friend, she adds; in fact, taking care of yourself may be the thing that keeps your friendship intact in the long run.
You're always picking up slack
Beware this common workplace trap: "We form bonds with our coworkers because there's this mentality of 'We're all in this together,'" says Bonior. "But often there's an imbalance of power between work friends—one starts slacking off or using the other as a scapegoat—and you may not realize it because it happens so gradually." You may pride yourself on going the extra mile to help friends in need, but be sure you're not being treated unfairly or taken advantage of intentionally.
One of you lost weight
When one person in a romantic relationship sheds unwanted pounds, the dynamic between partners can change. Of course, this can be a good thing, especially if the change encourages both partners to be healthier, or rekindles romantic attraction. But sometimes, weight loss can have negative effects on relationships. In a 2013 North Carolina State University study, researchers noted that some partners felt jealous or threatened when their significant other lost weight, or nagged by a suddenly healthy partner who wanted them to follow suit. To keep this situation from turning toxic, researchers say, open communication is key. "Talk about it before and keep talking about it," says Charlotte Markey, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University who reviewed the study's findings.
You can't remember the last time you touched
Kissing, hugging, and skin-to-skin contact release bonding hormones and feel-good endorphins, so if you're not being affectionate on a regular basis, you're missing out an important part of a healthy romantic relationship. In a 2011 Kinsey Institute study, men and women who reported frequent kissing were more sexually satisfied, and men were happier with their relationships overall. Even your sleeping situation may be a red flag that something isn't right: In a 2001 British study, the farther apart couples slept, the less likely they were to be happy with their relationships.
You get (or give) the cold shoulder
If you or your partner regularly avoids conversation or withholds affection or sex whenever things don't go your way, your relationship could be headed for a downward spiral. In a 2010 study from Brigham Young University, researchers found that 96% of wives and 88% of husbands were guilty of this type of " love withdrawal" at some point during their marriages. Occasional use of these tactics probably won't tank a relationship, the study authors concluded, but they predict that as couples use them more frequently, their risk for divorce goes up.
Your personalities clash
"There are toxic people and there are toxic interactions," says Quirk. "And sometimes you can have a relationship where both parties are good people, but for whatever reason you bring out the worst in each other." It could be that you're anxious for a commitment and your partner doesn't want to feel pinned down. Or maybe you're hungry for attention and your partner isn't the type to dole out PDAs. "If you're not getting the cues or reinforcements that you expect, it can be disastrous, even though your partner isn't technically doing anything wrong," Quirk continues. Attending couples counseling may help you rework some of those patterns, she says, or it may help you decide when it's best to let go.
You can't be yourself
Many of these red flags follow a common theme: If you can't be yourself around a person, you might want to reconsider spending time with them. "Often relationships become toxic because you're scared to show parts of yourself that might not be well received," says Bonior. "If you feel like you have to wear a mask, always be 'on,' or say things that don't come naturally, that can be a very stressful and unhealthy situation." The bottom line, she says: Always ask yourself, "Does this person make me feel like my best self?" Then, strive to surround yourself with people who do.