A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

17 Signs of a Toxic Relationship—Are You the Cause?

Updated: Jan. 23, 2023

What is a toxic relationship? It's when you and your partner engage in behavior that is emotionally and sometimes physically damaging to one another on a frequent basis. Keep in mind that it takes two people to make a relationship toxic.

1 / 17

You have a major superiority complex

Having a superiority complex could be a sign of a toxic relationship waiting to happen. Contemptuous people destroy relationships because they see their partner as inferior. Rolling your eyes, curling your lip in disgust, or using a sarcastic tone with your partner are just a few telltale signs of a toxic relationship. “Contempt is degrading,” says Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, developer of A Psychological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT). “It says, ‘You’re an idiot.’” In fact, University of Michigan researchers surveyed 373 newlywed couples and found that couples who screamed at one another, showed contempt, or withdrew themselves from conflict within the first year of marriage were more likely to divorce

2 / 17

You’re a master manipulator

If you find that you’re always trying to manipulate things it could be a sign of a toxic relationship. It’s no secret that compulsively lying to your partner is detrimental to the success of your relationship, but gaslighting takes it to a whole other level of destruction. Gaslighting is when you accuse your loved one of being crazy or paranoid to keep them off your trail of lies in a toxic relationship. “It’s a triple threat when you withhold information, lie about it, then gaslight your partner and make them think it’s them,” says Dr. Tatkin. “They’re damaging the relationship irreparably.” Make sure you also know the signs of a codependent relationship.

3 / 17

You’re a Debbie Downer

People who are insecure tend to sabotage a perfectly healthy relationship by overanalyzing every kiss and word or harbor irrational fears that their partner wants to break up. If you or your partner has these thoughts it could be a sign of a toxic relationship. Studies suggest that individuals with low self-esteem may be more likely to expect rejection from their partner and avoid behaviors that risk rejection, like telling their partner how they truly feel, than individuals with high self-esteem. If you show these signs of a toxic relationship, it may be best to take a break from the relationship to work on yourself, unless your partner is willing to help you work through your self-doubts. “The key to change this is to surround yourself with positive people who care for you and value you,” says Sadie Leder-Elder, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at High Point University in North Carolina. “Spend your time with friends and family and not new relationships.” Do something that makes you feel good about yourself like a new exercise class or volunteering at your local animal shelter. Check out these science-approved tricks for building confidence.

4 / 17

You’re always threatening to break up

No one likes to waste their time and energy arguing, but you can’t draw the break-up card every time things get tough. If you do, that’s a sign of a toxic relationship. Threats of taking a break or ending the relationship aren’t going to solve anything and are signs of a toxic relationship. “People use threats as a way to get their partner in line,” says Dr. Tatkin. “People should never threaten the relationship unless they intend to get out. It’s only valid if you mean it and do it, otherwise it just damages the safety and security of the relationship.” Instead of using threats to get your way, walk away to cool down and think rationally before you start spouting off erratic thoughts that you may regret later. These are toxic signs you’re in a bad relationship.

5 / 17

You’re hot-headed

You may find it doesn’t take much to get your blood boiling and that could be a sign of a toxic relationship. One wrong move and suddenly you snap and blurt nasty remarks you don’t mean. “You continue to have these cycles of anger, remorse, shame, and provoked anger without understanding,” says Sari Cooper, a licensed clinical social worker and director of Center for Love and Sex in New York City. “You have to look at yourself and ask, ‘What’s going on here?’” Dr. Cooper suggests journaling when you feel your anger emerging to figure out the cause or “taking your temperature” on a scale of 0 to 10. If you know you fly off the handle at a 9, try to figure out how you feel at a 2 and then pinpoint what aggravated you to bring yourself down to a calmer state. When you reach a 6 or a 7, take a time out to gather your thoughts and emotions. If you don’t, you may skyrocket to that dreaded 9. See if you can trust your partner using these telltale signs.

6 / 17

You never fix problems

If you neglect to nip problems in the bud, they’re just going to fester and blow up in your face down the road, which can cause your partner to resent you. Something in our brain called the negativity bias may be to blame for this resentment because our brains are more likely to remember the negative aspect of things, according to Dr. Tatkin. In fact, research has shown that adults tend to use negative stimuli more than positive information to help them learn, form first impressions of others, and make sense of their experiences. This may be because the amygdala, the emotional processing center of your brain, tends to be slightly more attuned to negative emotions because they’re often a bit more intense than positive ones. “If you never apologize or admit that you’re wrong and make things right, your partner will accrue a host of negative memories related to being unfairness and injustice,” says Dr. Tatkin. “That will break the relationship.” Avoid these mistakes after fighting with your significant other.

7 / 17

You’re addicted to social media

We’re constantly on Facebook and Instagram snapping selfies and posting statuses without a single thought about the consequences.  But studies show that engaging in social media can create ambiguity in the relationship, which can cause jealousy and spiral into signs of a toxic relationship. That may be because you’re posting scandalous selfies, neglecting to post about your relationship, or flirting with exes and random strangers on the Internet. “Letting technology get the best of you can make you accidentally be the toxic one in your relationship,” says Dr. Leder-Elder. “Your desire for other people to validate you may cause unnecessary jealousy in your relationship.” It’s best to sit down and talk with your partner about how social media could play a role in the success of your relationship. It’s probably best to never post these things about your relationship on social media.

8 / 17

You’re losing friends and relationships quickly

If you find that you’re only spending time with your significant other and your other relationships have fizzled, it’s probably a sign of a toxic relationship. Take a step back and look at who surrounds you. Do you have family and friends or have you burned a lot of bridges? If so, you may want to take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’re the problem. “A lot of people who are engaging in these bad behaviors don’t realize that they’re bad behaviors,” says Rachel Sussman, a licensed clinical social worker and marriage/family therapist in New York City. “You can’t come up with a game plan if you don’t know what’s wrong.” Try calling a friend or an ex to ask where things went wrong so you can see the error of your ways.

9 / 17

You only think about yourself

Narcissists are extremely self-serving and feel no remorse when they hurt others, which makes them difficult to be around. “You’re only aware of what your partner does to you and not aware of what you do to them,” says Dr. Tatkin. Narcissism is a behavior that’s difficult to overcome, but it can be done if you identify that you’ve treated others unkindly and are self-serving in relationships.  The first step to changing any behavior is recognizing you have a problem and finding ways to resolve it. Here are signs you’re a narcissist. Knowing this will help you curb the signs of a toxic relationship.

10 / 17

You’re wishy-washy

Nothing irks people more than someone who is indecisive. Your rewarding relationship gets snatched away the instant you start going hot and cold on your loved one. “People don’t like breakups,” says Dr. Leder-Elder. “They don’t like being alone. We want social connections.” This way of thinking turns into signs of a toxic relationship when you end up stringing someone along when you’re not ready for a relationship but still want companionship.  Make sure you’re honest with your partner in the beginning about your uncertainties in regards to your wants and needs from the relationship. That way they’ll know what they’re getting themselves into.

11 / 17

Your friends and family cause problems

Believe it or not, your intimate social network may be ruining your relationship and it could lead to it becoming a toxic one. “If you have a lot of people in your head saying, ‘They’re not right for you. You could do better.’ It could turn you against the relationship because you can’t deal with the constant strife with the people that you care about,” says Dr. Leder-Elder. In an attempt to resolve this tension, try organizing a get-together to allow your lover and your loved ones to get acquainted.  If all else fails, you may have to resort to an ultimatum: your family or your partner. But Dr. Leder-Elder says that can be a tough decision and is only best to debate in long-term relationships you’re 100 percent sure about, in case you choose love over blood.

12 / 17

You avoid conflict like the plague

Life is full of ups and downs, as are relationships, so you need to face the fact that not everything is always rainbows and butterflies. “People think they’re doing a good thing [by avoiding conflict] but they’re actually making themselves appear quite dangerous,” says Dr. Tatkin. “It makes your partner nuts because they can’t engage unless it’s positive.” The trick to stopping signs of a toxic relationship is to put your own discomforts aside for your partner and communicate your unease toward the situation, while still showing that you’re there for support and a listening ear.

13 / 17

You never take responsibility for your actions

If you blame everyone else for your wrongdoings, it may boost your ego but only creates signs of a toxic relationship. “We defend ourselves from pain,” says Dr. Tatkin. “If your partner complains about you, it might make you feel bad and make you believe your partner wants to attack with an ulterior motive.” The blame game may be your crutch to help you deflect uncomfortable feelings, but no one is going to stick around for that. Owning up to your mistakes are one of the many ways you can help your relationship go the distance.

14 / 17

You show no emotions

Even if it’s not your intent, remaining stone-faced or unresponsive toward your loved one can make them doubt your true feelings and lead to a toxic relationship. “People who don’t respond or under-respond are toxic to their partners,” says Dr. Tatkin. “It puts your partner in a tremendous state of insecurity because they’re going to interpret it as threat, even if you’re not intending to be threatening.” Be an active listener by making sounds and facial expressions in response to what your partner is saying to let them know what you’re thinking. This way they’re not left to draw their own conclusions (which may be all wrong) in their heads. If you want to become a better listener, check out these tips.

15 / 17

You humiliate your partner

Many people may be blind to their hurtful criticism.  They may shame someone for their looks, sex drive, or career without batting an eye. If several people have called you a bully, you may want to listen and fix it before you lose them. “You have to put yourself in the other person’s position and realize how would you feel if you were shamed,” says Sussman. “Come up with a list of strategies in how you can tell someone you have a problem with them in a loving way.”

16 / 17

You don’t have your partner’s back

As a couple, your goal is to protect each other. But every time you allow a family member or friend to slander your partner for no reason, you’re compromising that safety net and fostering signs of a toxic relationship. No one is going to date you if you never stick up for them. “The purpose of a relationship is fundamentally grounded in safety and security: not love, not attraction, not romance,” says Dr. Tatkin. “If you’re not providing that need to ensure each other’s sense of safety and security, it defies the whole psychobiological purpose of being with another person.” Stop being a pushover and start standing up for yourself and others.

17 / 17

Your partner is always the last to know everything

Every relationship in your life is part of a hierarchy. Your significant other should be at the top or close to the top of that pyramid, which means they should be the first person you confide in. This is a sign of a healthy relationship. If not, that kind of behavior can be interpreted by your partner as betrayal and signs of a toxic relationship. “You shouldn’t have to spend resources trying to figure out what to tell your partner and what not to tell your partner,” says Dr. Tatkin. “You want to be yourself and feel free to speak.” Next, find out more common behaviors that are subtly sabotaging your relationship.