A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

9 Subtle Signs You’re in a Toxic Relationship

Updated: Mar. 16, 2022

We all want to feel safe, loved, and happy in our romantic relationships, because isn't that the point? But sometimes red flags of a bad relationship aren’t glaringly obvious. Pay attention to these signs of a toxic relationship.

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You’re always walking on eggshells

One of the first signs of a toxic relationship is when one partner is very controlling, Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of The Friendship Fix told Health.com. “This doesn’t always mean physically threatening or violent,” she said. It can simply be that you feel frightened to share your opinions because you’re nervous and afraid of your partner’s emotional reactions, says Dr. Bonior, an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University. And if you find yourself dumbing things down so your partner can feel smart or save the day—huge red flag in toxic relationships.

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You feel a little queasy, or uneasy, around your partner

“Your body is smart,” says relationship expert Sofia Milan. “If you were to eat poison, your body would immediately try to throw it up. If you get something in your eye, your eye starts tearing.” Stressed? Your hair will fall out. Get it? So if you’re having physical issues like ulcers, throwing up, dizziness/passing out, chest pains, or new skin flare-ups, your body may be trying to get your attention. Physical illness often presents itself in people in toxic relationships. Milan says to ask yourself, what is the root cause of these ill feelings? They might be symptoms of garden-variety stress, but “if your partner, a friend, or co-worker is the person that comes to mind first, that is a sign that you need to give someone the boot or begin a conversation to mend the problem.”

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You’re always fighting

While some bickering is even healthy for your relationship, “constant misunderstanding is a bad sign,” says Sue Kolod, PhD, a psychoanalyst in New York City. “As couples get to know each other better, there should be a progression toward more understanding and less misunderstanding.” Poor communication that never improves is toxic because, without communication, a relationship can never move forward.

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Everything is so dramatic, all the time

“Many couples thrive on high theatrics—screaming, accusations, hands, and words flying,” says psychiatrist Scott Haltzman, MD, author of the book The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity. “As long as there are not physical assaults, or so long as the words are not hateful or contemptuous, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he notes. In fact, many couples like this are considered high expressers, says Dr. Haltzman, and they often report better sex lives than more mellow couples. “But, and it’s a big but, their divorce rates are higher.” He says your partner lighting fireworks over your sea of tranquility is often characteristic of toxic relationships. These clues could signal you’re headed for divorce.

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Your partner wants you all to himself

“When a partner or pal wants you to break off relationships with friends and family, that is a sign of a toxic relationship. Isolating the partner from friends and family is upsetting because it is an attempt to control and manipulate without interference from the partner’s support system,” advises Dr. Kolod.

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You keep score

“The relationship scorecard develops over time because one or both people in a relationship use past wrongdoings in order to try and justify current righteousness. This is a double-whammy of  ‘suckage,'” says author and blogger Mark Mason. “Not only are you deflecting the current issue, but you’re ginning up guilt and bitterness from the past to manipulate your partner into feeling wrong in the present.”

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Your partner stonewalls

Partners need to talk about a lot of important things in relationships—not just whether to get sushi or pizza for takeout or what to watch on Netflix. If your partner flat-out refuses to talk about important relationship topics, like when to have a baby or buy a home, you may be in a toxic relationship. “When it is not possible to discuss the issues in the relationship there’s a huge problem,” says Dr. Kolod. “One patient has told me that if she tries to talk about her expectations for the future with her boyfriend, he disappears for several days. This is a toxic pattern because it results in my patient feeling afraid to bring up concerns with her boyfriend.” If you or your partner refuses to fix problems, you could be fostering a potentially toxic relationship.

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There’s a constant power tug-of-war game

If you’re concerned about the balance of power in your relationship, it can be helpful to imagine your relationship as a seesaw, Suzanne Lachmann, PsyD, told SpiritualityHealth.com. “If both partners understand their power (or are empowered), the seesaw stays relatively level and balanced,” Dr. Lachmann explains. “But if one person in the relationship has brought in a feeling of powerlessness, he or she may try to compensate by bearing down on the seesaw, shifting his or her weight, and perpetually uprooting, destabilizing, or ungrounding his or her partner on the other side.”

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iStock/Troels Graugaard

You feel like you ‘didn’t sign up for this’

Sometimes a relationship has to run its course and one party is still “in it to win it” while the other is starting to sabotage it, possibly without realizing it, advises Milan. “If you’re starting to have thoughts like, ‘This is not like it used to be,’ ‘This is not what I signed up for,’ or ‘This doesn’t feel good anymore,’ it is possible that what was a good relationship has turned toxic.” In a healthy relationship, both parties work on themselves and are committed to the relationship, says Milan. “If you find that your partner doesn’t feel much like a partner or lover any longer—and he or she is bringing you down more than lifting you up, you need to rethink your relationship.” Now, learn what a healthy, solid relationship should look like.