What is a toxic relationship? Simply put, a toxic relationship is not a place where one or both partners feel safe, supported, and fully accepted. A toxic relationship often contains dysfunction and usually damages the self-esteem of the individuals involved. Such a relationship is often characterized by insecurity, self-centeredness, dominance, and control. The toxic partner regularly acts controlling and manipulative.

Does this describe your situation?

Characteristics of Toxic Relationships

Spotting toxicity in relationships can be difficult. We build powerful habits and attachments in long-term relationships, and our feelings can often mask serious issues. Toxic patterns are often misinterpreted as passion in relationships — for instance, frequent and intense fighting is sometimes disguised as caring greatly about one another. Regardless of intent, toxic relationships are harmful to one’s emotional health of both partners and impact children that may be living with the toxic couple.

Toxic relationships always feature at least some unhealthy behaviors that can be easily identifiable, once you know what to look for. Below are some types of behaviors that may suggest toxicity in a relationship.

Substance abuse: Any substance abuse within a relationship will immediately render it toxic. If there is drug or alcohol abuse present, it’s crucial to seek professional help and it may be necessary to end the relationship altogether.

Physical or emotional abuse: Seeking immediate help and getting into a safe environment is of paramount importance in the case of physical or emotional abuse.

Putting down and belittling behaviors: These are often delivered as “jokes,” but they are meant to control one’s partner by lowering their self-esteem over time.

Anger management issues: Yelling, rage, and angry outbursts are all toxic behaviors in a relationship.

Inducing guilt: If your partner is constantly making you feel guilty about your actions and decisions, that is a sign of a controlling and toxic relationship dynamic.

Deflection of issues/chronic defensiveness: It’s perfectly normal to bring up issues and negative feelings to your partner with the intention of resolving them — but not if one partner regularly deflects issues and blames their partner.

Over-dependence: When a partner expects to have all of your time to themselves, refuses to make decisions, and generally acts passive, leaving all decision-making to their partner, it qualifies as a toxic pattern that creates an imbalance.

Unreliable behavior: This is often disguised as “independence” within a relationship, but if a partner does not keep their promises and does not fully show up in a reliable way, the relationship could become toxic.

Using a partner: When one partner uses another for money, sex, housing, connections, or anything else, and that is the basis for the relationship for them, a toxic dynamic is quickly created.

Highly possessive/jealous behavior: Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of independence and trust, while toxic relationships have a partner that questions where their mate is at all times, checks on them, and limits their independent time.

If you are regularly in conflict with your partner, find that you are walking around on eggshells, are chronically exhausted, anxious or depressed as a result of the conflicts with your significant other, you are likely in a toxic relationship.

How to Make Changes

Once you identify that your relationship is indeed toxic, there are a couple of paths you can take to get to a better place.

Tip 1: End the relationship and seek therapy.

Experts often recommend severing a relationship fully if there is physical, emotional, or substance abuse involved. If you choose to leave the relationship, it is important that you seek professional help – usually in the form of therapy – to support you as you navigate a painful situation. Therapy can also help you rebuild the confidence and security you may have lost in the relationship.

Tip 2: Seek professional help as a couple.

In some cases, if both partners seek professional help and are committed to addressing dysfunction together, the relationship can be salvaged. This usually requires an extended period of therapy, mutual commitment to honesty and transparency, and the desire to explore how the toxic patterns began. Toxic relationships and their aftereffects are challenging to navigate, so don’t go it alone. Utilize therapy, support groups, community relationships, trusted friends and family to begin the healing process.

About the Author: Emily Andrews is a marketing communications specialist and writer. Communications specialist by day and community volunteer at night, she believes in compassion and defending the defenseless.