You've heard the term "toxic relationship" thrown around enough to know you do NOT want to be in one. But what actually falls into toxic territory?
Toxic relationships can sometimes be hard to identify. There are some behaviours that clearly cross a line—like any kind of abuse, be it physical, emotional, verbal, or financial. Other signs are subtler—but can be just as problematic.
“Every single relationship has a level of toxicity. Nothing is perfect—there’s always some work to be done,” says Ginnie Love Thompson, a psychotherapist in Florida. But it's when toxicity spirals out of control that problems arise. “If you feel uneasy, you need to stop yourself and ask what the cause is,” says Thompson.
Be on the lookout for these under-the-radar signs that your relationship is bad for you.
1. YOUR S.O. NEVER TAKES RESPONSIBILITY
If a gentle reminder to your partner to please pick up the wet towels ends in a fight literally every time (because you knew they were going through a stressful week at work and why would you even bring that up right now, geez!)—yeah, that’s a red flag. “Healthy people can take feedback and course correct,” says Rebecca Hendrix, a psychotherapist in New York. “A toxic partner might blame you for the fact that they hurt your feelings.”
This goes both ways, adds Thompson. “We look at how the other person affects us but we also need to look at how we’re affecting our partner,” she says. If you’re constantly turning things around on your partner, you’re turning things toxic.
2. YOU’RE NOT PRACTICING SELF-CARE
On that note, signs of toxic relationships aren’t all about your S.O.’s behavior—your own behaviour patterns can be red flags too. “A toxic relationship is when you’re not engaging in self-care,” she says. “Self-care is vital for every relationship to keep toxicity out.” If you’re neglecting me time for any reason (say, your partner is off-the-charts needy or you’re voluntarily dropping all your activities in favour of their schedule) it’s a sign the relationship is turning toxic.
“Toxic relationships can literally make our bodies unhealthy."
3. YOUR PARTNER IS CONSTANTLY STONEWALLING YOU
Having a fight doesn’t mean your relationship is toxic—but if your S.O. is always shutting down when you try to bring up what’s bothering you, that’s what therapists call stonewalling. “Healthy couples are open to each other’s feedback,” says Hendrix. “You should be invested in each other’s happiness and seeing what you can both do to communicate more effectively.” If, instead of listening, your partner is always saying they don’t want to talk about it, looking away, and being unresponsive, or even straight up walking away, that’s a toxic red flag.
4. YOU FEEL DRAINED
If your relationship feels like it’s sucking the energy out of you, that’s a sign of toxicity, says Thompson. It might even manifest physically, like if you’re tired all the time, she says. “Toxic relationships can literally make our bodies unhealthy—it’s vital to pay attention to these signs and to how our bodies are reacting,” says Thompson.
“Controlling behaviour is usually present in a toxic relationship.”
5. YOUR PARTNER IS ALWAYS OFFERING 'CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM' …EVEN WHEN YOU DON’T ASK
Ideally, you want to find a partner who makes you a better version of yourself, right? Someone who supports encourages, and challenges you can sometimes be confused for someone who’s really criticizing you.
“If your partner consistently asks if you really need that extra piece of pizza—and when you push back they get defensive saying they are only trying to help—this is not about helping you, this is about controlling you,” says Hendrix. “Controlling behavior is usually present in a toxic relationship.” Don’t confuse manipulation or control-freak tendencies with being “nice” or “helpful.”
6. YOUR PARTNER NEVER REMEMBERS YOUR SCHEDULE
No one expects bae to keep track of your whereabouts at all times (in fact, that’s a totally different type of toxic behaviour) but they should remember the important things going on in your life—and be supportive. “If your partner asks you to help them move on the same day you are preparing for your dissertation, they may have a blind spot for how their actions are affecting other people,” says Hendrix.
If this happens once or twice, it’s not necessarily unhealthy, says Thompson. “We all go through ebbs and flows in life. It’s give and take, it’s not a constant, so we need to be open to that,” she says. If your partner is routinely forgetting about your big presentations at work or is consistently asking you to do favours for them when you’ve mentioned you’re swamped with planning your BFF’s bachelorette party, that’s a sign of something toxic.
7. THEY’RE ALWAYS BLAMING OTHER PEOPLE FOR THEIR PROBLEMS
If your partner is always blaming someone else for why things aren’t going well—whether that person is you, their boss, their mom, their Pilates instructor—that can be a big sign of toxic behaviour, says Hendrix. Part of being in a healthy relationship of any kind means owning your feelings and working through them—not pointing fingers.
“A healthy relationship is a partnership, with both of you co-creating your fulfillment.”
8. YOUR S.O. IS SUPER COMPETITIVE
A little competition in a relationship is a good thing (especially if it pushes you towards a PR in that running challenge you take on as a couple). “Healthy couples support each other’s goals and are happy when each has a win,” Hendrix says. Competitiveness crosses into toxic territory when your partner makes you feel bad for your achievements. If you find yourself hiding your wins from your partner for fear they’ll get jealous or try to tear you down, that’s a toxic situation.
9. YOU FEEL LIKE YOU DO ALL THE WORK IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP
In every relationship, there’s a natural division of labour. Maybe you always make the restaurant reservations because you’re always spotting new date night spots on Instagram. Meanwhile, bae is awesome at making sure you’re prioritizing together time in your busy schedules.
“A healthy relationship is a partnership, with both of you co-creating your fulfilment,” Hendrix explains. If you feel like you’re suddenly doing all the heavy lifting—especially if your partner doesn’t seem to notice—the balance has become toxic, she says. Make sure you’re not the only one contributing to the day-to-day activities or long-term vision of the relationship.
10. YOU’RE ALWAYS MAKING EXCUSES FOR BAE’S BAD BEHAVIOR
If you’re always making excuses for your partner’s behavior—whether it’s their emotional unavailability, lack of empathy, habit of being obnoxious to your friends, or lack of support—that’s a problem, says Hendrix. We all have stressful weeks and things we need to work on, but if your partner isn’t listening to your concerns or trying to improve, time to consider a split.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au In an emergency, call 000.