No one intentionally enters into a toxic relationship, and every couple hits a rough patch from time to time. But there’s a difference between coping with some temporary glitches and being stuck in a relationship that’s turned sour. Yet some people linger long after the warning signs arise.
“Your partner is supposed to be your biggest cheerleader, a soft place to land.”
“People stay in toxic relationships for many reasons,” says relationship therapist Kimberly Hershenson. “We get comfortable with the status quo and just continue on the same path because change is hard. We engage in denial and go on because it’s easier.”
That denial can make it pretty difficult to figure out that you ought to cut ties ASAP. While you likely have an inkling that something is amiss, you might not be sure if you’ve ended up in an unhealthy relationship that’s beyond saving. Not sure how to sort it out? Here are 11 red flags you shouldn’t ignore.
You fight all of the time
There’s no such thing as a couple who always agrees on everything, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster. “If your conflicts are incredibly intense and lead to drastic words or actions, then there is cause for concern,” says family therapist Erin Lewis Ballard.
Instead of saying, “Please unload the dishwasher” it sounds more like this: “Do you have some sort of mental condition? Or are you just too stupid to remember to do what I asked?” Notice how the criticism is not about the task—it’s about the person. Any version of “What is wrong with you?” basically attacks the other person’s character, which, when done regularly, can chip away at the relationship.
Experiencing ‘zero to sixty,’ or being fine one day and then in crisis the next day is a major red flag. And of course, any form of physical violence should not be tolerated, and is a clear signal to get out now. (Find help for domestic violence here.)
There is a complete lack of trust
There is no worse deceit than when a partner has been unfaithful. “It breaks the trust in the relationship, and sometimes the breach is not fixable,” says psychotherapist Dr Tina B. Tessina. This applies beyond affairs—lying about other important things (like money) or hiding unhealthy habits from your partner (like drinking or smoking) can also cause a lack of trust.
If you both want to make things right, the person who broke the trust needs to be willing to be accountable to their partner, tell the truth and give up some privacy until the trust is repaired.
You constantly keep score
Relationships shouldn’t feel like a game of basketball where each person is keeping track of how many times they’ve done something good or something bad.
“We all fall victim to this at times, but a relationship that is consumed by keeping score is toxic,” says Ballard. “Whether you and your partner constantly highlight one another’s faults or you find yourself reciting your resume of good deeds, it’s a sign that you’ve turned against each other.”
There’s not a lot of touching going on
“Touch is the building block of connection and intimacy in romantic relationships,” says couples therapist Melissa Cohen. “While happy couples do tend to touch more, the true indicator of a healthy relationship is not how often your partner touches you, but how often he or she touches you in response to your touch.” The more intimate you are, the more satisfied you feel both physically and emotionally in your relationship.
But just because you’re still active in the sack, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationship is healthy. “We’ve all seen relationships that are super sexy but also super destructive,” says Cohen.
So make an effort to up the touching outside of the bedroom as well. For instance, acknowledge your partner when he or she comes home from work, and give them a kiss so they know how happy you are to see them.
Your partner is selfish in bed
So, sex is only one part of your relationship, but it’s still a really important one. Even if you are intimate frequently, a partner who treats you poorly in bed is a major sign of a toxic relationship, because he or she is unlikely to be kind in other parts of your life. “Guilt-tripping a partner into having sex when they don’t want to or ignoring a partner’s need for pleasure might be signs that you should end things,” says Hershenson.
You’re afraid to discuss the important things
We’re not talking about whose turn it is to take out the garbage. If you’re hesitant to tell your partner about what’s really weighing on your mind—which might include things they’re doing (or not doing) in the relationship—watch out, says relationship therapist Jane Reardon.
“Let’s face it, it’s not always easy to confront someone you care so much about,” she says. “But when couples opt for keeping it comfortable instead of keeping it real, I hear a death knell ringing” for the relationship.
You’re dating a total narcissist
You might not have realised it in the beginning, but over time a narcissist’s true personality traits will be revealed. “When you’re with a narcissist, there will only be one person who matters, and it won’t be you,” says therapist and couples counselor Evie Shafner.
A narcissist will try to manipulate or guilt you into meeting their needs while ignoring yours. “They mostly talk about themselves and aren’t really responsive to what’s going on with you—and the biggest issue is that they have no empathy,” says Shafner.
You feel like you can’t do anything right
If you’re working overtime to please your partner yet getting nowhere, you probably never will. “Making someone feel like they can’t do anything right can be a serious sign of psychological abuse,” says Shafner. “Your partner is supposed to be your biggest cheerleader, a soft place to land. If they’re not, buyer beware—and love yourself enough to leave.”
Plus, a relationship turns toxic when there is little or no identification with the other person’s feelings. “This makes both partners feel alone and uncared for because neither of their hurts and pains are being acknowledged,” says Raymond. Often, the couple becomes cruel to one another in an effort to make the other one suffer to experience how bad he or she feels, she explains.
There is a complete lack of interest
You sit at dinner and don’t speak to each other. You don’t have any shared hobbies. “Sometimes I see a marked lack of affection, humour, active interest, excitement, or joy,” says Cohen, who points out that when this happens it may seem like everything is fine because there’s not a high level of negativity or arguing. “Couples simply stop sharing their inner world with each other,” she says. And when they stop being friends, the relationship can’t grow.
One of you is overwhelmed with jealousy
“This can show up as constantly having to account for your whereabouts and who you are with,” says couples coach Lesli Doares. “Everything you do must not just include them, but revolve around them. You might find it easier to either lie—and, when your lies are uncovered, everything blows up anyway—or you choose to stop having a life, friends, and interests of your own because the price is too high.” In either case, it’s a sign that things aren’t working out.
There is zero motivation to make any of it better
“When I work with a couple, the first thing I do is look each one of them in the eye and ask ‘Do you want this relationship?’” says Tessina. Asking this question usually brings out the truth-sometimes a person will bring in their spouse in order to break up with them. “They’re either afraid to say they’re not interested anymore because they fear a violent or angry response and they’re looking to me for safety, or they’re afraid to hurt the partner’s feelings, and they want me to make it easy,” says Tessina.
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