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We’ve all heard it before: Relationships are hard work! They take both commitment and compromise to make them last. But there’s more to a relationship than longevity. And simply trying to make a relationship last can have us overlooking legitimate causes for concern. The fact of the matter is, a long relationship is not necessarily a healthy one. Many unhealthy, or toxic, relationships are the result of overlooking these concerns or failing to recognise them. So what does toxic mean in a relationship, and how do you know when you’re in a toxic partnership?

In 2020, things changed for most of the world in terms of how we communicate, interact, and meet new people. Online dating rose in popularity thanks to social distancing measures, and many new relationships started in ways we’ve not experienced in recent history. For many, this meant getting to know people and building connections online before ever meeting. For others, it meant having one’s movements restricted and even being forced to isolate with their partner. For lots of people, these scenarios have made recognising relationship ‘red flags’ hard to navigate.

When it comes to realising there’s something toxic about your relationship, whether new or existing, this can be tricky at the best of times – but that’s all the truer in the age we’re living in now. Knowing the signs and learning when it’s time to make a change is the key to building a healthier relationship or moving on from one that is no longer serving you.

What is a toxic relationship?

The term ‘toxic relationship’ is a fairly common one nowadays, and was coined by Californian psychologist Dr Lillian Glass back in 1995. She defined a toxic relationship as, “any relationship [between two people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”

She goes on to explain that, whilst any relationship goes through its share of ups and downs, and that fights are normal in any relationship (whether romantic or otherwise), a toxic relationship is consistently unpleasant and draining for the parties involved. When it comes to a point that the negatives begin to outweigh the positives, you might be in a toxic relationship.

However, for many people in toxic relationships, making the distinction between positives and negatives is difficult. This is especially true for abusive relationships. Abuse includes more than just the physical, and can include mental abuse, financial abuse, and more. If you are in an abusive relationship, it’s important to reach out to your nearest support or advocacy service for advice and assistance.

The unmistakable signs you’re in a toxic relationship

If you’re wondering whether your relationship is toxic, or perhaps just going through a rough patch, having some key indicators to look out for can be very helpful. Abuse is something that should be addressed immediately, and removing yourself from harm should be done with your safety in mind and with the support of your loved ones or local support services. However, the signs of a toxic relationship are often much more subtle and hard to recognise, especially if they’ve been going on for so long that they’ve begun to feel normal.

 Some of the key indications that you may be in a toxic relationship are:

  • You fight so often that it has become the new normal
  • You find yourself dreading being around your partner
  • You or your partner’s first instinct when confronted is to arguer rather than talk
  • Consistent feelings of unhappiness
  • A negative shift in your mental health or that of your partner’s
  • Feeling unable to express your feelings
  • Feeling unheard and misunderstood
  • Feeling guilty for spending time on your own
  • Being overly dependent on one another
  • Using guilt as a tactic to win arguments or achieve desired outcomes
  • Feeling unsupported, demeaned, or ignored by your partner
  • Either your partner or yourself regularly overreacting or underreact to situations
  • Finding yourself having more negative things to say about your partner than positives
  • Gaslighting or manipulation by one or both partners.  Gaslighting is a systematic pattern of abuse by which the abuser manipulates factual information to give the victim the impression that they cannot trust their own judgement or senses.

These are just some of the red flags for a toxic relationship. But it is worth noting that toxicity takes two – and even if you are the victim of toxic behaviour, your words and actions do matter. Being in a toxic relationship may mean that you need to remove yourself and end the relationship, but this isn’t always the case. In many instances, toxic relationships can be repaired and move forward in a more healthy way. In order for this to happen, both partners need to be invested in making change and working on the relationship.

What to do if you find yourself in a toxic relationship

In many cases, walking away from a toxic relationship is the only answer. If you are with a partner who refuses to acknowledge or change their toxic behaviour, there is very little that you can do to build a healthier relationship. If it is time to move on, it is important to do so safely and with support.

However, if you’ve recognised that you are in a toxic relationship and are determined to work at it, there are some key things that you can both do to build a happier and healthier partnership. These include:

Reach out to loved ones: Having a support network can be extremely helpful in either leaving or rebuilding a toxic relationship. Be sure to reach out to family and friends where appropriate. Sometimes having a sympathetic ear can do wonders, not only in expressing your concerns to someone who’ll listen in order to feel heard, but also in gaining perspective and organising your thoughts and feelings out loud. Be careful not to just use these opportunities to bad-mouth your partner and turn friends and family against them – as this is a toxic behaviour in itself and will create more animosity.

Seek help from an expert, together: Navigating relationships is tricky, and most of us aren’t experts on it. The truth of the matter is, when two people choose to spend a life together, there are going to be disagreements and differing points of view. A professional counsellor or psychologist can help to get to the root of your concerns, uncover the toxicity that may be present, and work on a plan to break down the barriers that have been built between yourself and your partner. Although it can feel confronting to bring a stranger into the mix to discuss intensely private matters, it can be life-changing.

Seek help for yourself: If your partner is unwilling to attend counselling with you, or you’d prefer to work on things alone, it can be incredibly helpful to seek out a psychologist for yourself. Your therapist can help you to determine whether or not you’re in a toxic relationship, and support you in learning more about yourself, and what you can do to repair things. Oftentimes, toxicity in a relationship can be the result of one partner suffering from something that inhibits their ability to have a healthy relationship. From depression and anxiety, to low self-esteem, and more, your own mental health concerns can be having a bigger impact on your relationship than you realise. Should it be the case that you are in a toxic relationship that is best left behind, your therapist can help you to realise your worth, and build your confidence and independence in order to make a healthy change in your life.

After discovering what toxic means in a relationship, and recognising that you may be in one, it’s time to take action. Love should never cost you your joy, your peace of mind, or your happiness. Reach out to us today at Integrated Health Specialists for the support you need to find your joy and end the toxicity.

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen