Watch Out For These 15 Warning Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Cue the Britney Spears—it's getting toxic up in here.
Beware of These 15 Signs of a Toxic Relationship
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Dina Cheney - The Knot Contributor.
Dina Cheney
Dina Cheney - The Knot Contributor.
Dina Cheney
The Knot Contributor
  • Dina writes for The Knot Worldwide, specializing in food, travel and relationships.
  • With more than 20 years of experience in service journalism, she also pens articles and recipes for publications, such as Good Housekeeping, Parents, SELF, Health, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, Prevention, Fine Cooking, Weight Watchers and Diabetic Living.
  • Dina graduated from Columbia College, Columbia University and The Institute of Cul...
Updated Aug 18, 2023

If it seems like you've been cueing up Britney Spears's Toxic far more than her lovey-dovey One Kiss From You as of late, you may be wondering if your relationship is going the way of the lyrics. Could you and partner possibly be mirroring the signs of a toxic relationship?

It's a worrying thought—especially considering how toxic relationships can morph into (or already are) abusive relationships. For insights into how to identify the signs of a toxic relationship and advice on how to leave a toxic relationship, we spoke with three therapists:

  • Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, marriage therapist and the author of The Power of Two and Prescriptions Without Pills.
  • Shelley Galasso Bonanno, MA is a Michigan-based psychotherapist and limited licensed psychologist.
  • Heather McPherson, LPC-S, LMFT-S, CST-S is a licensed marriage and family therapist supervisor, licensed professional counselor supervisor and the CEO and founder of Sexual Health Alliance and Respark Therapy, PLLC.

With their expert guidance below, learn how to know if a relationship is toxic and the next steps to take for the betterment of your happiness, mental health, emotional and physical safety—and relationship.

In this article:

What Is a Toxic Relationship?

While a healthy relationship is positive and provides security and happiness, a toxic relationship features a consistent pattern of negative and harmful behaviors, explains McPherson. "Imagine being stuck in a loop of bad vibes with your partner. Think: constant drama, control and disrespect."

Rather than contentment, toxic relationships bring stress, sadness and anger, Dr. Heitler elaborates, and the results can be lower self-esteem and a reduced quality of life, notes Bonanno.

15 Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Watch out for the warning signs of a toxic relationship. These are behaviors that can generate pain and problems in any type of relationship, explains Dr. Heitler.

Along with determining whether your partner acts in any of the following ways, also pay attention to how you feel in the relationship, Bonanno encourages. If your emotions are overwhelmingly negative, that could be another clue to being in a toxic relationship.

1. Criticizing

Whether it's regarding how you handled something at work or simply a social media post, if your partner is constantly criticizing you, name-calling or making you feel small in any way, it could be a sign of a toxic relationship.

2. Contradicting

Contradicting could go hand-in-hand with criticizing. Here, your partner just can't seem to let you be "right" about anything, and always seems to disprove or correct whatever it is you say.

3. Showing Contempt

In this warning sign of a toxic relationship, your significant other treats you as if you're worthless or deserving of scorn. This behavior is very detrimental, is emotionally abusive and, according to Dr. Heitler, is one of the best predictors of divorce.

4. Controlling

They seem to want to control all aspects of your life. By taking over, your partner erodes your self-confidence and makes you feel more dependent on them.

5. Exhibiting Jealousy

One of the most common signs of a toxic relationship, jealously, can be exhibited by a partner being highly possessive and nervous about their S.I. spending time with anyone else. Alternatively, they may also be jealous of how your time is spent in general—whether it's at work or put towards personal hobbies.

6. Mistrust

Jealousy usually stems from mistrust—whether it's warranted or not. Does it feel like your partner never believes a word you say? They may insist on scrolling through the messages on your phone, or are always checking up on you when you're out. Cue the jealousy, insecurity and controlling behavior.

7. Isolating

Another form and level of controlling, your partner may attempt to isolate you from family and friends. They want you all to themselves, cutting off your other relationships and creating the opportunity for additional abuse.

8. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse whereas a partner messes with your head in an attempt to discredit or distort your experiences or feelings, essentially making you doubt your own reality. You can learn more about gaslighting here.

9. Fighting

Your relationship feels like a never-ending soap opera, describes McPherson. Your arguments are intense and frequent.

10. Manipulation

Manipulation in a relationship can look like your partner attempting to pull your emotional strings in order to get what they want. To achieve their goals at the expense of yours, they might guilt-trip or use emotional blackmail, explains Bonanno.

11. Phsyical Abuse

Any degree, frequency or kind of physical abuse is a surefire characteristic of a toxic relationship.Your physical safety should always come first and you're encouraged to end the relationship as soon as possible. Reach out to friends and family for support, as well as the National Domestic Volience Hotline.

12. Ignoring Boundaries

Another serious warning sign of a toxic relationship is the crossing of boundaries. Think: Your partner doesn't care about your limits or invades your personal space.

13. Acting Cold

If they show zero regard for your feelings, and deny you affection, communication or emotional support, you could be in a toxic relationship, says McPherson.

14. Placing Blame

Toxic partners are pros at shifting blame and never owning up to their mistakes.

15. Lying

Lies flow like water—and you're drowning in them, says McPherson. Frequent falsehoods are another red flag and indicator of a toxic relationship.

What to Do If You're Experiencing Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Coming to the realization that your relationship could be unhealthy is never an easy thing to digest. If you're unsure how to proceed, consider the following expert-approved advice.

Acknowledge the truth

When toxicity is at play, don't minimize the issues or make excuses for your partner's behavior. After all, the first step in improving a negative situation is recongizing it for what it is.

Instead of taking their actions personally, see them as your partner's problem—not yours, encourages Dr. Heitler. Imagine you're wearing an invisible shield, so any criticisms bounce off you, she says.

Do some soul-searching

Evaluate whether you really enjoy being with your partner, urges McPherson. Do you truly want to remain in this relationship? If the relationship was in a healthier space, would the two of you be compatible and be able to support one another?

Talk it out

Discuss your relationship with a trusted friend or therapist, suggests McPherson. A third party can help you gain additional perspective and help ensure that you're in a safe place.

Set boundaries

Clearly express your limits to your partner—and be prepared to enforce them. Dr. Heitler suggests using "I" statements. Think: "I don't like when you criticize me that way," or "I am open to feedback, but I'm not interested in criticism." Explain calmly that you won't accept toxic behavior and offer specific examples. For more help with setting boundaries, see a couple's therapist or counselor.

Plan for change

If you decide to call it quits, come up with an exit strategy with actionable steps to end the relationship, including a safe place to stay, encourages Bonanno.

How to Move Forward From a Toxic Relationship

When leaving a toxic relationship, it's normal to experience a mix of emotions, including fear, sadness and uncertainty, acknowledges Bonanno. The silver lining is you'll have the chance to reflect and learn about yourself.

"Remember, you deserve happiness and positivity," affirms McPherson. "Walking away from a toxic situation takes guts, but it's a step towards a better future. Your mental and emotional well-being are worth it." Here are her tips for how to proceed:

Create space

Establish some physical and emotional distance from your toxic partner. Stop spending time with them to give yourself room to heal and grow.

Rebuild your self-esteem

Focus on yourself, try new activities, and spend time with people who make you feel good. That hobby you used to enjoy but got pushed to the back burner? It's time to dust it off and do what you enjoy.

Lean on your support network

Reach out to friends and family who can help you cope. For extra support, consider seeing a therapist who specializes in relationship issues.

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