10 Signs of a Toxic Relationship
If this sounds like your partner, here's what to do.
DEAR DR. JENN,
My relationship has been strained for years and we seem to fight constantly (and explosively) about the same issues. The big one: He cheated on me a year ago and I've caught him in many lies since. I spend way too much time in tears, questioning whether we should keep trying. I'm holding out hope because I love him, but my friends say that he's 'toxic'. How do I know if the relationship is beyond the point of repair? —Toxic Twosome
While all relationships have their ups and downs, the behaviors you're describing do sound very unhealthy — and potentially 'toxic'. (More on that in a minute.)
Your first issue seems to be not knowing how to work through conflict – which is a crucial skill in a relationship. The ability to fight fairly not only predicts the likelihood of a breakup, but also a couple’s future health. According to marital researchers at the University of Utah, 93 percent of couples who "fight dirty" will be divorced in ten years. If you're belligerent, disrespectful, defensive, or aggressive during your fights, you may win your argument, but you are likely to lose your relationship.
While it's possible to work through these issues and learn to fight fair, there are some behaviors that I'd consider truly toxic deal breakers in a relationship. These behaviors are so serious that they prevent a couple from being able to develop a close relationship and a safe connection.
What's a toxic relationship?
Since it is not in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the guidebook therapists use to diagnose patients, there is no official definition for a toxic relationship. However, it's safe to say that any relationship that leaves you feeling bad about yourself, is disproportionately negative, has any kind of abuse, where your behaviors are led by fear, where you can’t communicate without screaming and yelling, or you have to hide or lie about the relationship to friends and family is probably a toxic one.
Here, a few other toxic deal breakers in a relationship:
1. Emotional unavailability.
Being slightly emotionally unavailable is common during the early phases of dating, but within a serious relationship it can be toxic. You can’t have a committed partnership with someone who is unable to be giving, loving, and present, or who constantly pushes you away — nor should you have to settle for someone who doesn't fulfill your emotional needs.
2. Addiction or compulsive behavior — and unwillingness to get help.
Wherever there is addiction or compulsivity, emotional intimacy cannot exist. This kind of behavior puts a wall between you and your partner. Enabling addiction and other dangerous, compulsive behaviors helps one person to self-destruct and causes the other to harbor toxic resentment.
While a partner who is working a strong 12-step program and is clean and sober can be in a healthy relationship, willingness to get help is key. If your partner has a serious problem that is hurting the relationship, you should not be expected to stand by and watch as he or she self-destructs.
3. Habitual cheating.
Some people consider cheating to be a surefire relationship ender, but I do believe there is gray area. People make mistakes. While cheating is never okay, there is a big difference between someone who screws up once and someone who is a habitual cheater. The latter shows a pattern of hurtful behavior, poor impulse control, and a lack of honor. Which brings me to my next point...
4. Lack of character.
While you can teach relationship skills to your partner, you cannot teach character or instill a moral compass in someone who seems to lack one altogether. When dealing with a full-grown adult partner, you should not have to teach impulse control, integrity, kindness, compassion, or integrity.
5. It’s always all about them.
There are lots of times in a relationship when one person is going through a crisis and a couple needs to focus on them and their needs. But when you have a partner who constantly talks about themselves, doesn’t ask you about your life and goals, doesn’t care about your opinions, and always makes it about them, you have a problem. This kind of narcissism makes it difficult to connect, and unlikely that the person can show empathy, which is a crucial ingredient for a healthy relationship.
6. Compulsive lying.
Compulsive lying is another sign of a toxic relationship, which may also present itself with cheating or addiction, if your partner attempts to cover up their behavior with continuous deceit. Whether it is a sign of a lack of conscience or a full-blown antisocial personality disorder, this is a sign of a toxic relationship. Simply put: If you can’t trust your partner to tell the truth, your relationship is doomed.
7. Unwillingness to self-reflect.
If you have a partner who is constantly defensive and blaming others for problems in their life, you have a toxic situation. Without looking at how we contribute to the problems in our own lives, we cannot change negative situations. This also translates to the relationship and an inability or unwillingness to examine how one’s own behaviors contribute to problems. If someone is always pointing the finger, it’s impossible to have a healthy relationship.
8. You're discouraged from having friends or a support system.
Typically, abusers like to isolate their victims. People like that do not want their partner to have friends, family, or a strong support system of people who care about them. Taking that away makes it very difficult to leave if things get really bad. If this sounds like your partner, you should consider it a major red flag and sign of a toxic relationship. (This is different than someone who calls you out on an unhealthy friendship or relationship in your life.)
9. There’s no learning curve.
All couples make mistakes in their relationship. The key is to be able to learn and adjust as a result. If you have a partner who makes the same mistake over and over again and does not change their behavior, you have a problem.
Any abuse — whether it is physical, emotional, or sexual — is totally unacceptable in a relationship. If your partner has hit you once, there is always the possibility that they will do it again, and you will never be free to be totally honest with your partner again. If you ever suspect you're in danger do not pass go and attempt to diagnose your relationship — prioritize seeking safety first and foremost.
What to do if you think you're in a toxic relationship:
Like I always say at the beginning of every season of Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn, “not every relationship is meant to be saved.” There are a lot of great therapists out there who can help revive a relationship. But if your relationship is truly unhealthy and has a history of these toxic patterns and behaviors, you should think twice about whether or not you want to save it.
My advice: Do not operate from a position of scarcity, believing that there are not good potential partners out there. Know what you deserve. We teach people how to treat us and when we stay in a destructive relationship, we teach that person that it is acceptable to treat us that way. This hurts our own self-esteem and leaves us in an unhealthy situation. If that is the case in your relationship, even though we are in a pandemic, you are best off leaving. If it is a dangerous situation, make sure to call a domestic violence hotline to get some advice on how to leave safely.