12 Red Flags You’re in a Toxic Relationship

Lady Gaga explored her attraction to toxic partners in 2009. "I want your love, and I want your revenge. You and me could write a bad romance." However, Dr. Lillian Glass coined the term "toxic relationship" way back in 1995. In her book, Toxic People, she describes toxic parties who do not support each other; where there’s conflict, or one seeks to ruin the other. Further, where there is competition. Lastly, where there are disrespect and lack of union.

A toxic relationship is one that is unfair to you or your partner. In addition, it lacks emotional support. Furthermore, at least one member of the union is unaware that the romance is imbalanced. Also, toxic bonds are not nurturing and are unwholesome. In other words, they lack moral and ethical principles. Moreover, they may be harmful to others in the household. Finally, toxic romance can be hazardous to your health.

Why We Stay In Toxic Relationships?

couple in different directions illustration

Image via Pixabay

In her book, "The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships," Madeleine A. Fugère says there are a few reasons people stay in toxic unions that make the most sense. However, many others are harder to understand. One reason people stay is manipulation. A manipulative partner is one who knows you intimately. He or she studies you and your behaviors. Hence, they anticipate your reactions.

Another reason people stay in a long-term toxic relationship is a sense of investment. That could be an actual financial investment. However, most often, we feel emotionally invested in the relationship, so we stay. Finally, we may be addicted. There is scientific evidence to back up this theory. However, more on that later. So, how do you know you are in a toxic relationship?

Another reason people stay in a long-term toxic relationship is a sense of investment. That could be an actual financial investment. However, most often, we feel emotionally invested in the relationship, so we stay. Finally, we may be addicted. There is scientific evidence to back up this theory. However, more on that later. So, how do you know you are in a toxic relationship?

Warning Signs Of A Toxic Relationship

Crazy-making behaviors are the prime indicator you are in a toxic relationship. A crazy-making manipulator knows how to push you to your limit. However, they also know how to draw you back. Manipulation like this is an art form to a toxic person.

Below are the signs of a toxic relationship. A few are symptoms, and others are manifestations. Nonetheless, all of these 12 indicators are red flags. If you are in a toxic relationship, please seek help from a qualified counselor or advisor.

1. Emotional Rollercoaster

One minute you feel in love and happy, the next you are knee deep in drama and angst. You may not be able to point to specific behavior or abuses. However, you begin to understand that you can't control any of it. If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing one of the first indicators of a toxic relationship.


Emotional lability is one of the earliest signs you may be in a toxic relationship. Arguments escalate quickly — and seemingly come out of nowhere —  but the make-up periods are glorious. It is a time of highs and lows. Also, it's the time in which you're becoming addicted.


Emotional highs and lows release hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. These are the hormones of addiction. They create psychologic and physiologic dependency.


Dr. Helen Fisher calls this “frustration-attraction.” She explains that when we experience obstacles in a romantic relationship, it strengthens emotional love instead of hindering it. Dr. Fisher's research shows that the brain of someone in an adversity-filled relationship is remarkably similar to the cocaine addict's brain.

2. Lack of Boundaries

Setting Boundaries: Learn When To Say Yes And No (Difficult People, Empath, Saying No, Survival Manual, Toxic People)
  • Kristine S. Everest
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
  • Paperback: 92 pages

Healthy boundaries in a union are a sign of self-esteem and a lower level of neediness. Experts believe that you learn boundary-setting skills as a child. Hence, if your nuclear family has boundary issues, your adult unions are likely to as well. A few signs that you and your partner have boundary issues are:

  • You blame others for making you "feel" a certain emotion like jealousy, neediness, or insecurity
  • You're responsible for your partner's feelings
  • You regularly expect someone to fix you or your problems
  • You're always rescuing your partner
  • You attach quickly in relationships
  • Your relationships churn drama
  • You get sucked into pointless arguments often

3. Gaslighting

In its most severe and abusive form, gaslighting is unrelenting manipulation that brainwashes a victim into self-doubt. Ultimately, a victim of gaslighting loses all sense of perception, identity, and self-worth.


The term comes from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight. The plot includes a husband that convinces his wife she’s insane by causing her to question reality. A gaslighter's favorite go-to insults are, "you're crazy," "you've lost your mind," and "prove it." However, the latter they reserve for when they know you can't.

4. Controlling Manipulation

Break Free: Disarm, Defeat, and Beat The Narcissist and Psychopath: Escape Toxic
  • Pamela Kole
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
  • Paperback: 132 pages

Experts warn that toxic unions can sneak up on any of us. Likewise, controlling partners are not exempt by their gender, age, socio-economic status, and sexual orientation. However, there are nuances when it comes to controlling behaviors. In toxic unions, the controlling partner may not be the overt bully you expect. Subtle behaviors are more damaging as they continue unchecked for longer periods. Here are a few examples:

  • Constant small criticisms that chip away your self-esteem
  • Threats of self-harm or, less often, harm toward others
  • Scorekeeping
  • Guilting
  • Snooping — digital and otherwise
  • Demands of your time
  • Saying you must earn their trust
  • Projecting past relationship troubles on a current relationship
  • Measuring you against past loves

5. Isolation

A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan
  • Madeline Drexler
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
  • Paperback: 68 pages

It's normal to hide away sometimes. A couple may retreat into their "love cave" from time to time. However, true isolation falls under the heading of "control." By isolating a partner from their friends, family, or support system, the control is harmful. Experts warn that in isolation, other abusive behaviors will escalate.


Another form of isolation associated with toxic unions is self-imposed detachment. It often occurs when one partner is embarrassed by the other's behavior. Therefore, they avoid outside contact.

6. Secret-Keeping And Deception

Signs In The Rearview Mirror: Leaving a Toxic Relationship Behind
  • Kelly Smith
  • Publisher: Sunny Day Publishing, LLC
  • Paperback: 214 pages

Trust is a fragile thing under the best of circumstances. Research shows that deceptive practices as seemingly benign as secret-keeping, undermine the intimacy in the union. Here, the deceiver expresses guilt through avoidance. Over long periods, it can impact self-esteem through shame. And, lying — even telling white lies — can lead to physical and mental health concerns.


When the truth comes out, it may make sense of the confusing behavior. As well, the betrayal can feel crushing and traumatic. However, victims of deception often blame themselves. Remember, you're not responsible for another's acts or omissions.

7. Anger Or Rage

Anger is a primary emotion like happiness, sadness, anxiousness, and disgust. Throughout humanity, these emotions have had a protective purpose. And, early signs of rage may be as mild as a clenched jaw, reddened face, or pacing. Alcohol impacts rage in different ways, as does drug use. However, anger becomes a problem when it starts to interfere with everyday life and relationships. New research sheds light on how anger or rage in the setting of a toxic relationship forms a destructive cycle.

8. Physical Abuse

Speak
  • Square Fish
  • Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • Edition no. 0 (05/10/2011)
  • Paperback: 224 pages

There is no excuse for any type of physical violence. It is destructive to every member of the household. The chaos and turmoil from living in an abusive household have far-reaching and long-standing consequences.


As in other hallmarks of toxic unions, victims often blame themselves. But, experts say that abusers don't “lose control.” Instead, they make specific conscious decisions that instill fear in the other party. No matter what you do, the abuser has other options in any given situation. No one deserves abuse. Instead, violence is the decision of the abuser.

9. Emotional Abuse

Abuse OF men BY women: It happens, it hurts, and it's time to get real about it
  • Ann Silvers M.A.
  • Publisher: Silvers Publishing, LLC
  • Edition no. 1 (11/01/2014)
  • Paperback: 368 pages

The lines are blurry concerning the definition of emotional abuse. Furthermore, in a toxic relationship, it can occur gradually over time, so that you are not even aware it's happening. Like physical abuse, emotional abuse is about control. And, it is a choice. The difference is the abuser doesn't use hitting, kicking, shaking, grabbing, pinching, pushing, or other physical harm. Instead, the abuser uses emotion as their weapon.

Some signs of emotional abuse include:

  • Hostile sarcasm or outright verbal assault
  • Shaming and belittling
  • Punishment like withholding affection
  • Threats
  • Blame
  • Isolation
  • Gaslighting
  • Smear campaigning

10. Financial Abuse

Exposing Financial Abuse: When Money Is a Weapon (Healing From Hidden Abuse) (Volume 2)
  • Shannon Thomas LCSW
  • Publisher: MAST Publishing House
  • Edition no. 0 (06/22/2018)
  • Paperback: 236 pages

When you think of toxic unions, most likely, you don't think of finances. However, research shows financial abuse happens just as often as other abuses. The fact is, one study by the Centers for Financial Security shows that 99 percent of all domestic violence cases also involved financial abuse. Moreover, they found that financial abuse is one of the first signs of domestic abuse — even in dating. Therefore, learning what financial abuse is may be crucial to safety and security. Here are a few signs of financial abuse:

  • Another party controlling your access to money you have earned or money that belongs to both
  • Spending large amounts without asking you
  • Creating joint debt
  • Pressing you into making large purchases, or using for credit to make large buys
  • Having to financially rescue your partner
  • Putting bills in your name
  • Asking or expecting you to pay their bills
  • Not following through with payment
  • Ruining your credit
  • Hiding bills, charges, and receipts

11. Neediness And Insecurity

To Stay or Not to Stay: How to Know When it's Time to Leave Your Marriage
  • Christine Marie
  • Publisher: Independently published
  • Paperback: 127 pages

If we're honest, we've probably all felt needy or clingy at some juncture. But deep emotional neediness is one sign of a toxic relationship. But how do you know what is normal and what rises to the level of dysfunction? Here are several patterns that occur from being with someone who is severely needy or emotionally insecure:

  • You feel emotional and drained after spending time together
  • You feel responsible for your partner's total joy
  • There is jealousy
  • There are boundary issues
  • You feel scared to leave the home

12. Depression And illness

Over time, some reap the physical and mental results of being in a toxic relationship. These are sometimes far-reaching and may impact the entire home. Studies show that children raised in the chaos of an abusive home, are affected into their adulthood. And, studies from the 1980s show the adverse physical effects that a bad romance has on the heart.

What Is Depression?

Anxiety and depression are the most common psychological illnesses in the world. Around 300 million people are hurting from depression. By some estimates, 15 percent of the population will feel depression in their lifetime. But what is depression? Depression is a term we use as a synonym for "unhappy" or "disappointed." Sometimes, we use it to describe our feelings after a bad week or during a breakup. But major depression or clinical depression is more complex. There are symptoms to learn how it differs.

  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Loss of interest
  • Problems with fatigue and insomnia
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Irritability
  • Thoughts of self-harm

If you are having thoughts about suicide or self-harm, please seek help now. Call a friend or loved one or 1-800-273- 8255 (TALK ) or chat with Lifeline now.

Leaving A Toxic Relationship

Unfortunately, those in toxic unions may be unaware of their circumstance. Therefore, to review, healthy relationships are defined by the following traits:

  • Compassion
  • Safety
  • Security
  • Sharing
  • Mutual love and caring
  • Respectfulness
  • Healthy debates and disagreements

However, toxic relationships are rife with:

  • Insecurity, neediness, and jealousy
  • Abuse
  • Power, control, manipulation
  • Demandingness
  • Selfishness and self-centeredness
  • Criticism and negativity
  • Dishonesty and mistrust

If You Are In Danger

Always remember, abusers will attempt to deny or minimize problems. However, so do victims. If you’ve experienced violence, which may include shoving, pinching, shaking, hair pulling, or destroying property, seek help now. Get support and learn how you can set limits. The national abuse hotline will help you through determining if what you are experiencing is an abuse of any kind. Their supportive non-judgmental staff of trained counselors will connect you with local resources. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for hearing impaired. Click here to chat anonymously, 24-7.

Breaking The Cycle

girl punching her boyfriend

Image via Pixabay

Experts say that our brains can zero-in on people who are NOT good for us. These types include emotionally unavailable partners and toxic characters like narcissists and sociopaths. Because of this, we have to work on identifying our own codependent tendencies first.

It is not a victim-blaming statement. In fact, it is a human thing to want to give, and fix, and do for others; to want to make the world and the people in it, better. But codependency is a cycle of acts that leave us exposed to unhealthy decision-making. It's sometimes known as “relationship addiction” because participants often maintain bonds that are uneven, cruel, destructive to finances, and abusive. A codependent form is likely a learned behavior. We watch and imitate family members that display the behavior. Likewise, we pass it along to our children. Hence the term generational or cyclical codependency. Here are a few signs to help assess your level of codependency.

  • You make extreme sacrifices to satisfy the needs of others
  • You're prone to covering for your partner’s drug, alcohol, or legal issues
  • It's hard to say "no" to your partner even when you lack the time and energy
  • You excessively worry about others’ views of you
  • You actively avoid arguments

If these sound familiar, you may be prone to getting into codependent relationships. However, it doesn't mean that you can't form healthy bonds. Instead, it does mean you have to be extra careful to avoid being in a relationship with certain overly dependent personality types. To change any unhealthy behavior, you have to understand it. Educate yourself about the course and cycle of codependency. Finally, learn how it extends to your relationships.

Okay, Next

woman saying next

via Giphy

Not every relationship feels like you're walking on sunshine. However, it shouldn't feel like you're walking on broken glass either. Toxic behavior lives on a spectrum. All people in relationships act out occasionally — that doesn’t always make them a lousy partner. Instead, label a toxic relationship by the proportion, the intensity, and the harm.

We can become addicted to the emotional highs and lows of explosive romantic relationships. Hence, it makes breaking-up from a toxic partner similar to entering recovery from a destructive drug.

When emerging from a toxic union, you feel the clouds and fog lifting. Finally, you can see clearly again. However, it is also a time of self-doubt. Once you've come through the other side, the last thing you want is a repeat.

Experts offer this advice about moving on. Take your time. Don't feel rushed to jump into a new relationship right away. Instead, get to know yourself by practicing self-care. Reconnect to family and friends. Finally, enlist the help of a trusted friend to help you watch for warning signs. These are ways to ensure you won't fall victim to a toxic partner the next time around.

Do you have any experiences with toxic relationships? Join the conversation.

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