Toxic relationship is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but it’s difficult to know exactly what it means and how to tell whether your relationship is healthy with a few teething problems, or if it's actually something to be worried about.
Psychotherapist Dr Sheri Jacobson, Founder of Harley Therapy, says a toxic relationship is basically “one that is fundamentally unhealthy, and is causing you, or the other person, harm - mentally or even physically.”
Meanwhile, Ammanda Major, Head of Clinical Practice at relationships charity Relate, says, "In a healthy relationship there’s mutual respect and the ability to share your feelings without fear of being criticised or shamed," while in a toxic relationship there isn't.
Ammanda adds, "In the most serious cases domestic abuse can be involved." She says it's important to remember that any relationship resulting in mental, emotional or physical damage isn't good for anyone.
Toxic relationship signs to look out for
1. You feel on edge, exhausted or in a generally low mood around your partner
Pay attention to how you feel around your partner, and whether your mood deteriorates around them. Unless there are other reasons for your change in mood, if you think it’s your partner making you feel this way, then “these are all signs that something in the relationship is having a negative effect on your wellbeing,” Dr Jacobson says.
2. You struggle to relax and be yourself around your partner
“In a healthy relationship, being with your partner is a comfortable space where you can be yourself,” says Dr Jacobson. If you feel like you can’t totally be yourself around them, it could be a sign that there’s a problem.
There's also behaviour to look out for which doesn't necessarily mean you're in a toxic relationship, but could be an early sign that things are starting to deteriorate. Ammanda says this includes not talking properly anymore, not doing things together, and your sex life taking a nosedive. While there are plenty of reasons for this to happen, like being busy at work, it could point to more serious problems.
3. Your partner constantly criticises you and frequently lets you down
Dr Jacobson says “behaviours in a toxic relationship can vary significantly,” from the seemingly minor problems, like being criticised or let down, to more serious issues like gaslighting and verbal abuse (see no. 4). While things like being criticised or let down might seem harmless in isolation, if they’re happening frequently or in conjunction with other toxic behaviour, that’s when there could be something wrong.
As well as being critical, your partner being especially jealous or selfish could also constitute toxic behaviour, says Ammanda.
4. Your partner gaslights, verbally abuses or coercively controls you
Gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional abuse where one person manipulates another into doubting themselves and their own sanity - and it’s most common in romantic relationships. Your partner might tell you you’re not remembering things correctly, or you’re making things up.
Other forms of verbal abuse might be easier to spot, like if your partner constantly insults you. Meanwhile, coercive control is when your partner threatens, humiliates or intimidates you into doing things.
5. Your partner rarely compromises with you
"You might take a step back and realise you're the one doing all the giving and getting nothing in return," says Ammanda.
“In a healthy relationship, if problems occur, you as a pair will be willing to make changes and figure out how to make it work,” says Dr Jacobson. But “if the relationship is toxic, there will be very little give and take, and the problems that arose will continue to be a problem.”
6. You’re neglecting yourself and making excuses for your partner’s behaviour
"You might find you’re making excuses for your partner and their behaviour," says Ammanda, which could be a sign that you know something is wrong but are afraid to admit it to yourself. In the process of doing so, you're neglecting putting yourself first.
What to do if you think you’re in a toxic relationship
"If you think you’re in a truly unhealthy, toxic, possibly even dangerous relationship then it’s about digging deep and taking action. If domestic abuse is involved then seek professional help – leaving an abusive partner can be a particularly dangerous time and there are experts ready to help you do it as safely as possible," says Ammanda.
If you don't think you're in danger but that your relationship has some unhealthy elements, she suggests talking to your partner. "They may well be feeling the same as you but don’t know how to raise it. When you’re talking, try and start with how you feel rather than blaming them – so say ‘I’ve been worried about the distance between us lately’, rather than ‘why have you been so distant with me?’ Using ‘I’ a lot will get the conversation off on to a better start, making an open and honest talk more likely."