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3 Key Signs of a Relationship Turning Toxic

3. You feel hopelessly lost in the negativity.

Key points

  • Toxic relationships negatively impact emotional health.
  • Being aware and taking inventory of significant concerns in a relationship is crucial
  • Partners owe it to themselves to evaluate how a toxic relationship impacts them and to consider the options, including leaving.
 Nathan McBride/Unsplash
Source: Nathan McBride/Unsplash

In the realm of relationships, there are way too many walking wounded people out there. I'm referring to the masses of people who feel unfulfilled — or worse, emotionally neglected or abused — in their intimate relationships.

It seems that everywhere we turn, we see and hear about people who are unhappy and emotionally hurting, often severely, in their quest to feel loved. Just the other day at the grocery store, I heard the mask-muffled murmurings of one upset woman complaining to someone else about her "selfish boyfriend who messes with my head. He constantly shifts between gaslighting and love-bombing me!"

Some Reflective Questions

  • Does your intimate relationship no longer feel intimate?
  • Does it seem not so enjoyable, even though you may still love your partner?
  • Do you feel not understood for who you are and the needs you have?
  • Does it seem that you often seem to rub each other the wrong way?
  • Do you find that you can’t seem to stop arguing over even minor issues?
  • Have you started to dread the thought of seeing them, instead of looking forward to your time together as you once did?

A Closer Look at Relationship Toxins

These are what I consider to be the top three signs of toxic relationships:

1. Passive-aggressive behavior. An example of passive-aggressive behavior is if you can feel something is wrong, but when you ask, "What's going on?" the other person says, "I'm fine," or, "Nothing," and then punishes you by giving you the silent treatment. A big problem with having a passive-aggressive partner is that conflicts can't be identified, discussed, and managed.

Passive-aggressive behavior from partners is often accompanied by gaslighting, which means trying to make you think you're imagining things. If you frequently feel like there's something off, but when you try to talk to your partner about it you get shut down, you may be in a toxic relationship.

Let's look a little more at the form of passive-aggressive behavior known as the silent treatment. Do they deprive you of physical affection, avoid discussing this, but then complain that you are too needy? Do you feel that every time you try to clear the air, he or she disappears into it? Do they refuse to go to counseling? Avoidance mixed with silence is a classic passive-aggressive form of relationship toxicity, one that often gets progressively worse over time.

2. Criticism and contempt. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, criticism and contempt are especially destructive for loving relationships. Signs of criticism and contempt may include a partner distastefully making fun of you. One female client of mine would tell her husband he was sexually inadequate in response to him criticizing her excessive spending habits — a toxic mess, for sure. Contempt can also manifest as one partner criticizing the other in public. Acting superior also conveys a contemptuous, toxic message. To experience the one you love, or once loved, ripping you with incessant fault-finding barrages is highly demoralizing and emotionally unhealthy.

3. You feel hopelessly lost in negative energy. In healthy relationships, both partners feel relaxed, and like themselves, most of the time. In toxic connections, the "good periods" that were so common at the beginning start to become fewer and further in between, and rarely last long. If you constantly feel drained and exhausted in a relationship, it's time to think about exiting. When you're in a relationship laden with problems, you likely feel wiped out, beaten down, emotionally bankrupt, and numb. Even more upsetting, the times you do positively connect end up being in vain, because the positive vibes get swallowed up by the eventual negative energy. Does it, unfortunately, seem that any initially promising positive changes are unsustainable?

Be honest with yourself

If your relationship is truly toxic, and your partner will not work with you to make changes, then it may be time to leave. Recognizing, and continuing to acknowledge, the persistent signs of a toxic relationship can empower you to get out. Yes, I have seen many couples throw in the relationship towel way too early. At the same time, prolonging the agony of a truly toxic situation will have deleterious effects on both of you. When possible, see a qualified relationship counselor before making significant relationship decisions. Even if you decide to leave, it is important to learn your role in the toxic relationship dance so you don't fall into a similarly destructive situation the next time around.

Facebook image: Josep Suria/Shutterstock


Bernstein, J. and Magee S. (2003) Why Can't You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship, Perseus Books, New York, N.Y.

by Jeffrey Bernstein PhD & Susan Magee

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