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How to Tell if Your Date Will Be a Toxic Mate

You do not need to know how to diagnose narcissism to avoid getting abused.

Key points

  • You can recognize toxic people by how frequently they complain, devalue, express dislike, and engage in negative gossip.
  • If you consciously tune into positive vs. negative comments and attitudes, you can discover whether someone is emotionally safe.
  • If this person regularly makes four or more negative comments in an hour, he or she is likely to have a toxic effect on your life.

Have you ever wondered if there is a way to detect a toxic person before you become involved? This is the question that concerns many of my clients who have been in an abusive relationship and never want to repeat that experience. In response to my clients’ concerns, I have developed a very simple method that people can use to avoid getting sucked into a toxic relationship.

You do not have to know anything about how to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder or any other psychological issues to use this method. All it requires is one hour of your time, the ability to count to 10, and a willingness to listen as objectively as possible to whatever the person in your life actually says. Anyone can use it with almost anyone, from a new lover to a family member.

This method is not foolproof. There will always be some people who start out on their best behavior and can be quite charming until they are confident that you are enthralled by them. Because of this, I always suggest that if you have been fooled in the past, go slow and get to know the person before you become too emotionally involved. Eventually, they will show their true colors and become increasingly negative and devaluing.

Counting Negative Comments

Here is an easy way to find out quite a lot about a person without asking any questions. When you are with the person, keep track of how many negative things the person says within an hour. Here are some examples of things to count:

  1. Complaints about anything.
  2. Put-downs of people or things.
  3. Negative gossip.
  4. Expressions of dislike.

We do not need to know someone’s diagnosis to discover if we will enjoy being with them. Most of us feel relaxed and have a good time with people who have a positive outlook on life and are not overly judgmental. Enthusiasm and good energy are catching, especially if they are paired with a sense of humor and a little self-deprecation.

On the flip side, most of us feel uneasy around people who complain a lot and say negative things about other people. It is hard to be relaxed and happy when we are around someone who is disapproving, judgmental, and sarcastic.

Where to Draw the Line

If you want a happy life, I recommend hanging out with happy people. By happy, I mean people who are generally in a good mood, have a positive outlook on life, and are not judgmental or easily insulted. This means that you need to learn how to recognize and avoid people who are overly critical and negative. This is simpler than it sounds.

In the system that I am describing here, this translates into avoiding anyone who makes four or more negative comments in an hour. If you are sensitive to negativity, even one negative remark per hour might be too much for you.

Everyone is a bit different in what they find amusing or can tolerate. However, most people are influenced by the mood of whomever they are with. It can be hard to be relaxed and happy around someone who is frequently displeased and annoyed. Unhappiness is catching.

Let’s take a look at how my theory plays out in real life.

Example: Tod and Sally on a First Date

Sally is a client of mine who had previously been married to a man with a narcissistic personality disorder. Their marriage was a disaster, and their divorce was a nightmare.

Sally is now dating again, and her main concern is that she does not want to get into another toxic relationship. However, despite having been married to a narcissist, she is not confident that she could recognize the early signs of narcissistic behavior in someone new.

I thought about Sally’s dilemma and came up with this simple idea of counting negative comments for her. Here is an abbreviated description of how this method worked during her first and only date with Tod:

I met Tod at the restaurant, and I was five minutes late because I was caught in traffic. The first thing he said to me was a dig disguised as a question: “Are you always late or do you just like to keep men waiting?” In the past, I would have been embarrassed and flustered. This time, I stayed calm and silently said to myself: “That is one!” To him I just said, “So sorry. I am glad to be here now.”

If you hadn’t prepped me to count, I would have spent the rest of the evening apologizing. Instead, I just listened to see what he would do and say next.

Tod looked surprised, but let it go. He said, “I’m hungry, and I hope you are too! The food here is great.” I was relieved that he said something positive and that I would not have to spend the whole evening counting. However, when the waiter came over to take our drink order, he looked at the wine list and said, “I guess we should stick to cocktails. None of their wines are worth the price.” I was surprised at how blunt he was, but I just told myself, “That makes two.”

Then we had a brief conversation that went pretty well. I started to think that maybe he might be a nice guy after all. We talked about movies and books and travel. On that level, we seemed to be a good match. We liked a lot of the same things.

I was relaxing and having a good time. Then the food arrived. Tod was disappointed because the waiter had forgotten to bring him the steak sauce that he had requested. I was surprised at how harshly he spoke to the waiter. I restarted counting. That was number 3.

By the end of the date, Tod had racked up a score of six negative comments, and Sally decided to never see him again.


Most people occasionally complain, devalue, express dislike, or gossip. However, people who do so frequently are more likely to have a toxic effect on your life—especially when they aim that negativity at you. Therefore, if you want to get a fairly quick take on whether someone is likely to have a positive or negative impact on your mood, spend an hour with the person and pay attention to how often he or she says negative things.

If you think this hour is not a fair enough sample, pick a different day and repeat this exercise. Most people find that they are happiest around people who have a positive outlook and do not rely on criticisms to make conversation.

More from Elinor Greenberg Ph.D.
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