We may give people we love free passes sometimes, but there are some behaviors you might not want to accept in any relationship.
Toxic relationship behaviors aren’t just about arguing or jealousy. They can also include more subtle actions that affect the way you see yourself and the world.
Identifying which relationship dynamics harm your mental health can help you make decisions and protect yourself.
How to tell if your relationship is toxic starts with awareness.
What’s considered toxic in a relationship may depend on many factors, including your culture, how you were raised, and how these behaviors affect you.
Some signs that your relationship may be toxic include:
- not feeling safe
- being emotionally and financially dependent on your partner
- feeling unhappy
- walking on eggshells around your partner
- doubting yourself
- not being able to say or do things you wish you could
Many behaviors that are damaging in relationships are about power and control. Here are 7 toxic behaviors to be aware of:
“Gaslighting is when you cause someone to question their own sanity, experiences, and reality,” explains Janika Veasley, a marriage and family therapist in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
Veasley says gaslighting is one of the most common forms of emotional manipulation and a toxic behavior you shouldn‘t tolerate. It’s a good idea to identify ways to deal with gaslighting.
Examples of gaslighting
“It didn’t happen that way. You imagined it. You’re just too insecure.”
“I never said that. You always take things the wrong way.”
Humiliation is toxic behavior that can come in the form of harsh criticism or sarcastic jokes at your expense.
While some partners enjoy playful banter with one another, comments or behaviors that are hurtful or target your insecurities may be more than just witty remarks.
Examples of humiliating
“Oh, he always does that! Sometimes I wonder if I married an idiot.”
“Are you seriously wearing that? I don’t think you can even sit with it. Keep on eating those cookies.”
“Don’t pay attention to her. She’s got no clue.“
Isolation isn’t always as obvious as taking you away to a remote island.
Sometimes isolation can happen discretely and progressively over a long period of time.
Often, when it happens, you‘re not aware until you find yourself disconnected from friends and family and with no support system.
You might notice your partner always has an excuse to miss social events. Maybe they complain about how your friends are bad influences, or how they‘re uncomfortable around your family.
In other instances, they may “forget“ you had that special occasion and instead schedule a romantic dinner at the same time. Maybe they get sick right before going to visit your cousin or suddenly need your support on your girls‘ night out.
Examples of isolating
“You know I don’t feel comfortable around them. I can’t believe you’d pick them over me.”
“I already made plans for us that night. You should have asked sooner.”
“I had a terrible day at work. Are you seriously leaving me by myself tonight?“
They act upset or give you the silent treatment after you return from spending time with friends.
Stonewalling is shutting down and refusing to communicate, explains Lena Derhally, a couples and trauma-informed psychotherapist in Washington D.C. Stonewalling is sometimes referred to as the silent treatment.
Some partners may have communication challenges about expressing emotions, particularly if they‘re upset. But, deliberately ignoring or disengaging from you can be a form of toxic relationship punishment.
Examples of stonewalling
You’re in the middle of an argument and your partner refuses to answer your questions, or respond at all.
In mid-conversation, your partner walks away.
Your partner stops talking to you for a few days after you‘ve had an argument.
Threats can be subtly hidden in words, but they’re often direct and intended to cause you fear or doubt.
They can be directed at you, but they can also be directed at things or people you care about.
Examples of threatening
“It would be a shame if your boss found out you were spending so much time on your phone at work.”
“If you don’t do what I asked you to, I’m getting rid of the dog.”
6. Blame shifting
Blame shifting is “when you are upset about something and instead of taking responsibility, they turn it around on you,” says Derhally.
She notes this behavior can come in the form of “If you…, then I wouldn’t…” statements.
Blame shifting can make you feel guilty. It dismisses your own feelings about something. It can take away the attention from what you feel and need, to what you supposedly did or didn‘t do.
Examples of blame shifting
“You’re sad because you want to be. Now, you want me to be upset, too.”
“I only raised my voice because you knew I had a bad day, and you still chose to complain about this.“
7. Forcing dependence
Some couples have one partner who pays most of the bills and does the behind-the-scenes paperwork. This decision may be mutually agreed upon and part of the distribution of roles and duties in the relationship.
Sometimes, however, it can be a toxic behavior that aims to leave you powerless and dependent on your partner.
When you don’t have access to money accounts, aren’t permitted to read documents, or are kept in the dark about certain things, you may find you need to rely on your partner to make decisions.
This may make you more likely to stay in an abusive situation because you don’t have the resources to leave or aren’t sure how you could exit without losing everything.
Examples of forcing dependence
“Don’t worry about the finances. I’ll take care of everything, and I’ll give you an allowance every month.“
“All of your important documents are in my safe. You’d lose them otherwise.“
“You don’t need a car. I can drive you wherever you need to go.“
There are many reasons why someone may tolerate toxic behaviors or stay in abusive partnerships. Some include:
According to Derhally, many people in first-time toxic relationships don’t realize what’s happening.
“Unfortunately, many people who display these types of behaviors [have narcissistic personality] and generally turn on the charm at first,” she says. “Once they start to show an abusive side, it’s very jarring, and an abusive cycle starts with a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type personality emerging.”
This experience of cycling behaviors can cause trauma bonding, or the creation of a strong emotional attachment toward someone with abusive behaviors.
“Once someone becomes attached and ensnared in an abusive cycle, it becomes very hard to break free,” Derhally adds.
Codependency may be another reason you tolerate some toxic relationship behaviors.
Veasley states that some partners with codependent traits tend to take on roles, like being a martyr or a caretaker.
This isn‘t a personal choice, and often you may not be aware of it. But, in an attempt to feel wanted or needed, you may tend to prioritize your partner’s needs in ways that support their toxic behaviors.
“Many times we think the other person is unaware that their behavior is harmful to us, or we justify their behavior because we know they’ve been through a lot,” she explains. “When we make excuses for them, we show them their behavior is accepted, and they don’t have to be accountable.”
Veasley and Derhally suggest these strategies to help you break free from toxic relationships.
1. Grey rock method
The grey rock method is a form of communication intended to make someone using abusive behaviors lose interest.
It involves keeping your interactions brief and offering them uninteresting, dull responses they can‘t engage with.
The grey rock method isn’t for every toxic situation, and it may escalate some types of abusive behaviors. It‘s recommended that you discuss using this technique with a professional first.
2. Prioritize boundaries
Boundaries are there to help protect your physical and mental wellbeing.
If you’ve set boundaries — keep them. They can help you maintain things that are important to your individuality.
Boundaries can be behaviors like not tolerating name-calling or blaming. If it happens once, a boundary has been crossed. If it happens again, that can be your alert this may be a toxic situation.
3. Spend time with friends and family
Sometimes when you’re isolated, it can be easy to lose sight of what healthier behaviors might look like.
“When we get some space from the manipulative partner, we start to see there are healthier ways of functioning and being treated,” says Veasley.
Spending time with loved ones also helps you keep a support system that you can rely on if needed.
4. Seek professional support
Recognizing toxic relationship behaviors isn’t always easy. If you feel you may be in a toxic relationship, a mental health professional can help you classify behaviors you’re concerned about.
A therapist may also be able to determine if these behaviors could be resolved with therapy, or if you may need to end the relationship.
“Depending on how abusive the situation is, determine what course of action should be taken. Sometimes planning and preparation is required, especially if there are children involved or you could be in danger,” Derhally says.
Being in a toxic relationship can affect your mental health and the way you see the world. Identifying harmful behaviors is the first step toward protecting yourself.
If you’re in an abusive or toxic relationship and are unsure where to turn, consider speaking with someone immediately by: