Have you ever felt anxious, stressed out, or like you are constantly walking on eggshells in your relationship?
You’re not alone. Hundreds of students ask me the same question. So, how do you tell the difference between toxic and normal relationships?
That’s what we’ll look at today. You’ll learn 6 warning signs of a toxic relationship and how to let go of unhealthy relationships.
Want to learn more? Let’s dive right in.
What is a toxic relationship?
Something my students often ask me is, “Briana, how do I know if my relationship is toxic?”
For example, someone recently posted this question in my Facebook group, Attachment in Adult Relationships (click the link to join us!):
"How do I know if I am in a toxic relationship? And if I am in one, why is it so hard to leave it? Why are my feelings so strong? How do I know if it's unhealthy for me, and when should I end it?"
And it’s so true -- a toxic relationship can have a huge impact on your health. As research shows, subjects in negative relationships are at greater risk of developing heart problems compared to people in healthy relationships. Not to mention the plethora of other problems you might face, such as lower self-esteem and mental health issues.
Now, to recognize a toxic relationship, we first need to know what one looks like.
What are red flags in a relationship?
What is the first sign of an unhealthy relationship?
Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy to recognize.
We’ve all had a good friend fall into a bad relationship. From the outside, it’s SO much easier to see those toxic patterns, but what do you do when you’re in the thick of it yourself?
You might be thinking, “Am I just needy…?”
Here’s the thing:
Every relationship involves boundary negotiations and clashes. Some behavior that ultimately becomes toxic can look healthy, initially — as long as it’s not recurring behavior.
Most people unconsciously test their partners. You know, push their boundaries a bit to see how a partner reacts to different situations.
And that’s all good because this behavior is about discovering if the relationship has long-term potential. It’s also a sign that we’re getting more emotionally involved with someone. And to a certain degree, this is using your discernment to test your partner's metal, and if they will remain true to their values, beliefs, and priorities (or if they're just blowing smoke up your you-know-what).
But at some point, that behavior can become unhealthy and more about things like domination, manipulation, and maintaining control.
I talk more about it in this short video:
For example, a partner who cancels your date plans and says they may or may not be available might just be testing your flexibility. It becomes toxic when they’re constantly bailing on you.
How do you feel about your relationship?
Ultimately, toxic relationships are relationships where partners don’t support each other. These relationships are consistently unpleasant and draining so that the negative parts outweigh the positive parts.
To get crystal clear on what kind of relationship you are in, it’s important to set all of those other factors aside and look at how your relationship is truly affecting you and your feelings about yourself.
There are six main points that jump out at me right away to help you see the difference between healthy and toxic relationships:
- Disagreements are not an excuse for disrespect.
- Relationships shouldn’t make you feel unworthy, scared, or less than.
- You should feel safe to be fully yourself with your partner.
- Your boundaries should be respected.
- You shouldn’t feel invisible — or that your relationship is suffocating you.
- Relationships shouldn’t be a blame-game where you feel guilty all the time.
Let’s tackle #1.
Sign #1: Disagreements become an excuse for disrespect.
Every relationship will have moments of strain and disagreement. But a healthy relationship will confront these issues with love and respect.
You see, disagreements are not an excuse to be disrespectful or abusive. Simply put, there is never a justification for tearing down someone’s character, manipulating a partner’s emotions, criticizing without cause, or purposefully wounding a partner to assert a sense of control over them.
When you are in a healthy relationship, a partner might raise their voice, but they won’t attack you personally; they will stick to the relevant subject.
In a healthy relationship, a partner might need to take some space to cool down, but they will tell you how much and when you can expect them to contact you again. They won’t disappear without warning and try to induce anxious feelings as a way to punish you and assume disproportionate power over the relationship.
Sign #2: The relationship makes you feel unworthy, scared, or less than.
If the relationship you’re in makes you feel like you are always doing something wrong, or like you have to earn your partner’s love, respect, and approval, in order not to lose their interest, or be abandoned, rejected, or criticized, that’s a clear sign you are in a toxic relationship.
A grey zone between healthy and toxic behavior is banter and testing a partner’s limits in that way. If the banter becomes demeaning or makes you feel unworthy, then it’s clearly gone over to toxic behavior.
Constantly feeling scared, unloved, or unworthy can be a result of limiting beliefs that live beneath the surface of your conscious awareness, and often relate to having an insecure attachment style. For example, you might harbor beliefs like…
- I have to work hard to have a functional relationship, if I stop trying or initiating, nothing happens or would get done.
- If I am not earning love, then it’s not true love.
- If my partner doesn’t suffer for me as much as I suffer for them, they don’t really love me.
- I will never find love unless I fix myself first (like lose weight, find a better paying job, etc.).
- I always love my partners more than they love me.
- I am not allowed to have needs or desires in a relationship, because it always pushes my partner away.
- I always give more than I receive, and that’s just the way it is.
- If you love someone unconditionally, eventually, they’ll come around.
- In the end, most people settle, because it’s better than being alone.
Do you find yourself in a relationship where those insecurities and limiting beliefs come alive and are amplified between you and your partner? Then, this toxic relationship sign can be an important indication that it is time to ask some deep, self-reflective questions about how well you are loving and accepting yourself, just as you are.
It might also mean you are susceptible to particularly aggressive or manipulative partners because you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve.
Because here’s the thing:
In a healthy relationship, self-inquiry for the purposes of personal growth is supported and encouraged. In a toxic relationship, personal growth is criticized and discouraged, because it’s threatening to an insecure partner, and likely to dismantle the painful, dysfunctional patterns that exist between you.
Next, let’s tackle #3.
Sign #3: You don’t feel safe to be fully yourself.
Healthy relationships bring out the best in both partners so that everyone feels safe and free enough to be fully themselves without judgment or disdain. You shouldn’t need to constantly second-guess yourself or your actions, feeling like you have to jump through hoops or walk on eggshells, to conform to someone else’s idea of who or what you should be.
A healthy relationship will support your sense of self-sovereignty and challenge you in ways that help you expand more fully into felt security, not knock you off your center and make you feel increasingly insecure.
But how will you know when you are feeling fully like yourself?
Here are a few signs that you are practicing what I call “self-sovereignty” and experiencing a sense of being secure and fully yourself:
- You are free from safety concerns in relationships.
- You can name and prioritize your own values.
- You can identify and name your emotional boundaries and what does and does not feel good to you.
- You have some awareness of your own defensive coping mechanisms and how they may impact your relationships.
- You have an ability to identify and name complex internal feeling states (most of us are more than just “happy”–we are feeling excited, nervous, anticipatory, bubbly, challenged, exhilarated, and a little insecure, all at the same time).
- You have confidence in your own decision-making abilities and don’t need to affirm your every course of action with other people’s opinions.
- You have an Increased ability to tolerate formerly “triggering” situations without resorting to acting out in anger or self-sabotaging ways.
- You assume there are many possibilities and opportunities for love in the world, and you are a lovable person who has every chance of meeting a number of healthy and compatible partners.
Sign #4: You are constantly asked to overstep your boundaries.
If the relationship is healthy, your partner respects your boundaries when you set them. On the other hand, if the relationship is unhealthy, you constantly feel like your boundaries are being overstepped. Every “no” leads to an argument or you have to restate those boundaries over and over again.
As with all toxic behaviors, there are behaviors that don’t start out as toxic.
For example, let’s say that a potential partner you’re dating is a texter and you’re not. You’ve clearly stated this to them. Is it toxic behavior if they text you again? Not necessarily. But if they consistently ask you to overstep your boundaries, their behavior quickly becomes toxic.
Take a look at this video I put together for you to recognize when your boundaries ARE being ignored:
Sign #5: Your partner avoids you or smothers you with love.
On one end of the spectrum, your partner can feel distant and like they are always turning you down. On the other end of the spectrum, you might feel like your partner is smothering you with love without giving you any space.
A healthy relationship is both mutual AND it leaves space for you as an individual who has your own interests and needs.
You shouldn’t feel like you have to chase your partner. And you also shouldn’t feel trapped in your relationship.
Sign #6: You are constantly feeling guilty.
It’s not always easy to recognize signs of a toxic relationship. But much of it comes down to: How do YOU feel in the relationship?
If you’re always made to second-guess your memories or your feelings are being downplayed, there’s a big chance that your relationship isn’t that healthy. In fact, some very toxic behavior includes gaslighting, where every situation is turned around to make it seem like your fault.
This “category” of toxic behavior also includes passive-aggressive behavior. For example, your partner might demand that you give them emotional support without them ever having told you that they need this support. When you (naturally) fail to understand what they want and need, they behave aggressively towards you.
A healthy relationship requires both partners to take responsibility for their own emotions and actions. And they ask for emotional support when they need it.
Do you see how distinct the line is between a healthy and a toxic relationship? When you remove all other aspects and focus on how the relationship makes you feel on a truly deep level, clarity will follow.
Once you can wrap your head around this, you’ll be able to move on to the next big question:
When do I leave my toxic relationship?
Now, you know some of the most revealing signs of a toxic relationship. The first thing you need to decide is:
Do I stay or do I go?
Can a relationship go from toxic to healthy?
You might be thinking things like, “Should I really leave this relationship or am I just being avoidant/anxious? Do I have unrealistic expectations of this person?”
That’s why the first step is to decide if your relationship is worth the investment. Can it transition into a healthy relationship?
The answer is: It depends. You see, it depends on how toxic your relationship is. And it depends on if both of you are committed to making it work.
You also need to understand how YOU feel. Are you prepared to put in the work for this person?
For these types of questions, we tend to reach out to people around us to get answers. We ask our friends, “What should I do? What would you do?”
But what I actually recommend is that you first check in with yourself.
Below, I’ve put together a video with the steps to take here. The idea is that you tap on different parts of your body to understand how it reacts to this person and situation.
While you tap, ask yourself:
- Does this person contribute to your sense of purpose?
- Do you see yourself as happy with this person in the future?
- Do you feel safe speaking your mind?
- Are they generous in spirit?
- Do they have similar long-term goals?
- Do you have similar values?
- Can they communicate about sex with you?
How to leave a toxic relationship
If you do decide that ending your toxic relationship is the right way to go, the next step is to start the emotional and practical process of letting go of your relationship.
There ARE ways to get out of a toxic relationship and ultimately, find a healthy one. For example, my student Stine used to run after men who didn’t want to invest in the relationship:
But as she discovered through my program 5 Days to Ignite Your Love Light, she was fully capable of making changes in her life to attract a partner who is willing to commit to her.
That said, your choice to leave a relationship is ALWAYS personal. Ultimately, you need to do what’s best for you.
However, chances are that you won’t have a “magical” awakening and suddenly feel ready to leave your relationship. Sometimes, you have to take action to get going on the right path and overcome any hurdles that stand in your way.
And those hurdles can be intense. If you’ve already committed to your partner and you share a home or children, you obviously have physical and legal challenges to overcome. But the emotional and mental hurdles, though invisible, can often be as difficult, or even more difficult to overcome.
In the end, you need to check in with yourself to decide if you should leave a relationship or not.
Prepare to release a toxic relationship
As you begin the journey to mentally and emotionally prepare for what’s to come, having all the tools and support you need will be vitally important.
First of all, we all have various limiting beliefs we are working on. If you have thoughts like “There’s nothing else for me out there,” this short video is for you:
It might also help you to understand that when our instinctual bonding system has attached itself to a partner–toxic or healthy–ending the relationship will follow the same stages as recovering from an addiction. This affects many naturally occurring neurochemicals in the primitive part of the brain, which can lead to a sense of yearning, self-doubt, desperation, and neediness.
So, prepare for periods of relapse, and put the supports in place that are necessary to help you through the withdrawals. Most of all, be forgiving of yourself. In time, eventually, you will achieve maintenance, and your relationships will become increasingly healthy and satisfying.
Over to you!
There you have it! Now you know the 6 warning signs of a toxic relationship.
What it comes down to is that you take up that internal discussion with yourself. How are YOU feeling in the relationship? Are you feeling less than? Are toxic behaviors the cause for this?
Ultimately, it doesn’t just come down to your partner. Instead, learn to understand your own behavior and why you might be attracting toxic relationships into your life.