25 Red Flags That Signify a Toxic Relationship, According to Psychotherapists
Are you in a toxic relationship? It's a tough question to ask and the answer might be even tougher to hear—especially when you recognize the signs. Loosely defined, a toxic relationship is one that leaves you feeling worse after each interaction. According to Steven McGough, licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks in Rio Rancho, a toxic dynamic can occur with a toxic friend—not only with a romantic partner. So, how do you know? Psychotherapists break down 25 signs of a toxic relationship—plus, what to do when you notice the red flags.
Kara Kays, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Regional Clinic Director with Thriveworks in Colorado Springs, specializes in relationships, self-esteem, coping skills and stress.
"Toxicity in a relationship cannot be categorized as simply one piece of the relationship or another," Kays tells Parade. "Rather, it must be recognized as the moments that define the relationship. This can be seen when the relationship is often in conflict, communication is scarce, and when partners are not able to be their best selves."
Kays adds, "Communication, respect, understanding, kindness and partnership are building blocks for developing healthy relationships. Learning to communicate by listening not to respond, but to understand is a surefire way to take a step towards 'healthy.' Therapy both together and individually, could help develop communication as well as other skills."
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25 Signs of a toxic relationship
1. Feeling unwanted
A good partner should not leave you feeling unwanted after every interaction with them.
"It is beyond unhelpful for intimacy to leave the presence of your spouse feeling unwanted. What might be worse is being in the presence of your partner feeling unwanted," Kays explains.
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But feeling unwanted once or twice isn't a signifier of a toxic relationship. It's a pattern of feeling this way that is cause for concern.
"It is worth recognizing that there is a difference between having a moment of feeling unwanted versus an ongoing feeling of being unwanted," Kays adds.
2. Being made to believe you're unworthy, unlovable or undeserving
"There is a difference between feeling unworthy, unlovable or undeserving and being made to believe you’re unworthy, unloveable or undeserving," Kays explains. "If a partner tells you you’re one or more of these, that partner is speaking to your basic human rights, and they’re wrong. You do deserve love."
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Try to be aware of any patterns of gaslighting. Listen for these common gaslighting phrases. Does this happen often? Does your partner actively talk down to you? If you think you may be in an abusive relationship (emotional, physical or otherwise), you should call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text 'START' to 88788.
First and foremost, as Kays says, remember that you do deserve love.
Many times in toxic and/or abusive relationships, one partner intentionally isolates the other in an effort to create a feeling of attachment. In healthy relationships, there is a balance between quality time with each other and time spent with others—friends, family members, co-workers, etc—but in toxic relationships, there is room for only one.
"Separating someone from their support system such as friends or family in an attempt to isolate them can be dangerous," Kays explains.
A toxic partner tries to get you away from the other people who might speak the truth about the reality of the relationship.
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"We all need support from multiple places," Kays adds. "No one relationship can possibly play all of the roles in a person's life."
4. Acting "hot and cold"
"Think: 'I love you, I want you, I need you,' and then boom, a switch flips and you’re being met with: 'I don't have time for you, I don't want you, I don't like you,' and then the switch flips again and again," Kays explains.
This kind of push-and-pull is exactly the definition of gaslighting and it's meant to confuse you so you don't know what's healthy and what's not in a relationship.
5. Any physical aggression
Any physical aggression against you constitutes domestic abuse. At even the first sign of physical abuse, you should call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text 'START' to 88788.
"Safety is necessary in healthy relationships and this includes physical safety," Kays says. "Physical aggression compromises the safety and security of the relationship."
Even if a partner is not getting physical with you, any behavior such as punching the walls, kicking, destroying of personal property, etc. could be an indication of a toxic relationship.
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"Toxic relationships are not the same as abusive relationships," Kays says. "If you or your loved one is being physically harmed, this is abuse. Outside of physical harm, another tell-tale sign of abuse is fearing for physical or emotional safety."
"Name-calling takes an abundance of emotional immaturity and some disrespect," Kays says.
While everyone has likely slipped and resorted to name-calling at least once in their lives, it very much is a habit that we should grow out of as we get older. Not only is this fighting tactic a sign of immaturity, but it also only serves one purpose and that is to be mean.
"If you find yourself calling your partner names or vice versa when in an argument, there is room for growth in both emotional regulation skills as well as communication skills," Kays adds.
If you've never heard of stonewalling, Kays describes it as "an overarching refusal to communicate or participate."
Stonewalling does not refer to someone who needs space before engaging in a conversation again. Everyone deserves to take a break from a heated moment in order to collect themselves and return to the discussion more calmly, but stonewalling refers to an unwillingness to get involved at all.
"Reminiscent of the silent treatment, stonewalling is harmful and hurtful," Kays says. "Have you ever shared your thoughts and emotions in a vulnerable way just for the other person to shut down, zone out or disappear?"
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Like stonewalling, ghosting can also look like the silent treatment. It can rear its ugly head in the form of not answering texts, ignoring calls or even not coming home.
"Ghosting, much like 'zombie-ing,' is a tactic of avoidance," Kays says. "Being ghosted doesn't help any relationship's well-being. Unfortunately, this is common behavior through text."
In addition to functioning as an avoidance behavior, ghosting can also be used as a way to control the narrative or as leverage to "fix" the relationship.
9. 180° perception of self
Through toxic tactics like ghosting, stonewalling, name-calling, etc., a toxic partner can eventually wear you down so that you completely flip your opinion of your own self.
"We all have our own perceptions of ourselves, and others have a perception of us," Kays explains. "In a toxic relationship, a person's perception of self may be flipped upside down leaving the person feeling weak, confused, needy or insecure."
10. Positioning arguments as 'right versus wrong'
Thinking of a fight as 'who's right' and 'who's wrong' can often lead to #24 (see below). But most disagreements aren't a matter of right vs. wrong, but rather a difference in experience, opinion, or emotions.
"'Just because you’re right doesn’t mean I am wrong' should be a staple in all relationships," Kays says. "Healthy relationships recognize and hold space for multiple viewpoints and opinions."
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11. Playing the victim
A partner that frequently plays the victim could be using it as a narrative with which to gaslight you.
"When you're not allowed to be you due to the possibility of offending or upsetting the other person," Kays explains of the term 'victimhood.' "No matter what you say, the other person feels like they're being 'attacked' or 'criticized.'"
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12. Love bombing
What does love bombing mean? While love bombing can feel like an explosion of affection in a good way, it can actually be a harmful behavior meant to manipulate you and make you become dependent on the love bomber.
"Receiving grandiose gifts, or gestures at the start of a relationship? This may be love bombing," Kays explains. "Attempting to garner feelings of love quickly from the start of a relationship with gifts, declarations, or surprises may be a sign of toxicity to come."
13. Patterns of bad behaviors
If any of the above signs sound familiar, be on the lookout for patterns of them happening again and again.
"People make mistakes," Kays says, "but when mistakes become a pattern of repetitive behaviors, we have to see them for what they are: shows of character."
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14. Threatening to leave/threats of divorce
"Commitment to a serious relationship allows for safety and security to occur," Kays says.
By consistently threatening to break up or file for divorce, a person is taking advantage of that feeling of safety and security while simultaneously threatening it. It breaks down trust between partners.
"When a partner threatens to leave or threatens divorce, safety and security are disrupted, making genuine connection difficult," Kays adds.
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Similarly to how threats of a breakup or divorce are toxic, so too, are threats of self-harm. Such threats can be extremely harmful to both parties if their only goal is to weaponize mental health, gain sympathy and curry favor.
"Self-harming behaviors are dangerous for the person committing the self-harm and they are dangerous for the relationship," Kays says. "Each partner is responsible for keeping themselves physically safe. Active self-harm can make this a shared task often feeling dangerous, scary and manipulative."
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16. Becoming the parent
Partners are not parents. Their functions and roles are very different, so confusing the two can be detrimental to any relationship. In a healthy relationship, the expectation should be to care for each other (somewhat) equally, but anyone who expects their partner to treat them as their parent does not have reasonable expectations of what it is to be a partner.
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"You are not your partner's child or their parent," Kays explains. "The workload in most relationships fluctuates through seasons of change. One partner carries a bit more weight here or there and then it flip-flops. However, in becoming the parent or becoming the child, one partner is assuming the responsibilities for the unit while the other partner does not."
17. Guilt tripping
Sending you on a guilt trip is another toxic behavior that can be considered a type of gaslighting.
"Being placed in lose-lose situations when attempting to hold true to your own needs," is how Kays defines 'guilt tripping.'
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The purpose of guilt tripping is usually to impart a sense of responsibility on the other person, therefore skirting the need to take accountability. By blaming you, the guilt tripper flips the narrative and in turn, makes you feel bad for the part you played in the fight or miscommunication.
"If you’re holding boundaries, saying 'no,' or making a choice then being confronted with guilt-laden responses, [it] may be a sign of manipulative behavior," Kays says.
18. Screen hiding
In today's technological landscape, suspicious behavior surrounding passwords, emails and devices can signify deceit. This could look like your partner not sharing passwords, not trusting you with your devices, or refusing to allow you to look at their phone or computer.
Of course, it goes both ways. If you also want to hide your phone from your partner—for fear of what they might see, how they might react, etc.—that could also be a sign of something toxic going on.
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"Smartphones give us access to endless amounts of information and people," Kays says. "If you're feeling the need to hide your screen from your partner, or they're hiding their screen from you, there is likely a reason."
19. Questioning your relationship with family members
This can go hand-in-hand with #3, isolation. In addition to wanting to separate you from your loved ones, a toxic partner may also start to question your relationship with your family.
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"Family systems play a large role in the lives of many people," Kays says. "If the expectations of familial ties are not in alignment with your partner's expectations of familial ties, there is a ticking time bomb situation at hand."
It's important for partners to be on the same page about what relationships with family members look like.
20. Prioritizing outside of the relationship
"Everyone has priorities, and should have multiple priorities," Kays says. "If the relationship is not towards the top of the priority list, it will likely suffer."
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A toxic partner may potentially champion their friendships over their relationship with you, prioritize work over you, spend time with others over you, or pick other activities over spending time with you.
21. Expecting the relationship to meet 100% of needs
No one is going to meet 100% of your needs—not even your parents. When it comes to a romantic partner, this is perhaps especially true.
"No person can meet all of the needs of another person," Kays says. "This is why people have family relationships, romantic relationships, friendships, acquaintances, and so on. If you’re expecting your partner to meet every need, you’re expecting an awful lot."
22. Friend count
Look at your friend count and look at your partner's friend count, too. Judging people by how many friendships they have isn't ideal, but it could be an interesting tell.
"Friend count is tricky as it can be laced with multiple meanings. Some people naturally have more or less friendships than others but it can be a bit concerning when someone doesn't have any healthy friendships, or on the flip side, has seemingly endless close friendships."
That's not to say you should break up with them if they have too many friends (or too little), but it could be something worth taking note of.
23. Alleging that there are "secrets"
Do you trust your partner and do they trust you? If so, then neither of you will need to worry about
"Not every thought a person has needs to be shared, and every relationship will need to have an understanding of what is relational information and what is kept to the self. Information that should be part of the relational information realm being kept a secret can be a sign that something is amiss."
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24. Inability to come to a resolution
"Resolving, working towards a resolution and understanding should be the goal of an argument or fight," Kays says.
A never-ending argument that seems to go on forever (or keeps getting brought up again) might signify a partner's inability to find resolution. Other ways this bad habit could manifest is if a partner never lets go of an issue, doesn't apologize, or later on, acts like a fight never happened.
"If it feels as if the goal of most arguments or fights is to attack or be attacked there is toxicity present," Kays adds.
25. Blowout fights
Speaking of an inability to come to a resolution, how a partner fights is also a crucial indicator of toxic behavior. If you're having massive, blowout fights (likely more than once), then that's something worth paying attention to.
"Huge fights over topics that are incongruent in size," Kays calls them, adding, "These arguments can feel like they came out of nowhere and can involve slamming doors, storming off and ignoring bids of affection."
If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text 'START' to 88788.
Next up, is the relationship toxic or are you toxic?
Kara Kays, LMFT and Regional Clinic Director with Thriveworks in Colorado Springs
Steven McGough, licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks in Rio Rancho