'Am I Toxic?' 5 Signs You Might Be, and How To Break Free
The words "crazy" and "love" all too often end up in the same sentence, but with toxic relationships, it may not be the healthiest of associations. While it's true that love can make you feel crazy (dopamine, oxytocin and the reward center of the brain all play a role), it can be extremely difficult to differentiate love from what feels like love, but is actually toxicity. If you think your relationship may be toxic, you may also be asking yourself: 'Am I toxic, or is the relationship toxic?'
"Broadly speaking, a toxic relationship is one that, the majority of the time, makes you feel worse after an interaction with the person," Steven McGough, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Parade. "These relationships can be with a romantic partner, a family member, a friend or even a co-worker. Toxic relationships are not always abusive, but abusive relationships are always toxic."
Does that dynamic sound familiar? Keep reading for more answers to frequently asked questions about toxic relationships, how to fix them and how to move past them.
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Am I toxic or is the relationship toxic?
"The relationship obviously consists of the people involved," McGough says, as in, not only you. "No relationship gives you 100 percent satisfaction and all of us have our flaws."
But the blame game may not be a healthy one to play, let alone one to play at all. Assigning fault could be a way to skirt responsibility instead of proactively identifying the behavior that is toxic and putting a stop to it in the future.
"Regardless of who is at 'fault,' if there is little trust [and] support, and you both generally do not like spending time together, you may be in a toxic relationship," McGough adds. "If you notice that you are frequently threatening to end the relationship, being dishonest, insulting your partner, [acting] jealous and not allowing them to spend time with family or friends, you may be the toxic one."
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Why do I feel like I'm toxic in my relationship?
There could be several different reasons why you may feel like the toxic one. Maybe you are exhibiting some toxic behaviors; maybe both parties are. Isolating who's doing what can be a slippery slope and you may not always come across a definitive answer.
"This is a tricky one as all of us have self-doubts and self-criticism from time to time. We also tend to focus excessively on who is 'at fault' when we have disagreements and this seldom resolves the conflict," McGough explains. "If you feel like you are being toxic, take an honest look at yourself and notice if your interactions with your partner are coming from a loving, caring place and trying to make the relationship (not just yourself) better."
Now for the elephant in the room: What if you're being gaslighted? A gaslighting partner could make it feel like you're the toxic one even if you're not the problem at all.
"Knowing if you are being gaslighted can be difficult because some of the symptoms are doubting or questioning oneself," McGough explains. "As I mentioned, all of us do this at some point. However, if you find yourself afraid of being insulted, reprimanded or even abused, this could be a strong indicator that you are being gaslighted."
Related: 35 Common Gaslighting Phrases in Relationships and How To Respond, According to Therapists
How do I know if I'm the toxic one?
So, what are the signs that you're the toxic one and how do you know for sure?
"If you notice that you are calling your partner names, being dishonest, belittling them, or getting physical by throwing things, pushing or hitting, you are likely being toxic or even abusive," McGough says.
The line between a toxic relationship and an abusive one is extremely thin. However, if you are committed to pursuing a healthy relationship and want to change your own toxic behavior, it is possible to move forward.
"In general, it is always a good idea to interact in ways that help strengthen the relationship. This does not mean avoiding arguments or conflict, but discussing things in a way to increase your understanding of the other person and their viewpoint," McGough explains. "A good rule to try is the Anything But Anger (ABA) rule. Although it is normal to get angry sometimes, often there is a more vulnerable feeling behind the anger. Try expressing that more vulnerable feeling instead."
Therapy and self-care can also be powerful tools when trying to overcome toxic behavior.
However, if you believe you may be in an abusive relationship, you should call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text 'START' to 88788.
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5 Signs you're the toxic one in a relationship
"This first sign is the most extreme," McGough explains. "If there are any physical confrontations (pushing, shoving, hitting), this is a red flag. The same is true for verbal or psychological abuse. Using insults or verbally attacking instead of talking about the behavior of your partner is something to watch out for."
Remember what McGough said earlier: "Toxic relationships are not always abusive, but abusive relationships are always toxic."
Again, if you think you are in an abusive relationship, you should call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text 'START' to 88788.
2. Being condescending
"A large predictor of an unhealthy or toxic relationship is the presence of patronizing superiority," McGough says. "If you or your partner consistently treat the other as if you are more important or intelligent, this can be a sign of being condescending."
Ask yourself: Do you think you're smarter than your partner? Do you let them know it? Do you treat your partner like they are a child or incompetent? These are all examples of acting condescending toward someone.
"If [you] become angry or forbid [your partner from] seeing friends and family, this can be a red flag," McGough says.
Isolation goes both ways, though.
"Alternatively, if you avoid spending time with important people in your life to avoid talking about what is happening in your relationship, this can be concerning as well."
People in healthy relationships don't avoid talking because they assume talking won't automatically lead to conflict. If your partner prefers not to communicate with you so as to not start a fight, that could signal avoidance.
"Talking about concerns can be difficult for anyone. However, if you find yourself constantly avoiding things that you need to talk about for fear of being insulted, belittled or getting into a big fight, this can be a sign of a toxic or unhealthy relationship," McGough adds. It may be time to ask yourself if your partner feels safe coming to you with their concerns.
5. Lack of enjoyment
Lastly, it all comes back to that initial definition of a toxic relationship. Do you leave your significant other feeling fulfilled or depleted? If you're practicing any of the aforementioned toxic behaviors, you could be the one draining the joy from the interaction.
"A final sign is to notice how you feel around this person. Do you generally enjoy spending time together? All relationships have ups and downs, and stressful times may see more conflict and arguing," McGough says. "However, if you do not generally enjoy spending time together even in times of low stress, this can be a sign you need to seriously work on the relationship through counseling or other means or decide if you need to move on."
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How to move forward from a toxic relationship
In many scenarios, you can move forward from a toxic relationship, either by changing behavioral patterns in your next relationship or repairing them in your current relationship.
"Being in a good place emotionally goes a long way toward avoiding toxic relationships," McGough says. "Most of us have heard the phrase 'hurt people hurt people.' Work on yourself."
McGough adds, "The best we can do in life is live according to our values, be open, and do what matters. Being in a toxic relationship is a large barrier to living one’s best life. Although working things out to improve the relationship through couples' counseling or some other means is definitely possible, if you are not able to improve after giving it your best effort, leaving may be the best solution."
Next up, experts break down the four major stages of any relationship.
Steven McGough, LMFT