Relationship

15 signs & types of toxic relationships

Toxic relationships can be hard to spot, but they're worth avoiding. This guide will help you identify the warning signs and get out before it's too late.

Dating Expert James Mendoza October 11, 2022 • 29 minutes read
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It’s no secret that relationships take a lot of work. You often hear people say that romantic relationships can be the most fulfilling thing in one’s life, so much so that they can positively impact your physical health and mental well-being.[1] But that’s only if you’re willing to put in the effort to make it work.

Most people enter relationships not really knowing what they’re doing or what it takes to make a relationship work. They just kind of wing it and hope for the best. But if you’re not careful, that approach can lead to some pretty toxic relationships. That’s when the sparkle of love starts to fade and is replaced by feelings of resentment, anger, and even disgust.

Toxic relationships can manifest in a number of ways. And it might not be easy to spot all of them, especially if you’re in the midst of one. But it’s important to be on the lookout for these red flags so you can address them early on and avoid a toxic relationship before it’s too late. This guide will show you some of the most common signs of a toxic relationship, what is it, and its types, so you know what to do when your relationship starts to turn sour.

Relationships are the foundation of how we communicate and connect with people. Learn why they’re important, what makes one healthy, and how you can build better ones every day.

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship can be simply defined as a combination of unhealthy behaviors and dynamics that can exist between two or more people. Dr. Lillian Glass, an American communication and psychology expert, defines toxic relationships in her best-selling novel Toxic People as “any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”[2]

Toxic relationships can take many different forms. They can be between family members, friends, or romantic partners. And they don’t always involve two people who are in an equal position of power.

It’s possible for someone to be in a toxic relationship with someone who they have authority over, like a boss or a teacher. In fact, toxic relationships are so common that 84 percent of women and 75 percent of men report having at least one toxic person in their lives.[3]

Toxic relationships are common during emerging adulthood—the period between the ages of 18 and 25 when young people are typically exploring their identity, independence, and sexuality.[4] This is likely due to the fact that young adults are still figuring out who they are and what they want in life.[5]

As a result, they’re more likely to enter into relationships of varying degrees of commitment and intimacy, [6] which can increase the likelihood of being in a toxic relationship. If you’re in your early twenties and have never been in a toxic relationship, consider yourself lucky, because, over a period of 20 months, approximately 40 percent of emerging adults admit to breaking up with a romantic partner because the relationship was unstable.[7]

While relationships normally go through ups and downs, a toxic relationship is characterized by consistent negative behavior patterns that are damaging to all parties involved. As Dr. Glass explains, the dynamic in a toxic relationship can be unpleasant and draining for the people involved in it.[2] This means that when you’re in a toxic relationship, the negative outweighs the positive—and that’s not healthy for anyone.


Different types of toxic relationships

There are many different types of toxic relationships, but they all share one common trait: they’re harmful to your health. Poor-quality relationships can lead to increased stress, anxiety, depression, and even physical health problems like heart disease and high blood pressure.[8]

People in toxic relationships may experience any or all types of toxic and controlling behavior, and the term polyvictimization has been used to describe this phenomenon.[9] And several studies report that polyvictimization is associated with even more negative mental health consequences, including attachment issues, [10] and negative sexual and mental health, [11] than experiencing a single type of abuse and toxic behavior.[12]

Here are some of the most common types of toxic relationships.

1. One sided relationship

A one-sided relationship is when one person consistently puts more effort into the relationship than the other. It might be that you’re always the one initiating contact or planning dates, while your partner doesn’t seem to care as much. You might feel like you’re the only one who ever says “I love you,” or who ever apologizes when there’s a fight.

One-sided relationships can challenge your self-esteem and leave you feeling neglected and unloved. Partner responsiveness, or the way your partner validates and supports you, is an important predictor of relationship satisfaction and stability.[13] So if you feel like you’re always the one putting in all the effort, it might be time to reassess your relationship.

Find out what it means to have a one-sided relationship and how you can avoid this situation in the future.

Of course, it’s also possible that you might just be giving too much of what is expected in a relationship. And this might be because of your attachment style.[14] Attachment styles are the ways in which we relate to others, and they’re based on our early experiences with caregivers.[15]

If you have an anxious attachment style, you might always feel insecure in your relationship, so you compensate by trying to please your partner and being available to them all the time.[16] And this can cause a one-sided relationship dynamic - because you want to be reassured that your partner loves you, you’re always giving more than you’re receiving.

Alternatively, you might have an avoidant attachment style, which can lead you to seem distant and uninterested in your partner, because you feel uncomfortable with closeness and emotional vulnerability.[17] If you have an avoidant attachment style, you might find it difficult to let your partner in, which can cause them to feel like they’re in a one-sided relationship.

2. Codependent relationship

A codependent relationship is one in which the people involved are overly dependent on each other. This might be because they have low self-esteem and feel like they need their partner to prop them up, or because they’re excessively clingy and always need to be around their partner.

The concept of codependency began with Alcoholics Anonymous, and it was originally used to describe relationships with an individual struggling with addiction, where the other person remained strongly committed to them despite severe social and negative consequences.[18]

Today, codependency is used to describe any kind of dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person is excessively dependent on the other. And theorists and researchers have identified it as a personality syndrome in its own right, with specific characteristics and behaviors.[19]

These include having low self-esteem, a need to be needed and in control, self-sacrificing behaviors, an exaggerated need for approval, an inability to establish and draw boundaries between self and significant others, a fear of abandonment, and an excessive reliance on denial.[20]

Codependent relationships can be damaging and toxic because they’re based on an unhealthy level of dependency. If you’re in a codependent relationship, you might find that your partner is always trying to control you, or that you’re always putting their needs above your own. This can lead to feelings of resentment, and it can be difficult to break out of the codependent dynamic.

People in codependent relationships often find describe it as something “so real that it feels tangible and concrete, like an illness or an underlying addiction problem.” Furthermore, these people felt caged in their subordinate and unfulfilling roles; trapped by their partner’s persistent needs and desires.[21]

The signs of a codependent relationship can be difficult to recognize if you’ve been in one for some time. Here are some ways to identify if your relationship with someone has become codependent.

3. Love-hate relationship

A love-hate relationship is one where the people involved have strong feelings of both love and hate for each other. This might be because they’re in a constant power struggle, or because they’re attracted to each other’s qualities but repulsed by their flaws.

Love and hate are linked to each other in complex ways. And research suggests that this switch between love and hate happens because of the equity theory, which is a theory that explains how people perceive the balance between how much they invest in a relationship, and how much they feel they’re getting back from their partner in return.[22]

This means that the more you love someone, the more you invest in them emotionally, and the more you expect to receive in return. But if you feel like your partner isn’t giving you enough, or if they’re constantly taking more than they’re giving, it can lead to feelings of resentment and hate.[23]

In addition, the more you’re invested in a relationship, the more you stand to lose if it ends. This can make you more sensitive to threats to the relationship, and more likely to react with anger or hate when you feel like your partner is threatening the relationship in some way.[24]

Love-hate relationships are often toxic and destructive because the constant back-and-forth between positive and negative emotions can be exhausting and confusing. If you’re in a love-hate relationship, you might find yourself constantly walking on eggshells, or feeling like you can’t do anything right.

Do you find yourself inexplicably drawn to people who make you miserable? Here are some signs and causes of a love-hate relationship.

4. Rebound relationship

A rebound relationship is characterized by one person dating another person shortly after they broke up with their previous partner. This can be because they’re trying to get over their ex, or because they’re looking for a distraction from the pain of the breakup.

As rebound typically happens after a breakup, it is often associated with the negative feelings and emotions that come with heartbreak. These can include sadness, anger, despair, [25] and a drop in self-concept clarity and self-esteem, [26] especially if they were in longer and more committed relationships.[27]

Not all relationships are meant to last forever. Have you been experiencing a rebound relationship? Here is what it means and some sure-fire signs that you may be in one.

In addition, people in rebound relationships often haven’t had the time to process their previous relationship, which can lead to them repeating the same mistakes in their new relationship. Rebound relationships are often unhealthy and toxic because they’re based on unresolved emotions and unmet needs.

If you’re in a rebound relationship, you might find yourself constantly comparing your new partner to your ex, or feeling like you’re not really over your previous relationship. This is when professional help might be necessary to deal with the underlying issues.[28]

5. On-and-off relationship

An on-and-off relationship is one where the people involved keep breaking up and getting back together, usually because they can’t seem to let go of each other. And this phenomenon is might common more than you think. According to some estimates, 60 percent of young adults have been in on-again, off-again relationships.[29]

Individuals in these relationships often experience more distress than those who are in more stable relationships, [30] and regularly experience patterns of instability, [31] which is what makes them so toxic and draining.

Indeed, these relationships can be emotionally and mentally exhausting, especially if you’re constantly getting your hopes up, only to have them dashed when the relationship ends (again). Those in on-again, off-again relationships often find themselves stuck in a cycle of lower levels of commitment and satisfaction, poorer communication, reduced relationship maintenance, and more uncertainty, [32] and it can be hard to break free.

Getting out of an on-again, off-again relationship can be difficult, but it’s important to remember that you deserve to be in a healthy and stable relationship. If you’re struggling to break free from this cycle, it would be helpful to see a therapist to help you unpack the things that are keeping you stuck.

How does a person know if their relationship has become an “on-and-off” one? And more importantly, what can do they do to fix that problem? Find out here.

These are the five common types of toxic relationships. If you find yourself in any of these situations, it’s important to reach out for help, whether that’s from a therapist, a friend, or a family member. Remember, you deserve to be in a healthy and happy relationship!


Signs of a toxic relationship

Spotting a toxic relationship early on can be difficult, as they often start out as seemingly normal and happy relationships. And even then, people often remain in toxic relationships because they’re optimistic about the potential for change, are nostalgic about the good times, or they are now so intertwined with their partner that it’s hard to imagine life without them.[33]

There are, however, some key warning signs that you might be in a toxic relationship. Being aware of these signs can help you to either work on fixing the relationship, or getting out of it.

Here are some common signs of toxicity in relationships.

1. Use of manipulation tactics

Ever heard the phrase “love is blind”? Well, that’s often true in toxic relationships. People in these kinds of relationships are often so wrapped up in their partner that they can’t see the manipulations and toxic behaviors for what they are.

Manipulation is outlined by Mental Health America as one common sign of a toxic relationship. [34] Manipulation is often used as a way to control or get what someone wants from their partner, and it can take many different forms.

For example, your partner might try to control you by making you feel guilty, or by playing on your insecurities. They might also try to gaslight you, which is when they manipulate the situation and events so that you start questioning your reality and memory.[35]

2. Passive-aggressiveness

Another sign of toxicity in a relationship is passive-aggressiveness.[34] This is when someone expresses their negative feelings indirectly, instead of openly communicating with their partner.

For example, your partner might give you the silent treatment when they’re upset with you, or they might withhold affection as a way to punish you. This type of behavior can be just as harmful as more overt forms of aggression, and can often leave you feeling confused and wondering what you did wrong. This form of communication style is often associated with insecure/anxious attachment styles.[36]

The way couples communicate with each other is a key indicator of the health of the relationship, and when people are cooperative and able to openly communicate with each other, it’s a good sign.[37] On the other hand, when people resort to passive-aggressive behaviors, it’s often a sign that the relationship is unhealthy.

3. Unhealthy levels of jealousy

Jealousy is a normal emotion, as it is often a reaction to a threat to a relationship.[38] However, when these feelings of fear, anger, and sadness [39] become excessive and begin to damage the relationship, that’s when it becomes toxic.

Individuals with anxious attachment styles are more prone to experiencing toxic jealousy, as they often have a deep-seated fear of abandonment.[40] The possibility of their partner leaving them can trigger these feelings of jealousy, which can then lead to possessiveness and controlling behaviors.

Jealousy can manifest in different ways, such as feeling threatened by your partner’s close relationships with others, or feeling possessive and controlling of your partner. If you find yourself feeling excessively jealous, or if you notice your partner exhibiting these behaviors, it’s important to address the issue. Unhealthy levels of jealousy can often lead to further toxicity in the relationship.

4. Frequent arguing and conflict

All couples argue from time to time, but when you argue more often than you get along, that’s a sign that something is wrong. Frequent arguing is a sign of toxicity in a relationship, as it indicates that there are a lot of unresolved conflicts. This can often lead to further problems down the road, such as resentment and bitterness, and is likely to reduce your satisfaction with the relationship overall.[41] 

When you’re in a healthy relationship, you should feel like you can openly communicate with your partner without fear of judgment or criticism. If you’re able to negotiate and compromise with each other, that’s a good sign that your relationship is likely to last.[42]

On the other hand, if you find yourselves constantly arguing and unable to see eye-to-eye, it’s a sign that your relationship is headed in a less-than-ideal direction. If you’re frequently arguing, it’s important to take a step back and try to figure out what the underlying issues are.

Remember, all types of relationships, even platonic ones, experience conflict and tension at times. And conflict isn’t inherently bad.[43] It’s only when these conflicts are not resolved and become a regular occurrence that they become toxic. Learning to compromise and protect your own needs while still respecting your partner’s needs is key to maintaining a healthy relationship.[44]

5. Constant criticism

In a healthy relationship, partners can give and receive criticism constructively. This means that the criticism is specific, objective, and focused on solving a problem. The person giving feedback also knows how to listen, be proactive, and give criticism in a way that doesn’t make their partner feel attacked.[45]

Negativity and criticism are often associated with toxic relationships.[34] When you or your partner just can’t seem to let one good thing go without finding something to nitpick about, it’s a sign that the relationship is unhealthy.

Frequent criticism can be destructive to both partners’ self-esteem and sense of worth.[46] If you find that you’re always being criticized or put down by your partner, establishing some boundaries may be necessary.

6. A lack of trust

Trust is essential for any type of relationship to work.[47] Whether it’s a romantic relationship, a friendship, or even a business relationship, trust is what allows people to feel safe and secure with one another.

Trust is also built when couples engage in activities that pose risks and test their level of commitment to one another.[48] And a lack of trust can significantly reduce peoples’ commitment and effort to maintain a relationship.[49]

In a toxic relationship, trust is often lacking. This can manifest in different ways, such as one partner being overly possessive or jealous, or one partner snooping through the other’s texts or emails.[50] A lack of trust can also arise when one partner repeatedly lies to or withholds information from the other.

If you find that you don’t trust your partner, or vice versa, it’s important to try to establish why that is. What is it about your partner that makes you feel like you can’t trust them? Are there things that you or your partner could do to build more trust?

7. Controlling behavior

Have you ever felt like your partner is trying to control you? Maybe they tell you what to wear or who you can spend time with. Or maybe they try to control the conversation by not listening to you or regularly interrupting you.

While it’s perfectly normal for couples to have different opinions, it’s not okay for one partner to try to control the other. This type of behavior is often a sign of a toxic relationship.[34]

Controlling behavior often goes hand-in-hand with emotional abuse - [51] often a cited precursor to physical abuse.[52] This is when one partner tries to control the other partner by targeting their emotional and psychological states. For example, they may try to make their partner feel guilty or ashamed as a way to manipulate them into doing what they want.

Realizing that you’re in a controlling relationship can be difficult, but it’s important to remember that you have a right to your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. No one has the right to tell you what to think or how to feel. If you’re in a controlling relationship, seeking out help and support from a friend, family member, therapist, or domestic violence hotline can be a good first step.

8. A lack of support

When you’re facing a challenge, it’s nice to know that you have a partner who will support you. This could mean offering practical help, such as taking care of the kids while you’re sick, or simply being there to listen to you [53] and offer words of encouragement.

In a toxic relationship, however, one or all partners may withhold support when it’s needed. This can make it difficult to cope with challenges and can leave you feeling isolated and alone.

A partner who refuses to support you or is always putting you down is not only being toxic to you, but they’re also likely to be damaging your relationship. If you’re not getting the support you need from your partner, try reaching out to other people in your life - friends, family members, or even a therapist.

9. Anger issues

Anger is a perfectly normal emotion. But when anger is constant, frequent, or out of proportion to the situation, it can be problematic, especially if it turns violent and aggressive.

Even if you’re not the one getting physically hurt, some behaviors that represent physical violence can also be just as damaging. For example, your partner may punch a wall, throw objects, point a finger in your face, or threaten to destroy your property.[54]

Property damage is a form of “symbolic violence” that can easily cause someone to feel scared, threatened, and unsafe.[55] Harming a pet is also a form of violence that can be used to control and intimidate a partner.[56]

If you’re in a relationship with someone who has anger issues, it’s important to seek help. There are a number of resources available, such as anger management classes or therapy.

10. Narcissistic tendencies

Having some narcissistic tendencies is perfectly normal. We all have a little bit of narcissism in us. But when someone has a more severe form of narcissism, it can be toxic to both them and their relationships.

When you’re in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies, you may find that they’re always trying to one-up you. They might brag about their accomplishments or try to make you feel inferior to them. They may also have a sense of entitlement and believe that they’re always right, even when they’re not.

Dealing with these relationships can cause physical, verbal, emotional, financial, and sexual harm. And individuals who are stuck in these toxic relationships may find it difficult to break free and often report high levels of anxiety, depression, self-aggression, and sickness.[57]

If you’re in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies, it’s important to get help. You can start by talking to your partner about their behavior and how it’s impacting you. If they’re unwilling to change or get help, then you may need to consider ending the relationship.

When it comes to love, you can’t always trust your feelings. Learn more warning signs that will help you identify an unhealthy romantic relationship.

These are just the 10 signs that you may be in a toxic relationship. If you’re experiencing any of these signs, it’s important to get help. There are a number of resources available, such as therapy or a domestic violence hotline. Keep in mind that everyone is worthy of a safe and healthy relationship.


FAQ about toxic relationships

1. What are the signs of a toxic relationship?

There are several signs that can tell you whether or not you’re in a toxic relationship. These include the constant feeling of being on edge, feeling like you’re never good enough, always having to walk on eggshells, feeling isolated and alone, dealing with anger issues, and being in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies.[34]

You might also experience some manipulation and controlling behavior from your partner. For instance, they might try to control what you wear, who you talk to, or where you go.[34] They might also try to control your emotions by making you feel guilty or ashamed.

In general, however, you don’t really need a checklist to tell you whether or not your relationship is toxic. If you feel like you’re experiencing more negative than positive interactions with your partner, then it’s likely that you’re in a toxic relationship.[2]

2. What is an example of a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is one that is characterized by a constant feeling of stress, anxiety, or fear. It’s a relationship in which you feel like you’re never good enough, always walking on eggshells, and constantly being on edge. You might also feel isolated and alone in the relationship.

Victims of domestic violence often find themselves in toxic relationships. This is because they might feel like they can’t leave the relationship due to financial or emotional dependence, fear of retaliation, or feelings of guilt.[58]

You might also find yourself in a toxic relationship if you’re constantly being manipulated or controlled by your partner. Your partner might start snooping through your things, checking your phone, or dictating who you talk to and where you go.

3. How do I know if I’m a toxic person?

Knowing whether or not you’re a toxic person can be difficult. This is because we often don’t realize our own negative behaviors. However, there are some signs that can tell you whether or not you might be toxic.

These include always putting yourself first, being excessively critical of others, being manipulative or controlling, always needing to be right, being jealous or possessive, and having a negative outlook on life.[34]

Another characteristic of a toxic person in a relationship is they often isolate their partner from friends and family. This makes their partners unable to break free from the toxic relationship because they have no support system.[58]

If you’re unsure whether or not you might be a toxic person, it’s important to talk to someone who can help you assess your behavior. This could be a therapist, counselor, or trusted friend or family member.

4. What does toxic communication look like?

Toxic communication is any communication that is characterized by blame, criticism, or judgment. While it can be indirect and passive-aggressive, [34] it can also be confrontative and aggressive.[42]

Toxic communication often escalates conflict rather than resolving it. For instance, instead of calmly discussing a disagreement, you might find yourself yelling and screaming at each other. [42] Toxic communication can also lead to a breakdown in trust and respect.

Toxic communication can also manifest in minimizing or downplaying your partner’s feelings or the problem at hand.[42] For example, you might tell your partner that their feelings are “not a big deal” or that they’re “overreacting.” This can make your partner feel invalidated and unheard.

Love is a complicated thing. Get the answers to all of your questions about dating and relationships in this comprehensive guide.


Dating in the modern world: Books for navigating your love life

If you’re looking for a fun, insightful, and often brutally honest look at modern dating, then you’ll want to check out these books. They offer a unique perspective on the trials and tribulations of dating in the modern age and will give you some serious food for thought.

  1. Dr. R. A. Vernon's Ten Rules Of Dating: In The Social Media Age
  2. Seven Secrets of Modern Dating: The He Said, She Said Guide for Getting from Single to Spouse
  3. Dating for Women: Modern Woman Dating Guide (The Modern Dating Series)
  4. Seriously, This Is Online Dating?: How to Love Yourself Harder and Date Smarter

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James Mendoza

James Mendoza is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about relationships, marriage, and living happily as a single. After getting through two divorces and being cheated …

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