Are You in a Toxic Relationship?

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on February 4, 2018

Every relationship has challenges. How do you know if your relationships with family, friends or coworkers are merely hitting a snag, or truly unhealthy?

To find out, ask yourself a few questions.
How do you feel about yourself?

In a healthy relationship, you feel supported and encouraged by the other person, and confidence that your thoughts, opinions and contributions have value.

When you work toward a goal—changing a job, learning a new skill, improving your health—the other person helps you reach it.  
In a toxic relationship, on the other hand, you feel as though you are not good enough as you are, that things you do or say fall short of their expectations.

Rather than support you, your friend might criticize or try to sabotage your self-improvement efforts, or your partner may convince you that you won’t be able to achieve them.
How do you feel about the other person?

Is your partner, friend or colleague dependable? Do they keep their promises; do what they say they are going to do; do a fair share of the “work” of the relationship?
In a toxic relationship, you never know for sure whether the other person will hold up their end of the bargain. At work, the colleague might withhold information that would help you make a better presentation.

A partner might spend money that you had agreed to save for a special purchase. A friend might repeatedly forget social plans.
In a healthy relationship, you feel secure knowing that the person will do their best to keep their promises and will be honest with you if they find they cannot.
How do you handle conflict?

People in toxic relationships often report feeling as though they have to “walk on eggshells” so as not to antagonize the other person.

The feeling is that if you can just say the right thing, or do things the right way, that the other person will not get angry.

So they choose to say nothing in order to avoid conflict. This codependent response can develop even if no abuse or addiction are present.
Another unhealthy response to conflict is silence. People in toxic relationships may avoid confronting the challenges that naturally come up from time to time by simply refusing to acknowledge them—or by reacting with hours or days of silence if their partner brings them up.
In a healthy relationship, people don’t fight to win, they fight to resolve the issue. Both parties understand that they are responsible for their own emotions, and neither feel the need to manage the other person’s emotions.

That includes anger, which is a legitimate emotion when experienced and expressed thoughtfully. Instead of the silent treatment, the person might say, “I need some time alone to think about this. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
How do you handle “blame”?

In a healthy relationship, both people recognize that they are imperfect and have communication and behavior patterns that contribute to the conflict.

In a toxic relationship, the partners assign blame to each other in a repetitive cycle that makes resolution impossible: The other person only lashed out because you nagged at them; you only nagged at them because they didn’t follow through; they didn’t follow through because you didn’t give them enough time; etc.

If it is the other person’s fault, then you don’t have to change.

Are you ready to change?

So what do you do if you realize your relationship is toxic but you can’t or don’t want to end it? Individual counseling is a great place to start.

Therapy creates a safe, objective environment where you can explore your own contributions to toxic relationship cycles.

If the relationship in question is with a spouse or partner, couples counseling will help you both identify harmful patterns and develop new ones.

Many couples seek out a counselor only when they have both given up on the other person. And some partners will refuse to go at all. If that is the case for you, individual counseling can still be very helpful.

The earlier you can engage with a mental health professional, the easier it will be to identify and address harmful relationship dynamics.

This article was reviewed by Robert Trestman, Ph.D., chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Carilion Clinic.