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Health and Wellbeing

10 Oct 2019

Signs and symptoms of a toxic relationship

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship (friendship, family or romantic relationship) can contaminate your self-esteem, your sense of happiness and the way you see yourself and the world. 

It is mentally, emotionally or spiritually damaging and can have long lasting effects on your body and mind if not identified and if action is not taken swiftly.

Toxic relationships aren’t necessarily the territory of the weak or insecure either. Strong, healthy, independent people can also find themselves in such situations. Similarly, relationships that seem strong to begin with, can leave a trail of damage on one or both parties if it becomes toxic.

Signs you are in a toxic relationship

There are multiple symptoms of a toxic relationship, but those below are ones that I have chosen based on my work with individuals in unhealthy or toxic relationships:

You walk on egg shells

Do you find yourself anxious, nervous or worried to share your opinions because you’re nervous and afraid of the other’s emotional reactions, or editing your thoughts to avoid upsetting them? Extended periods of time walking on eggshells may cause you to lose your authenticity and sense of self and lead to an internalising of their blame, criticism and anger.

The other person wants you all to themselves

Someone wanting you to break off relationships with a partner, friends or family is a possible sign that they are trying to isolate you from your loved ones in an attempt to control and manipulate you.

You engage in the four horsemen of the apocalypse

The four horsemen are: stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism and contempt. No one is perfect, and these behaviours may arise from time to time, but if your loved one is giving you the silent treatment or refusing to speak when spoken to, is defensive when you bring up something they don’t agree with or when criticism is used as a channel to express contempt or disdain, be alarmed.

You avoid saying what you need

We all have important needs in relationships. Some of the big ones are connection, validation, appreciation, love and affection. When those needs are mocked or ignored, it can make us feel empty, isolated, lonely or disconnected. If your attempts to talk about what you need ends in a fight, accusations, insecurity or jealousy, don’t ignore it.

Physical or verbal abuse. Or both.

These are deal-breakers. 

Passive-aggressive comments or behaviour

Passive-aggression is an indirect attack. It is subtle and often disguised as something else, such as anger disguised as indifference (“whatever” or “I’m fine”) or manipulation disguised as permission (“I’ll just stay at home while you go out and have fun”).

Nothing gets resolved.

In a toxic relationship, things don’t get worked through because many conflicts end in an argument. This can lead to one person thinking that the other will not have the capacity to deal with the issue in a way that is safe and preserves the connection. When this happens, needs can get buried, and in a relationship, unmet needs feed resentment. 

What to do if you are in a toxic relationship

Stay tuned for November’s article on “what to do if you are in a toxic relationship”, but in the meantime … if any of these red flags sound familiar, it’s time to take some sort of action and if you feel that you’re in physical danger, you need to involve the authorities. Remember: Love should never cost you your peace, joy or your happiness.


Rajna Bogdanovic

Clinical Psychologist

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