Relationships are hard work. Whether they’re friendships, romantic relationships or familial bonds, each requires a certain degree of empathy, sympathy, compassion and support. When strong, these bonds are also rewarding. A good relationship will fill your heart and soul. Unfortunately, not all interactions leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. In fact, a toxic relationship can completely drain you.
Depending on the situation, a toxic relationship could deplete your physical, emotional, and — in some cases — financial reserves. Unsure if a person in your life is toxic? David Bennett, a certified counselor, relationship expert and the co-owner of Double Trust Dating, tells SheKnows the biggest signs of toxicity are manipulation and deceit.
What is a toxic relationship?
“A toxic relationship is a relationship which is emotionally, physically and socially unhealthy, and is often characterized by a lack of trust, insecurity and controlling and manipulative behavior by one or both partners, ” he explains. Emptiness is also common.
Put more simply: A toxic relationship is one which puts you down instead of building you up.
Signs your relationship is toxic
“Toxic relationships can take many forms,” Dr. Lisa Bobby, the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, tells SheKnows. Because there are many different types of toxicity, it may seem tough to identify. These are some signs you’re in a toxic relationship:
- Trust is an issue.
- Disrespect is something of a constant.
- You feel judged or belittled.
- Communication is non-existent — and when conversations do occur, they are unbalanced.
- You feel unsafe or uncomfortable, like you’re walking on eggshells.
- You lack autonomy or control.
- Your feelings are regularly invalidated and/or dismissed.
- You are unhappy.
- There is constant criticism.
- It feels bad. All the time.
According to Bennett, “stress, drama, dysfunction, jealousy, neediness and even physical and/or emotional abuse [can also occur]. One of both partners may experience anxiety and depression as a result.”
Getting away from toxicity
So what can you do if you find yourself in a toxic relationship, romantic or otherwise? First, distance yourself from the toxic person, says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at California State University and the author of Don’t You Know Who I Am?: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.
“Handling a toxic person actually requires a pretty universal approach,” she says. “Minimize engagement, don’t personalize what they say, set boundaries and avoid them.” However, this is easier said than done.
“The most insidious part of a toxic relationship is the fact that, most of the time, people trapped in them are not aware that the relationship is toxic,” Bobby tells SheKnows. “Instead, they genuinely believe that the reason the relationship feels so hard and bad is because they are at fault.”
To counter this, Bobby suggests seeking outside support.
Create and enforce boundaries
If you decide the relationship is one you want to maintain — or is one you need to maintain — Bennett says you must “limit your exposure to toxic behaviors.” This means you must create boundaries between you and the person’s toxic behaviors, and enforce those boundaries.
And while this may sound difficult, particularly in a family setting, Durvasula ensures SheKnows it is possible. “You can spend time with people without really engaging with them. Do not offer your opinion, do not ask them to do anything, step away when the conversation turns abusive or rageful… [and] maintain realistic expectations.” Be prepared to walk away.
“Toxic people don’t change,” Durvasula adds, and while “it can be devastating to recognize you are in a toxic relationship… [t]hese relationships make us sick. Like anything toxic, the more time you spend in them or with them, the sicker you get. Stop being their psychological [and/or physical] punching bag.”
If you are feel unsafe, threatened or believe you are the victim of abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.
A version of this story was published September 2019.
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