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Toxic Relationships: The Causes, Early Warning Signs, and If You Can Really Fix One

September 7, 2022
Asia Lin

Every one of us has had a partner, a friend, or even an acquaintance whose presence brought negativity into our lives. If not, we’ve all at least heard a friend complain about a toxic boyfriend, boss, or family member.

Now imagine being in a relationship with a toxic person. On the surface, a toxic relationship may not seem so bad, but when you pull back the curtain, it can cause a lot of pain and trauma to those involved.

Wondering whether you’ve experienced a toxic relationship or maybe you’re in one right now? Keep reading to understand more about toxic relationships, what causes them, and how to leave one.

What is a toxic relationship?

While every relationship has its ups and downs, a toxic relationship has more downs than ups. It is a relationship in which you feel unsupported, misunderstood, denigrated, or even attacked. These behaviors will cause you pain that will severely impact the well-being of the person enduring it. Long-term commitment to such toxicity may be mentally, emotionally, or even physically damaging to you or your partner.

A toxic relationship may not have started out that way. But negative emotions, a bad history, or unfulfilled desires can fester and contaminate any relationship, polluting it and changing the people in it.

Usually, a toxic relationship occurs between intimate partners, but sometimes a toxic relationship can also happen between friends, family, co-workers, or bosses.

All abusive relationships are toxic – but not all toxic relationships are abusive. However, you shouldn’t minimize the pain a toxic relationship can cause you. Oftentimes a relationship turns toxic and then can turn abusive — whether that’s physically, emotionally, financially, or other types of abuse.

What causes a toxic relationship?

A dysfunctional relationship is caused when either of the partner has a toxic behavior, unhealthy thoughts, and toxic coping mechanisms. Such a behavior of one of the partners disrupts the entire relationship. Here are some of the reasons of toxic behaviors:

  • Past trauma- It is rightly said that experiences of our past do affect our present. It is highly likely that the toxic partner has been subjected to tumultuous or a toxic relationship in the past. They begin to believe that toxicity is normal and continue their emotional abuse.
  • Low self esteem - Sometimes people who feel that they are not as accomplished, suffer from a lower sense of self-worth. They may engage in belittling their partners to boost their self confidence. This gives rise to toxicity.
  • Fear of rejection- Some people are clearly bad at handling rejections. They may never be able to accept that not everyone is interested in being with them. This fear of abandonment gives rise to emotional abuse leading to toxicity.
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms- A toxic person may not know how to cope with their feelings. They tend to create a codependency on their partner, or may find comfort in alcohol or gambling.
  • Narcissism- A narcissist individual will always think the other person’s at fault and demand endless support from their partner without offering anything in return. Eventually, this will become a very unbalance and one-sided relationship.
  • Lack of trust- When there is a lack of trust in a relationship, it can lead to harmful thoughts, actions, or emotions. This can ultimately lead to more serious issues, such as emotional or physical abuse.
  • Ongoing relationship issues- The build up of issues in a relationship can escalate to something more serious such as physical abuse and verbal abuse. Eventually this would result you would to be stuck in an abusive relationship.  

Early warning signs of a toxic relationship

It can be difficult to realize if your relationship is toxic because bad behaviors are uncommon- but recognizing these relationship red flags can help you figure out if something is wrong and whether the problem can be fixed or if it's time to break up or move on.

  • Lack of Support- Healthy relationships are built on a mutual desire for the other person to succeed in all aspects of life. They encouraged each other to pursue their dreams and goals. But in a toxic relationship, they don’t pay attention to each others goals nor do they encourage each other to try new things or be their best selves.
  • Controlling behaviors- Is your partner actively interested in your whereabouts? Do they attempt to maintain control and authority over you? Maybe they get annoyed or irritated when you don't respond to texts right away or repeatedly text you until you do. These behaviors may be motivated by jealousy or a lack of trust, but they may also indicate a desire for control, both of which can contribute to a toxic relationship.
  • Patterns of disrespect- The basic requirement of a healthy relationship is mutual respect. When this is missing in your relationship its time to let go because that’s a sign of toxicity.
  • Jealousy is a frequent issue- Jealousy can turn toxic when it is severe and exceeds the limit. It is not a good sign of a healthy relationship when your significant other hacks into your phone or laptop accessing your social media accounts. This breaks the basic boundaries of trust in a romantic relationship.
  • Gaslighting- When you have a problem with your partner, he always makes it seem like he's the victim, gaslighting you in order to cover his actions.
  • Subtle isolation- Does your partner isolate you from your friends and family? Do they force you to distance yourself from those who care about you? This is a sign of a toxic partner because they are attempting to control and dominate your life. They want 100% of your time and attention, so they use manipulative tactics to cause rifts in your relationships.
  • Walking on eggshells- You are afraid that bringing up problems will cause extreme tension, so you avoid conflict and keep any issues to yourself.
  • Lack of self-care- Because your negative emotions are tearing you down, you began to neglect your self-care routines, health, and leisure time. This could be due to a lack of energy or because your partner disapproves of you doing your own thing.

Can a toxic relationship be fixed?

It is possible to fix a toxic relationship in certain circumstances — and when both partners are truly willing to try. For any potential fix, the relationship must become healthy and mutually beneficial. Thus, both parties must be committed and willing to work on themselves before working on the relationship.

It is highly likely that a third party, such as a couples' therapist, will almost certainly be required. You both will be working on yourselves and become extremely reliant on emotions, so the assistance of an outside party is necessary to guide you through the process. Even with the involvement of a third party, there is no guarantee that the toxic relationship can be fixed.

Again, fixing a toxic relationship is not an easy task, but most worthwhile endeavors are not. Thus, if you're both willing to work it out, it'll be worth the effort and awkward conversations.

However, you may also decide that ending the relationship is the best for you.

Ending a toxic relationship with someone

If you’ve given this person many chances to change and they’re not meeting you halfway, it could be the best decision to move on. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things just don't work out. If you've decided that leaving this toxic relationship is the best way to deal with it, here are a few strategies to help you do so safely.

  • Seek the help of a therapist or a domestic violence advocate. They can assist you in developing a safety plan and finding resources for additional assistance. Here is a list of resources.
  • Reach out to your support group. Remember your family members and close friends are always here for you. They can provide emotional support, but they may also be able to provide more tangible assistance, such as a place to stay or assistance with moving you out.
  • Make time to care for yourself because this process can be extremely exhausting and emotionally draining. Respect your needs by scheduling time for relaxation, sleep, and self-care, as well as time to heal before beginning a new relationship.

Remember when they are unreasonably demanding, controlling, belittling, and vindictive with a willful disregard for healthy boundaries or healthy relationships- it is time to leave for good. Never jeopardize your own health and wellness and know that the relationship is doing you more harm than good.

Leaving toxic or abusive relationships are often the most dangerous part of the relationship as the person will have high emotions. If you believe they could react negatively, create a safety plan for what you are going to do to safely escape.

How to see if you’re in a toxic relationship

No relationship is perfect, but a healthy relationship should make you feel secure, happy, respected, and free to be yourself. On the other side, if the relationship no longer brings you joy and instead consistently makes you feel sad, angry, anxious, or uncomfortable, it may be toxic. This will eventually have a detrimental effect on your mental health, personality, or self-esteem.

You should also keep an eye out for changes in your other relationships or how you use your free time. If you ever feel guilty for doing your own things because you feel like you have to prioritize your partner at all times then that is unhealthy. You are completely sacrificing yourself and giving everything to your partner.

A clear and serious warning indicator of a toxic relationship is any form of violence such as abuse or harassment that occurs frequently in your relationship. These are deal-breakers, and you should know they are.

Being aware that your relationship is toxic is vital in protecting yourself from harm. It is necessary to make sacrifices in relationships to achieve happiness, self-esteem, and, most importantly, well-being. If you could relate to any of the signs above, it could be time to acknowledge and take action that your relationship may be toxic. If you believe you are in physical danger, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

You can also take our Toxic Relationship Quiz to further identify patterns of toxicity in any relationship in your life and get further access to resources to help you make the best decision for you.

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