What Is a Toxic Relationship?

How to Spot the Warning Signs of Toxic Relationships

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A toxic relationship is one that makes you feel unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned, or attacked. A relationship is toxic when your well-being is threatened in some way—emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.

On a basic level, any relationship that makes you feel worse rather than better can become toxic over time. Toxic relationships can exist in just about any context, from the playground to the boardroom to the bedroom. You may even deal with toxic relationships among your family members.

People with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disordermajor depression, or even depressive tendencies, may be particularly susceptible to toxic relationships since they are already sensitive to negative emotions.

For example, someone with bipolar disorder who is in the midst of a mixed or depressive episode may have a somewhat weaker grip on emotional stability than others, and that may make that person an easier target for toxic people. However, toxic people can affect anyone.

Here's what you need to know about toxic relationships, including what makes a relationship toxic and how to determine if you're in one. You'll also find tips for effective ways to manage these types of relationships.

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Only you can tell if the bad outweighs the good in a relationship. But if someone consistently threatens your well-being by what they're saying, doing, or not doing, it's likely a toxic relationship.

Relationships that involve physical or verbal abuse are definitely classified as toxic. But there are other, more subtle, signs of a toxic relationship, including:

  • You give more than you're getting, which makes you feel devalued and depleted.
  • You feel consistently disrespected or that your needs aren't being met.
  • You feel a toll on your self-esteem over time.
  • You feel unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned, or attacked.
  • You feel depressed, angry, or tired after speaking or being with the other person.
  • You bring out the worst in each other. For example, your competitive friend brings out a spite-based competitive streak that is not enjoyable for you.
  • You are not your best self around the person. For example, they bring out the gossipy side of you, or they seem to draw out a mean streak you don't normally have.
  • You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around this person to keep from becoming a target of their venom.
  • You spend a lot of time and emotional strength trying to cheer them up.
  • You are always to blame. They turn things around so things you thought they had done wrong are suddenly your fault.

Toxic vs. Abusive Relationships

Not all toxic relationships are abusive; however, all abusive relationships can be considered toxic.

In a toxic relationship, there is usually a lack of respect and a violation of boundaries. Sometimes, this behavior occurs without the person even realizing they're doing it.

But, if this kind of behavior is consistently repeated with the active intent to harm the other person, the relationship could be considered abusive.

Abuse can take many forms—such as psychological, emotional, and physical abuse. Abusive relationships tend to also follow the cycle of abuse. For example, the stages of the cycle of abuse usually involve:

  1. Tension starts to build.
  2. An act of abuse occurs.
  3. The person who committed the act apologizes, blames the victim, or minimizes the abuse.
  4. There is a period of time during which no abuse occurs; however, the cycle eventually repeats.

In addition, toxic relationships may be more subjective than abusive ones. For instance, if you have a history of being lied to, you might consider anyone who lies a toxic person; someone else might be more willing to let it slide and give the person who lied a second chance.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse of any kind, there are resources that can help.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Toxic vs. Healthy Behavior

When determining if a relationship is creating toxicity, it's important to look at which behaviors are being displayed most frequently in the relationship.

In other words, if one or both of you are consistently selfish, negative, and disrespectful, you could be creating toxicity in the relationship. But if you're mostly encouraging, compassionate, and respectful, then there might just be certain issues that create toxicity that need to be addressed.

It's important to recognize the signs of toxicity—whether it's in you or in the other person. Here are some signs of both toxic behaviors and healthy behaviors.

Toxic Behavior
  • Insecure

  • Jealous

  • Negative

  • Self-centered

  • Selfish

  • Critical

  • Demeaning

  • Distrusting

  • Abusive

  • Disrespectful

Healthy Behavior
  • Secure

  • Loving

  • Positive

  • Giving

  • Selfless

  • Encouraging

  • Uplifting

  • Trustworthy

  • Compassionate

  • Respectful

Types of Toxic Relationships

It's important to note that toxic relationships are not limited to romantic relationships. They exist in families, in the workplace, and among friend groups—and they can be extremely stressful, especially if the toxicity isn't effectively managed.

  • When there are negative behaviors: Some people's constant complaining, critical remarks, and overall negativity create a toxic environment. Other toxic traits may include perfectionism, unhealthy competitiveness, and frequent lying. A person may also let their insecurities bring out the worst in them.
  • When one (or both) people lack self-awareness: Sometimes people are unaware of their negative effect on others. They also may not know healthier ways to communicate. It's likely that they don't know how to read social cues well enough to know when they're frustrating people or making them feel like they are being criticized or ignored.
  • When a person intentionally hurts others: Some people are deliberately rude and hurtful. In these situations, you may feel singled out and targeted through their mean words and actions. A person may also try to control or manipulate you, which is toxic behavior.
  • When a partner is constantly cheating: If an intimate partner lies and cheats without even trying to change their behavior, it adds a toxic element to the relationship.
  • When a person is abusive: When people repeatedly and intentionally hurt you, their behavior can be considered abusive. Whether they are constantly gossiping about you, or they are physically harming you in any way, abuse is never OK.

Toxic Relationships and Drug Addiction

A person who misuses alcohol or drugs may engage in toxic behaviors. Receiving treatment may help them improve their toxic traits; however, relationships that were damaged by their addiction may not be fully repaired.

If any of the above scenarios are true of your situation, you may want to re-evaluate the toxic relationships in your life.

Narcissists and Sociopaths

Some people, particularly narcissists and sociopaths, tend to feed off of other people's attention and admiration. Narcissists feel a need to one-up people and make them feel "less-than" in a quest for superiority.

They may intentionally put you down in subtle ways or throw little insults at you if you share an accomplishment you are proud of. They also may keep you guessing as to whether or not they will be nice to you from one day to the next. Or, they may engage in gaslighting on a consistent basis.

Narcissists notoriously don't admit fault because they truly believe that they never make mistakes. In fact, they find it personally threatening to see themselves as less than perfect.

When dealing with toxic, narcissistic people, it's not always obvious whether they're aware of what they are doing. But if their behavior is consistently making you feel bad about yourself, you'll need to distance yourself from this person, or at least accept that you need to be on your guard if the person has to be in your life. 

This change in your behavior won't change them, but it can help minimize the stress of dealing with them. The important thing is that you protect yourself from the emotional abuse you receive when interacting with them:

  • Remind yourself that you're not going to change them, and confronting them may only bring out more wrath without resolving anything.
  • Put distance between yourself and them.
  • Accept that you need to be on your guard if the person has to be in your life.

Co-Workers

If it's a co-worker and the problem is proximity, consider thinking of a good excuse to get your desk moved. For example: "I'm right under an air vent that's bothering me" or "I could get more work done if I wasn't right by the printer."

If the person seeks you out to complain, you might try referring them to a supervisor, and then calmly return to doing your work. You may have to repeat this numerous times before they get the hint.

Family and Friends

With family members and friends, it's likely to be more difficult, since there may be no easy way to remove the toxic person from your life.

If you have a seriously toxic friend, you may need to simply decrease the time you spend with them. If you're worried about offending them, cut back your visits over a period of months so it isn't quite as noticeable (though they may still notice).

When the toxic person is a family member or close friend, it may also be possible to encourage that person to get into therapy, which is often needed to solve the underlying issue behind the toxicity.

Effects of Toxic Relationships

Toxic relationships may be causing real damage to your self-esteem and your overall mental health as well as your physical health.

Constant drama in a relationship can distract us from the other relationships in our lives, leading to a sense of social isolation—which may cause other issues like depression or worsened sleep quality.

You may find that a toxic relationship impacts your ability to engage in self-care. You may sacrifice your normal routine—including personal hygiene, exercise, hobbies, and more—if you're constantly dealing with a tumultuous or toxic person or relationship. This sacrifice can lead to a decline in overall physical and mental health over time.

Toxic Relationships and Mental Health

One study found that toxic relationships can actually worsen anxiety and stress disorders. On the other hand, healthy relationships can actually improve these conditions.

In fact, a 2016 University of Michigan study found that "stress and [negative] relationship quality directly affect the cardiovascular system." In the long-term, all of these factors damage your health and may even lead you to develop unhealthy coping behaviors like drinking or emotional eating.

Coping With Toxic Relationships

While not every toxic relationship can be avoided, especially among co-workers or a family member, they can be managed with healthy boundaries, self-care, and awareness.

If you find yourself in a toxic relationship where you bring out the worst in one another (or simply fail to bring out the best), you may want to work on the relationship and change the dynamic—particularly if there are other benefits to the relationship.

Assertive communication and healthier boundaries are often the keys to bringing out the best in one another—especially if you're both willing to make changes.

Here are a few more steps for coping with a toxic relationship:

  • Talk to the other person about what you're witnessing. Be assertive about your needs and feelings while also taking responsibility for your part in the situation.
  • Discuss what you see as a problem and decide together if you want to change the dynamic to ensure that both of you get your needs met.
  • Re-evaluate your relationship and ask yourself: Is this person causing real damage to my self-esteem and overall mental health?
  • Limit the time you spend with people who bring frustration or unhappiness into your life. If this person is someone you need to interact with, like a family member or co-worker, you may need to limit interactions.
  • If you decide to talk about your concerns, use "I feel" statements when describing your feelings and emotions. Doing so helps keep them from feeling defensive.
  • Realize that some toxic people simply are unwilling to change—especially those who lack self-awareness or social skills.
  • Try to non-confrontationally stand up for yourself when the situation warrants it.

How to Leave a Toxic Relationship

If you've tried setting boundaries and the other person refuses to respect them, it may be time to end the relationship. Though it can be challenging to do so, remember that the most important thing is prioritizing yourself, your needs, and your health.

How you choose to end the relationship depends on your situation and how safe you feel. You could:

  • Tell the person directly that you are choosing to end the relationship and list your reasons.
  • Let the relationship fade away over time, slowly communicating with this person less and less.
  • Discontinue communication immediately (particularly if a relationship is threatening your safety).

If you choose to communicate to the person directly, you can take accountability for your feelings and try to avoid blaming them or getting defensive. Ultimately, you can't control how they react, but you can try to use strategies to avoid escalating the discussion.

If you are leaving a romantic relationship, you may need to develop a support network in order to safely leave. For instance, if you are concerned about how the person will react, you may choose to speak with them in a public place. Let a trusted person know when this will take place and where you will be, so you can plan to meet up with them afterward.

You may need to stay with a family member or friend until you figure out a new living situation, away from your partner.

A Word From Verywell

When dealing with any type of toxic relationship, it's important to focus on your health and well-being. Consequently, if you're dealing with someone who drains you of your energy and happiness, consider removing them from your life, or at least limiting your time spent with them. And, if you're experiencing emotional or physical abuse, get help right away.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.