What Is a Toxic Relationship?

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What Is a Toxic Relationship?

A toxic relationship is one that makes you feel unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned, or attacked. 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.

A relationship is toxic when your well-being is threatened in some way—emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.

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. 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

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.

Not all toxic relationships are caused by both parties. Some people are simply toxic to be around—they sap your energy with negative behaviors like constant complaining, critical remarks, and overall negativity. Or, they may argue with others constantly, explain why they know better, or point out the flaws of others—all of which may weigh on you over time.

Sometimes people act this way toward everyone and are unaware of their 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.

But other times, people are deliberately rude and hurtful. In these situations, you may feel singled out and targeted through their mean words and actions. And, no matter what you do, you feel like you're never measuring up or good enough.

If these scenarios are true of your situation, you may want to re-evaluate your relationship with this person. They may be causing real damage to your self-esteem and your overall mental health as well as your physical health.

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.

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 are notoriously bad at admitting 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.

Coping

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.

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.

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.

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