How to identify a Toxic Relationship?

Toxic relationships can exist in just about any context, from the playground to the boardroom to the bedroom.

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.

Toxic relationships often involve physical, emotional, and mental abuse. However, not all toxic relationships are abusive. 

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.

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.

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.