Toxic relationships occur when an unhealthy power dynamic develops between two people, and one dominates the other: what they say, do and feel can be controlled or diminished by the person in control. However, knowing how to spot a toxic relationship isn’t inherent, because we often look for visible signs or recorded evidence of behaviour, whereas toxic relationships thrive on subtle manipulation.
Though physical violence may not be part of the pattern, a toxic relationship is bad for your mental and physical health, which is why you cannot let it continue.
You may recognise the feelings described below as something you experience, or something you see in a friend, relative or colleague’s relationship with another person. If so, it’s time to get help and break the cycle.
Signs of a Toxic Relationship
- You have to monitor your thoughts, words and actions around this person, because there are lots of things that make them angry or upset.
- Conversations revolve around them, not you, and when you try to change the subject it always reverts back to their narrative.
- Seeing them or hearing from them leaves you feeling physically and/or mentally drained.
- They aren’t happy for you when something goes right in your life.
- You stay in contact in the hope they will give you attention or approval.
- Problems in the relationship are blamed on you.
- They encourage bad behaviour you wouldn’t contemplate otherwise, such as stealing, abusing drugs or alcohol, or bullying.
- You don’t feel safe around them, or your friends and family don’t feel safe around them.
- They have become co-dependent, relying on you for constant emotional and practical support, and they fear being abandoned by you.
- Your relationships with other people have suffered because this one always takes priority.
Can You Work Through a Toxic Relationship?
If both parties are committed to improve the relationship, and it hasn’t become dangerous or threatening, you could potentially work through some of your issues together – for example, if a difficult colleague or mother-in-law sees the error of their ways. The solution will usually involve a combination of talking therapy, interventions from mutual friends, setting ground rules, and a lot of patience.
But in most cases, the person being toxic may not even want to change their behaviour and will see anyone but themselves as the problem. The way they act will have developed over years or decades and may never have been called out before – or if it was, the people who stood up to them were punished. Because of this, you must remember it isn’t up to you to ‘fix’ this relationship: if both parties can’t be mature about the issues at hand, it’s safer to walk away, even if that person is a blood relative, the love of your life, or a fixture in your dream job. You may also benefit from CBT to come to terms with the after-effects of that relationship, as it is a positive step to leave but a huge shift in your mindset. Don’t be afraid to want something better and to take action. Your health and happiness must come first.
Written by guest contributor Polly Allen for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).