Trigger warning: This article contains themes of abuse.
If spending time with your partner feels like it drains, upsets or hurts you, you might be in a toxic relationship. However, it's not always that easy to tell when you're in a relationship that's toxic versus one that's going through a rough patch — especially if you're in love and have rose tinted vision. We talked to two relationship experts about how to identify a toxic relationship, and what to do if you’re in one.
Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the co-author of Eight Dates: Essential Conversations For A Lifetime Of Love, defines a toxic relationship as “one that makes you feel worse about yourself.” She adds, “Not only that, but it may also be one that evokes fear in you, for either yourself or your children.”
If a relationship is abusive — verbally, emotionally, or physically — then it’s toxic, Dr. Gottman says, but there are also relationships that are toxic but not abusive. She gives two examples: one in which a partner has a sex addiction, repeatedly cheats on their partner, and is unwilling to get help and one in which a partner has a drug addiction and is spending all the couple’s shared savings, putting them into bankruptcy. “Those are toxic relationships, but they’re not necessarily abusive,” she explains.
Andrea Syrtash, relationship expert and author of He’s Just Not Your Type (And That’s A Good Thing): How To Find Love Where You Least Expect It, has a similar definition. She says a toxic relationship is “one that feels unstable, draining and/or constantly combative (emotionally and in some cases, physically).” She adds, “Relationships should generally bring out our best, but a toxic relationship does the opposite. People tend to undermine each other in a toxic relationship.”
If you think you might be in a toxic relationship, consider these questions:
1. Are you afraid of your partner?
This fear can be present without physical violence. Dr. Gottman reminds us that abuse may not be physical, but can also appear as “expressions of contempt that you’re hearing from the partner, such that it makes you feel horribly shamed, it makes you want to shrink into nothing.”
2. Is your partner willing to change?
If your partner doesn't seem to care about your unhappiness or complaints, and won't put in the effort to meet your needs, Dr. Gottman says, “that’s not good.” Relationships require compromise and effort on both sides.
3. How has this relationship affected your self-esteem?
4. How do you feel when you’re around your partner?
This is a good general question to ask, says Syrtash. “If you realize you’re often on the defense or arguing, this may be the first clue,” she explains. “My general rule is if you’re questioning if something isn’t healthy or right, you probably already know the answer to that. It’s important for people to listen to their instincts.”
Both Syrtash and Dr. Gottman say that toxic relationships can sometimes become healthy again. “Depending on what makes a relationship toxic or unhealthy, it’s possible to work together (usually with a trained therapist) to improve it,” Syrtash says. “However, in most cases, a toxic dynamic is hard to build from. Trust and respect are the foundation of a good relationship, and in a toxic one, these are often missing.”
Dr. Gottman says that she and her husband Dr. John Gottman have treated many people in toxic relationships, and she’s found that “if people are willing to make changes, I definitely think that some toxic relationships can be changed.” However, she adds that in relationships with characterological domestic violence — meaning that one partner causes serious harm to the other, “takes absolutely no responsibility for the violence, and typically blames the victim for it” — she would not advise trying to mend the relationship. In these cases, she says, “the only thing the victim can do is get the heck out of Dodge and find safety for herself.”
This article was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.