The relationships we have in life – whether with friends, family, partners, or colleagues – can have a huge impact on our happiness and quality of life.
Of course, we all desire relationships that lift us up and make us feel good, but unfortunately, negative ones can sometimes creep in. And if someone leaves you feeling constantly anxious, unhappy, controlled, or guilty, it could be a sign of a toxic relationship.
Here, we’ll take a look at exactly what a toxic relationship is, what the warning signs are, and offer some tips to cope. We hope you find it useful.
What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic person is someone who’s subtly or outwardly manipulative, needy, controlling, and self-centred. A relationship with a toxic person is often defined by behaviours that leave the other person feeling unhappy, unsupported, disrespected, and/or controlled.
Toxic behaviour commonly stems from a number of underlying issues such as low self-esteem, childhood trauma, and/or mental health conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). However, even though there’s often a reason behind toxic behaviour, this doesn’t make it any less difficult to deal with.
Toxic relationships can occur in a wide range of contexts, including at work, between neighbours, and within families, friendships, or romantic relationships.
7 common signs of a toxic relationship
Toxic characteristics can look different depending on the context of the relationship. And identifying a toxic person isn’t always straightforward, because their behaviours may be subtle. In many cases, people may find that they have a person in their life who causes repeated anxiety, stress, and confusion, but they can’t quite put their finger on why.
That being said, while there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of a toxic person, there are a few common toxic traits and signs to look out for.
We’ll cover some of these below…
1. Lack of healthy communication
A lack of healthy communication in toxic relationships can take many forms. But generally speaking, instead of showing kindness and respect towards each other, toxic relationships are often fuelled with criticism, sarcasm, and contempt.
The person might make sly remarks to your face or behind your back, become defensive if you try to talk to them about anything, spiral the most trivial things into an argument, refuse to apologise, and in some cases, become aggressive.
If communication becomes especially bad, some people may even find themselves wanting to dodge calls or be dishonest just to avoid inevitable hostility and disagreements.
Over time, a lack of healthy communication can also lead to grudges and a sense of resentment.
2. You feel judged, unsupported, and disrespected
Toxic relationships rarely leave room for people to feel comfortable enough to completely be themselves due to the fear of being judged.
For example, they might never show up for you, make you feel silly or embarrassed for feeling a certain way, or only appear if they need something.
Over time, this can also lead people to feel unsupported, disrespected, and that their needs and interests don’t matter.
3. They’re manipulative and/or controlling
Constantly wanting to know where you are and becoming annoyed if you don’t immediately answer the phone are some tell-tale signs of controlling (and toxic) behaviour.
These behaviours may stem from insecurity or jealousy, but they can also suggest a desire to control others – something which can easily make a relationship toxic. A healthy relationship should be about equals and not one person controlling or dominating the relationship.
Controlling behaviour can also be closely linked with manipulation. For example, someone making you feel guilty for not being able to constantly communicate or for going out with your friends and disguising it in a way that makes you feel sorry for them.
In some cases, controlling and manipulative behaviour can also cause a toxic relationship to become codependent; one where a person relies too much on another.
4. You feel constantly stressed or on edge
Due to fear of upsetting the other person and causing an issue, it’s not unusual for people in toxic relationships to feel constantly on edge.
Ordinary life challenges such as illness, losing a job, or worrying about money can naturally create some level of stress and tension in any relationship. However, if you find that you’re constantly stressed or walking on eggshells even without external factors, this is a key sign that something may be off.
5. They get easily jealous
While jealousy is a perfectly normal emotion to feel from time to time, when it leads to suspicion and mistrust, or causes you to feel negative about another’s success, it can quickly turn toxic.
Jealousy and envy can easily lead to other toxic traits too, such as being critical, discouraging, and unsupportive.
6. Your self-esteem has taken a hit
Toxic relationships rarely leave people feeling good about themselves. This is because toxic behaviours such as gaslighting, backhanded compliments, and/or bullying can have a significant impact on self-esteem.
For example, someone might gaslight you in a way that makes you question your own memory, gnaw away at your confidence with negative comments about how you look, or invalidate your feelings and make you afraid to speak up.
7. Your wants, needs, and self-care have taken a back seat
It’s not unusual for a person’s wants and needs to take a back seat when they have a toxic person in their life.
For example, people may withdraw from hobbies or activities they once loved, neglect their health or hygiene, and sacrifice their free time. This can be because they simply don’t have the energy to practise self-care because all of their focus is on the other person, or because the toxic person disapproves of them doing so.
Tips for coping with toxic people
If you’re currently struggling with toxic people in your life, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone and there are a number of ways to help lessen the impact other people’s behaviours have on your life and wellbeing.
We’ll cover some ideas below…
Set clear boundaries and stick to them
Setting clear boundaries and putting yourself first is often one of the best things you can do when dealing with toxic people.
Remember, while it may feel challenging to ignore the guilt of refusing them – particularly at the beginning – it’ll get easier with time.
If you’ve experienced aggression at the hands of a toxic person before, you may also feel hesitant to set boundaries due to fear of how they’ll react – particularly if they’re prone to using angry outbursts to manipulate the outcome of situations. If this is the case, you might like to consider explaining your boundaries over the phone, or with another person around.
Boundaries to consider setting include reserving some ‘me time’ for yourself – whether to simply relax or take part in hobbies and activities that bring you joy.
If setting boundaries is something you struggle with, you might like to have a read of our article; The power of saying no – 8 ways to say no and why it’s important.
If possible, talk to them about how they make you feel
Sometimes, toxic people may be unaware of their behaviour and how it impacts other people.
If this is the case, you might like to consider sitting down and talking to them calmly about how they’re making you feel. For example, you could say something like: “Trust is really important to me, so if you lie to me again I won’t be able to continue this relationship”, or “It makes me feel uncomfortable when you say unkind things about my friends and I don’t want to be part of those conversations.”
Alternatively, if the person has an underlying personality disorder or other mental health condition that makes clear communication challenging, it may be more helpful to encourage them to talk to a health professional.
Seek professional help if their behaviour has led to abuse, anxiety or depression.
Remember, it’s not your fault
Toxic behaviour can often leave you feeling guilty or like you’ve done something wrong.
For this reason, when dealing with toxic people, the most important thing to remember is that it has nothing to do with you and is only the result of their own issues.
If you’re still struggling, you can find some more tips in Hey Sigmund’s 16 practical and powerful ways to deal with toxic people. Alternatively, if a toxic relationship has resulted in violence or abuse, our article, Domestic abuse – where to turn for help and support, has some important guidance and resources.
It can be difficult to deal with toxic people, particularly when their behaviours leave you feeling stressed, anxious, on edge, or down.
However, if you’re struggling it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not alone. And, whether it’s creating distance, setting clear boundaries, or avoiding the temptation to fix things, there are things that can help you cope with toxic people.
Remember, these actions may feel tricky at the beginning but often become easier with practise. Just remember to always be kind to yourself and take things one step at a time.