How To Tell You’re In Toxic Love

By: Michael Arangua

Updated October 18, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Sonya Bruner


No relationship is perfect. However, sometimes relationships are toxic. They are toxic to the mind, the body and the soul. The key to forming healthy, lasting relationships is to be able to recognize when a relationship has normal problems, and when a relationship is actually toxic.

Toxic relationships can have detrimental effects on your overall health and happiness. Mental health can seriously suffer as a result of toxic love. People who are consistently in the midst of toxic situations have an overall higher morbidity and mortality rate.

The first step in having a healthy relationship is to know the warning signs of when toxic love is in play. The following guide will walk you through the different situations in which toxic love is commonly present, how to recognize when love is toxic with abuse, and daily warning signs that toxic love is at work in your relationship. Whether you are looking for answers to improve your relationship or potentially leave it, arm yourself with knowledge and power over your own decisions.

Where Toxic Love Exists

Toxic love can exist in nearly any situation in which you have formed a relationship or bond with another. Some people find that they have toxic love from their parents or siblings. Of course, the most common situation in which people find themselves in toxic love is in personal relationships such as long-term friendships and romantic relationships.

Toxic Love From Parents

The first relationships we have in life are with our parents. They are the first to form bonds, the first to show what love is. As children, people often don't have anyone else to look to for meaning of what it is to be loved. As they grow, children come to expect from love what their parents have given them. And, sometimes, as adults, they learn that the love they have been given was toxic.

Studies have shown that toxic relationships with parents ultimately lead to toxic relationships as an adult. Because you grow up with this behavior and associate it with love, you expect that behavior from anyone who says that they love you. This can be detrimental to your mental and physical health.

When you are a child, you have no real power or control over the relationship with your parents. But as an adult, you can and should examine those parental relationships carefully. As an adult, you can put an end to the toxicity and form healthier bonds with others. However, it often takes some work in therapy to recover from early toxic relationships with caregivers.

Some signs of have toxic love by parents: when nothing you do is ever good enough; when your parents use manipulation to get their way; when you find yourself wondering what you have to do to keep their love; when you do whatever they ask because you are afraid of the consequences, even as an adult.


It is human nature to love your parents. This can make it very difficult to cut toxic parents from your life completely. You can work to change the nature of the relationship, and limit time spent with your parents to become a healthier person.

Toxic Love From Siblings

Siblings are your first friends, your first playmates. The bonds between siblings are usually extremely strong, especially if they are close in age. However, the relationship between siblings can be equally as toxic as relationships with parents. Siblings that use emotional blackmailing and guilt trips to get what they want from you are engaging in toxic behaviors.

You may not want to cut your siblings with toxic behaviors out of your life, but you can limit the time you spend with them. You can take control of your decisions and set healthy boundaries.

Toxic Love From Romantic Partners

The most common toxic relationship that adults seek to remedy is with romantic partners. It is also the most difficult to see when you are in the depths of the relationship. Especially if you have had toxic relationships in other areas of your life, it can be difficult to see past the love you feel to the truth of the nature of the relationship.

Many toxic romantic relationships are extremely passionate. There are definite lows, but the highs can be so intense that you feel you simply cannot live without the other person. Because of these highs, you might continue to deal with the mighty lows. Your love, and the love you feel you receive for the other person during those highs, sustains you when things are not going well.

The problem with this is that eventually, the toxicity of the relationship will worsen. As the toxic behaviors become the norm, the highs can become fewer and farther between. Still, you will remember that intense love that you shared and be reluctant to let it go. You might also fear being alone, or you may fear what will happen to the other person if you leave.

There are many reasons that people stay in toxic romantic relationships, but the most common reason is that they simply don't see how bad things are. They either don't recognize that the behaviors are toxic to their well-being, or they do recognize the poor behavior but feel that it can be overcome. In most cases, neither is true.

Recognizing Abuse

The most obvious sign of a toxic relationship is abuse. It is a no-brainer to spot physical abuse. Mental and emotional abuse are more deceiving. It can be difficult to know if you are in the midst of emotional or mental abuse because often it begins in a very subtle way. Sometimes you may recognize that behavior from your loved one is negative, but not recognize it for the abuse that it is. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–SAFE(7233).

The very definition of abuse from the Merriam-Webster dictionary is to "treat a person with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly." Recognizing the difference between simple bad behavior and cruelty can be challenging when you are in the midst of it.

Mental and emotional abuse is often gradual. A relationship will begin with all roses and sunshine. Every day will seem happy and full of love. Often the feelings are extremely intense, with passions running very high. Slowly the abuser will begin wearing down your defenses, until eventually, you may find that you are constantly in fear that you will elicit a negative reaction.

There are many different signs of mental and emotional abuse in toxic relationships. One of the biggest signs of abuse is controlling behavior. When your partner seeks to make your decisions for you or controls your actions frequently, it can be a sign of toxic love.

Control can be outright or subtle. Your partner may outright tell you what to do, with belittling comments and disrespect being the consequence of not obeying. Or, they could allow you to believe you are making your own decisions, while in reality, they are manipulating your behavior by letting you know what does and does not please them. When they are not pleased, they are unreasonably angry and lash out.

They may also use emotional blackmail to get you to do what they want, such as telling you how much they will be hurt or upset if you don't do as they ask. A sure sign that you are in a toxic relationship is if your partner is constantly telling you that they could leave at any time. Threats of leaving the relationship are blackmail and a way to control your behavior to their liking.

Another symptom of mental and emotional abuse is being told that nothing you do is right. If you are constantly being told that you are doing something wrong, or if you are constantly being belittled, this can be as cruel and damaging as physical abuse. As such behavior continues over time, your self-esteem can greatly suffer. This can lead to depression and severe anxiety.

Examining Your Feelings

Examining your feelings about yourself and your relationship can be a gateway to recognizing toxic love. Think about how you felt about yourself before the relationship. Did you love yourself? Were you happy with your decisions? Were you independent? Were you a free spirit?

Now, think about how you feel about yourself currently. Do you have the feeling that you are not good enough? Do you think little of yourself? Are you afraid to make your own decisions? Have you toned down or stopped behavior that comes naturally to you to please your partner? Are you sad more often than you are happy?

Also, examine your feelings about the relationship. More than likely you greatly love the person you are with. You make excuses for them to your friends and family, trying to convince everyone that you see something in them that others do not. You truly love this person. But do they make you happy? How often do they show their love for you in real tangible or intangible ways? Are you constantly in fear that you will displease your partner? These are all signs that you are in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Daily Signs of Toxic Love

Toxic relationships don't happen overnight, but once the relationship reaches a truly unreasonable level, the signs are everywhere, in everything that you do throughout the day; and, in fact, the most recognizable warning sign that you’re in a toxic relationship is chronic unhappiness. Here are some of the other signs you should be looking for:


  • Your partner withholds affection for perceived faults in behavior.
  • When you express concern, show you are upset, or talk about disappointments, your partner turns the tables and blames you for the situation.
  • Your partner makes all of the decisions, big or small, from what to eat for dinner to where you will go on vacation.
  • When you make a decision that your partner doesn't like, they lash out at you in anger and belittle you.
  • Your partner finds ways to get out of social engagements and uses emotional blackmail to keep you from going to engagements without them.
  • When you are on the phone with a friend or family member, your partner stops what they are doing to listen to the conversation, questioning you about the other side of the conversation after the call. Your partner may also hear your conversation and start coaching you on your responses to the other person.
  • Your partner tells you more than once per day about a fault that you have that displeases them.
  • You are expected to give your all to activities and time spent together, but you get nothing in return.
  • You are not permitted to walk away during an argument.
  • Your partner yells during small disagreements or out of the blue.
  • Your partner throws or hits things.
  • When you go somewhere without your partner, you are accused of misdeeds or made to feel guilty for not taking them along.
  • You are expected to check in a while at work, and if you don't, you are lectured or yelled at for it when you return home.

If any of these things sound familiar to you, you are likely in a toxic relationship. While no one is perfect, and everyone has their moments, having these things happen throughout the day or almost on a daily basis is a clear sign that you are dealing with a toxic love.

Dealing With Toxic Love

When you find yourself in a toxic relationship, you have three options available to you. You can accept it for what it is and try not to be stressed out by trying to change the situation. You can attempt to change the nature of the relationship by setting clear boundaries for yourself and sticking to them. You can leave the relationship and cut the toxic person from your life.

For your mental and physical health, the best option you can take is to either change the nature of the relationship or leave it behind. Doing nothing will only result in more heartache and ill health. If you truly want to make the relationship work, you will need to set clear boundaries and make them known to your partner. You will then have to stick to your guns and not allow their behavior to change or dictate your own.

Individual therapy can be beneficial to people who are trying to leave a toxic relationship. In many cases, the toxic person will be unable to change. They either do not want to change, or they just don't care about how you feel. When this happens, sometimes the best thing you can do is leave the relationship. This is never an easy thing to do. You may be afraid to be alone, or wonder how you will get by without your partner.

Online Therapy Can Help

There is a growing amount of evidence pointing to online therapy as an effective way of helping couples and individuals who are in strained relationships. In a broad-based study published by the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, researchers examined the effectiveness of online counseling for couples with a distressed relationship. The study found that online resources could improve the functioning of relationships, and also reduce mental health symptoms in the individuals in the relationship. Researchers specifically noted that there is an increase in communication and relationship satisfaction with online therapy, along with a significant decrease in the presence of physical and psychological aggression. 

As outlined above, online couples counseling is an option if you feel as though your relationship has potentially toxic qualities. If you are trying to make your relationship work, online therapy allows you to connect with a therapist remotely. The mental health professionals at BetterHelp can help you better address difficult relationships. Read below for reviews of counselors, from those who have experienced similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Mary helped me to overcome my terrible childhood which still affected me. She helped me trust my judgement, build confidence and gave me the knowledge to identify toxic people before they affect my life, I am forever grateful for that.”

“Amy has been there for me whenever I needed an unbiased ear to talk to and understand me. She is great at supplying additional articles and quotes and ways of thinking about things. I highly recommend her. She has helped me end toxic cycles and was patient the entire time with me.” 


Personal therapy is a great way to work through the emotional and mental damage that has been done during a toxic relationship. A good therapist can help you set boundaries for yourself and learn to stick to them. They can help you discover the strength you need to leave the relationship behind, and help you recover from the abuse. If in doubt about whether or not the relationship is, in fact, toxic, a therapist can help you examine the relationship and your feelings so that you can make the right choice.

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