5 Ways To Distinguish A Toxic Relationship

By Joanna Smykowski|Updated July 27, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dawn Brown, LPC

Anyone who’s ever been in a toxic relationship knows how hard it can be. Being in a relationship that’s toxic is an exhausting experience and when you love the person, it’s even harder. It can leave you feeling confused and frustrated. After leaving a relationship that’s toxic, getting back out there can be hard at first. You don’t want to fall back into another toxic one, and you’ll probably need some time to heal.

How Do You Know What Is Toxic?

If that’s the case, you might be wondering what it really means to be in a relationship that is toxic. You probably want to know if you should try to make things work or leave. A qualified counselor, either in-person or via an online counseling service like BetterHelp, can help you make an informed decision about what’s right for you and support you along the way.

Toxic Relationship Definition

A toxic relationship is a relationship that is unhealthy for the people involved. This relationship may have started off great, but somewhere along the lines, things changed. Like many things, toxic relationships can range from mild to severe.

It might be that the two of you purposely get on each other’s nerves and drive each other insane, for example. On the opposite end, it can involve more serious concerns like physical and emotional abuse, lying, cheating, gas-lighting, dislike, and distrust.

Healthy relationships might experience hiccups that need to be overcome occasionally, but they’re generally not this severe and they don’t happen all the time. When it’s a toxic relationship, your partner might not acknowledge the part they are playing to make the relationship difficult. It’s possible that neither of you is willing to change.

Here Are 5 Ways To Distinguish Toxic From Healthy:

1. Emotional Abuse

If you’re with someone who makes you feel bad or guilty all the time, chances are that your relationship is at least a little toxic. When you’re in a relationship, you should support each other emotionally, not tear each other down. It’s important that you can both talk to each other without fear or judgment or harassment if you want to have a healthy relationship.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

Emotional abuse can be made up of many small actions that, over time, make a person feel isolated and degraded. These actions can include verbal abuse, bullying, control, manipulation, shaming, humiliation, lack of communication, jealousy, and more. Partners who are emotionally abusive like to play mind games. If you’re in this kind of relationship you need to be strong and not allow them to control you.

2. Physical Abuse

There’s no room for physical abuse in a healthy relationship. Most couples wouldn’t think about using physical violence against each other during an argument. Physical abuse is not an ordinary part of healthy relationships. In fact, it’s a big warning sign that you’re in a toxic relationship.

Physical abuse is when someone uses their body or another weapon to control you or gain power over you. In these situations, your partner might physically restrain you, hit you, kick you, choke you, etc. to get their way and make you feel inferior. Physical abuse is especially concerning because victims often don’t know where to turn and are too afraid to leave.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

3. Lying/Cheating

Lying and cheating in a relationship can be very hurtful, whether it’s coming from one or both of you. Neither of these things are a part of a healthy relationship. If lying or cheating does happen in a healthy relationship, the normal response is to talk it out and decide if the relationship needs work or if it’s over. Many people wouldn’t be able to stay in a relationship with a liar and a cheater.

In comparison, lying and cheating can become a cycle in toxic relationships. You might know that your partner is lying and cheating, but still, want to be with them or maybe you’re too scared to leave. You might think that you can get your partner to change. While counseling might help if you are both willing to work on things, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes getting out is the best option.

4. Gaslighting

Gas-lighting is like emotional abuse except that the goal is to make the person being gas-lit feel like they are going crazy. In a toxic relationship, a partner gas-lighting their significant other wants to gain control and power or cover up their own wrongdoings by making their partner question reality.

According to The Berkeley Science Review:

“A classic example of psychological gaslighting is the following: Spouse A has an extramarital affair and tries to cover it up. Spouse B finds a suspicious text message in A’s phone and expresses concern to A. A then accuses B of being paranoid, and this pattern repeats every time B raises concerns. Eventually, B begins to question his or her own perceptions.”

Some signs that your partner might be gas-lighting you include: confusing you, playing you hot and cold, denying things that they said or did, lying, manipulating you, ignoring you, making you question yourself, and criticizing you or those who agree with you. Talking to someone you trust about your experience can help you realize that you aren’t crazy and help you find the power to free yourself from this type of relationship.

5. Distrust/Dislike

If you are in a relationship in which you have negative feelings towards each other or there’s no trust, things probably aren’t going very well. Why stay with someone whom you don’t like or trust? If you can’t remember if or when you and your significant other were ever a good match, it sounds like your relationship might have become toxic over time.

Are you always saying mean, hurtful things to each other? Accusing your partner of cheating or being accused of cheating yourself? When you stop nurturing your relationship and grow apart, these things start to happen. You might stay together because you did love each other, but negative feelings like this might not fade or get better. Sometimes they keep getting worse and you’re better on calling it quits.

How Do I Leave If It’s Toxic?

Once you realize it’s toxic, you might be afraid to break it off or leave. If you’re being manipulated, you might not want to leave even though you aren’t happy. The first thing to do is acknowledge that you’re in a toxic relationship and that something needs to change. There are a few things you can do if you’re starting to see that you need to get out of a relationship that’s not healthy:

  • Talk To A Counselor

A counselor can help validate your feelings and guide you to see what the best solution for your happiness is. Counselors are there to listen. They can even provide you with tools and exercises to help you further your healing and deal with difficult emotions more effectively.

  • Check Out Resources In Your Area

There are many local and national services like the National Relationship Abuse Hotline where you can turn if you’re in a toxic relationship and you aren’t sure what to do. The key is to come up with a plan that keeps your safety in mind and involves support to help you heal once the relationship is finally over.

  • Gather Support

Support, whether that’s from friends and family, a support group, or a counselor, is very important when coming back from a relationship that was toxic. Isolation is one of the things that makes a relationship toxic, and so connecting with people again is important once it’s over.

Letting Go

Toxic relationships can be hard to let go of, especially if they weren’t all bad. You might still remember the beginning when things were good. After a big fight, your significant other might try to say and do things to make it up to you. Still, when it comes down to it, relationships usually form a pattern. These events are bound to repeat themselves and your partner’s apologies might be empty.

You might feel broken down and unworthy of anything better, but you deserve much more. You deserve to be in a happy, healthy, trusting relationship with someone who is not abusive. To heal, you might need to take some time alone. Learn to connect with and love yourself again so you can see how much you deserve. Regain your happiness and independence before jumping into another relationship.

Toxic Family Relationships

Intimate, romantic relationships are not the only kinds of toxic relationships out there – it can also be toxic with a family member (or several of them). Whether it’s a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc. there always seems to be at least one family member that gets under our skin, or even worse, becomes downright abusive.

We’re taught that we’re supposed to love our family and stand by them no matter what. We only have one family, after all. However, that doesn’t give family the right to be physically or emotionally abusive to each other. You reserve the right to cut people off if they are toxic to you, especially if they are having a negative impact on your health and happiness. This goes for toxic friendships, too.


Healthy relationships aren’t always happy but there are some things that distinguish them from unhealthy ones. Some of the main characteristics of toxic relationships are emotional abuse, physical abuse, lying and cheating, gas-lighting (in extreme cases), and dislike or distrust. If you see these things in your relationship they should raise a red flag. Ask yourself, is this is the right person for you?

Need help because you are or think you might know someone who is in a toxic relationship? Online counseling can help you find a solution if a toxic relationship is affecting your life in negative ways. If you’re struggling to leave a bad situation, know that there are services out there that want to help. You can come out of a toxic situation and go on to build a happy and healthy relationship when you’re ready.

Online counseling has not only been found to be just as effective as in-person therapy, but 98% of BetterHelp’s users have made significant progress in their mental health journeys, and 94% prefer it to in-person therapy. Specifically, online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches, such as trauma-based CBT, are not only just as effective in treating things like depression and trauma as in-person therapy, but one study comparing 373 other studies of online CBT found that it removes many of the barriers inherently in place with in-person therapy, making it more accessible.

For example, online therapy has the benefit of being accessible anytime, anywhere – even in rural communities where traditional mental health services are either limited or non-existent unless one is willing to commute upwards of half an hour or more to reach a larger town or city. Additionally, online therapy is typically cheaper than in-person therapy, due primarily to the therapists not needing to pay to rent out office or building space and you, the client, not having to pay for transportation.

Continue reading below to find reviews of some of our mental health professionals from people seeking help in navigating toxic relationships and trauma.

“Crystal is the best counselor with understanding, good listener, no judgment, and very patient with me. Since the first session I started with my problems all over the place she helps me find myself get back on my feet, gain back my self-esteem and guide me through to what first priority for myself should be. All practices she gave me help me handle my anxiety and panic attacks, help me handle toxic relationships in the times I need it most. I’m so grateful for that.”

“Tammy has been super helpful and we’ve only had 2 sessions. Somehow, we get a lot done in 30 minutes and her suggestions for helping me with trauma and low self-esteem are so simple that it’s amazing I couldn’t think of them sooner! I appreciate her so much and highly recommend her.”

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