Five Signs That A Relationship Might Be Toxic

Updated October 17, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 might be afraid of falling back into another toxic relationship, and you’ll probably need some time to heal.

Or maybe you’re currently in a relationship that you suspect might be toxic. You may be deciding whether you should try to make things work or whether to 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.

What Makes A Relationship Toxic?

A toxic relationship is one that is unhealthy for the people involved. This relationship may have started off great, but somewhere along the line, things changed. Not all toxic relationships are the same, and not all of them have the same severity, but they are all damaging for the people involved.

Signs that a relationship might be toxic include a high level of conflict and competition in the relationship, especially if one partner seems to be starting fights on purpose. More serious signs include physical or emotional abuse, lying, cheating, gaslighting, dislike, and distrust.

Healthy relationships might experience hiccups that need to be overcome occasionally, but they’re generally not severe, and conflict isn’t a constant backdrop to the relationship. Moreover, in a healthy relationship, the partners are able to work things out like reasonable adults, and each partner is willing to do the work to make the relationship stable, safe, and healthy. In a toxic relationship, your partner might not acknowledge the part they are playing to make the relationship difficult, or they may even want it to be difficult on purpose. It also may be possible that neither of you is willing to change for the other.

Five Signs That A Relationship Is Toxic

  1. Emotional Abuse

If you’re with someone who makes you feel bad or guilty all the time, chances are that your relationship is toxic. In a healthy relationship, the partners support each other emotionally instead of tearing each other down. It’s important to be able to talk to each other without fear of judgment or harassment, and that absence of fear, judgment, and harrassment is a sign of a healthy relationship.

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

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. Emotional abuse might not leave physical scars or marks, but it can be extremely damaging and lead to long-term problems for the person who is being abused.

  1. Physical Abuse

There’s no room for physical abuse in a healthy relationship, and most couples wouldn’t even think about using physical violence against each other during an argument. Physical abuse is not a 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 an object or weapon to control you or gain power over you. In these situations, your partner might physically restrain you, hit you, kick you, choke you, or otherwise harm your body 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 for fear of escalating the violence.

Resources are available to help you if you are experiencing physical abuse from your partner. Agencies such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (link and contact information below) can help you put together a safety plan so that you can get away from the person who is hurting you as safely as possible.

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

  1. Lying And Cheating

Lying and cheating in a relationship can be very hurtful, regardless of whether it’s one partner who is doing those things, or whether both partners are doing them. Neither lying nor cheating is a part of a healthy relationship. If lying or cheating does happen in an otherwise healthy relationship, the partners may be able to talk it out and decide whether the relationship needs work or whether it’s over. Many people find they’re not able to stay in a relationship with a partner who lies or cheats or both.

Lying and cheating can become a cycle in toxic relationships. You might know that your partner is lying and cheating, but you still want to be with them anyway, 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.

  1. Gaslighting

The name “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which a husband plays tricks on his wife in order to make her feel like she’s going insane so that he can control her and cover up his nefarious deeds. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse intended to make the person being gaslit doubt their reality. The point of the gaslighting is for one partner to gain control and power over the other, or to cover up their own wrongdoing, by confusing their partner and making them insecure about their memories of what happened.

Some signs that your partner might be gaslighting you include intentionally confusing you, running 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 are being manipulated and that your reality is being distorted on purpose, and can help you find the power to free yourself from this type of relationship.

  1. Distrust And Dislike

If you are in a relationship in which you have negative feelings towards each other, or in which there’s no trust, things probably aren’t going very well. If you can’t remember when or even if you and your significant liked or trusted one another, it sounds like your relationship might have been toxic from the start, or 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 can start to happen. You might stay together because you did love each other once, but negative feelings like this might not fade or get better, at least not without a lot of work on the part of both partners. Sometimes they keep getting worse, and you might be better off calling it quits.

How Do I Leave If It’s Toxic?

Once you realize your relationship is toxic, you might be afraid to break it off or leave, especially if physical abuse is a factor. If you’re being emotionally abused, you might not want to leave even though you aren’t happy. An important first step is to acknowledge that you’re in a toxic relationship, and that something needs to change. Below 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 is for your happiness. 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 from friends and family, a support group, or a counselor, is very important when making the decision to leave a toxic relationship, or when recovering from having been in one. If your relationship has left you isolated from other people, that can be a sign that the relationship is toxic, so connecting with people again once it’s over can be important to regaining a healthy sense of yourself.

  • 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 have tried to say and do things to make it up to you. Still, when it comes down to it, relationships usually form a pattern. If the partners aren’t able or willing to work together to overcome their issues, conflicts are likely to repeat themselves. This is especially true if abuse is a factor, and your partner’s apologies might be empty.

If you are currently in a toxic relationship, or have recently left one, 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, so that you can learn to connect with and love yourself again. It can be wise to work on regaining your happiness and independence before jumping into another relationship.

Other Kinds Of Toxic Relationships

Intimate relationships are not the only ones that can become toxic. Friendships, workplaces, and family relationships also can have this problem. Family members, friends, bosses, and coworkers can mistreat us or even be downright abusive, just as intimate partners can.

We’re taught that we’re supposed to love our family and friends and stand by them no matter what. However, that doesn’t give friends or family members the right to be physically or emotionally abusive to one other. You may find that it’s necessary to cut off communication with toxic family members if they continally try to hurt you or make you feel small. The same goes for friends. If your workplace is toxic, you may be better off trying to find another job, if that is a possibility available to you.


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, gaslighting, and dislike or distrust. If you see these things in your relationship, you may want to ask yourself whether the relationship is one you should stay in.

Do you need help because you are in a toxic relationship, or think you might know someone who is in one? Online counseling with a service such as BetterHelp 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. It is possible to come out of a toxic situation and go on to build a happy life with healthy relationships, 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.

For example, online therapy has the benefit of being available anytime, anywhere, even in rural communities where traditional in-person mental health services are either limited or nonexistent, or where a lengthy commute to a larger town or city is required. Additionally, online therapy is typically cheaper than in-person therapy because online therapists don’t need to pay rent for office space, and you will have no transportation costs.

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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