Five Signs To Look For In A Toxic Relationship

Medically reviewed by Dr. Jerry Crimmins, PsyD, LP
Updated March 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Being in a toxic relationship can be harmful and exhausting, and it can make you feel confused and frustrated, impacting your physical health and well-being. Not all toxic relationships are the same, and not all have the same severity, but they can all be damaging for the people involved. 

If you are in a relationship that you suspect might be toxic, it may be helpful to consider the differences between healthy relationships vs. toxic ones. This article explores health and unhealthy relationships, common toxic behaviors, warning signs, and how to set healthy boundaries.

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What is considered a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is one that is unhealthy for the people involved, and it may have a few glaring hints you may have missed. The relationship may have started as positive and healthy, but somewhere along the line, things shifted, and it became emotionally and/or physically harmful to one or both partners. Healthy relationships might experience occasional hiccups, but they are generally not severe, and conflict isn’t a constant backdrop to the relationship. In a healthy relationship, the partners are able to work through disagreements in a reasonable way, and each partner is willing to do the work to make the relationship stable, safe, and healthy. 

By contrast, in a toxic relationship, there might be a high level of conflict and competition, especially when one partner starts fights on purpose. No matter how many little fights there may be, there is always the chance of them spiraling into something worse.

Serious signs that a relationship might be toxic include physical or emotional abuse, lying, cheating, gaslighting, dislike, and distrust. Understanding that this is just not the smart thing to be engaged in is a good place to start.

About healthy relationships 

Healthy relationships are built on open and honest communication, where both parties feel heard and understood. This is true in all types of intimate relationships, whether it’s a romantic relationship or a relationship with a family member. 

Mutual respect and support are key behavior patterns exhibited in these types of relationships. They foster an environment where individuals can grow, engage in self-care, safeguard their own feelings, and pursue their goals while maintaining a strong connection. 

Trust forms the foundation of these relationships, allowing for vulnerability and emotional intimacy to thrive, creating a harmonious and fulfilling partnership. Healthy relationships can improve your self-esteem and provide support for mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. 

When relationship issues arise in healthy relationships, they’re not solved with unhealthy actions or bad behavior. Instead, partners might consult a relationship therapist or have a healthy discussion. 

This isn’t to say that fights don’t happen in healthy relationships, but those fights do not include abusive and controlling behavior like physical violence, threats, and breaking down the other partner’s self-esteem.

Five signs 

1. Emotional abuse

If your partner makes you feel bad or guilty all the time, that could be a toxic sign. Healthy relationships avoid inflicting emotional damage. Partners should support each other emotionally rather than tearing each other down; they are able to talk to each other without fear of judgment or harassment. You should be able to enjoy your own hobbies and feel supported doing so, even if your partner does not enjoy them quite as much as you do. 

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Emotional abuse can be made up of many small actions that, over time, make a person feel isolated and degraded. These actions can include hiding seemingly innocuous things. There are seven key things to watch out for, including verbal abuse, bullying, control, emotional manipulation, shaming, lack of communication, and jealousy. Emotional abuse might not leave physical scars or marks, but it can create emotional instability, be extremely damaging, and lead to long-term problems for the person who is being abused.

2. Physical abuse

Physical abuse is not a part of healthy relationships; it is a serious sign of 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. 

If you are experiencing physical abuse from your partner, resources are available to help you. Agencies such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (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.

3. Lying or cheating

Lying or cheating in a relationship can be very hurtful. Neither lying nor cheating is a frequent part of a healthy relationship. Lying and cheating can often become a cycle without meaningful change. You might know that your partner is lying or cheating, but those behaviors continue despite confronting your partner, or you may be afraid to speak up or leave. 

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4. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse intended to make the person being gaslit doubt their reality. The aim of 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 doubt their memories. Toxic people may also use this method to stop a partner from engaging in their own solo activities. 

Some signs that your partner might be gaslighting you include intentionally confusing you, running hot and cold, including too many details, 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. If a person completely ices your viewpoint, this may be a sign of gaslighting.

5. Distrust and dislike

If you and your partner are often saying mean, hurtful things to each other or often accusing each other of cheating, these can be signs of a toxic relationship. If this happens often, it may feel totally normal even if it is unhealthy. If you can’t remember when or even if you and your significant liked or trusted one another, your relationship might have been toxic from the start, or it might have become toxic over time. Accepting this fact can help you avoid unnecessary pain and live with the truth of your relationship.

How to leave a toxic relationship

Leaving any relationship can be challenging, but often, leaving a bad relationship comes with additional hurdles—you may be afraid to leave, or you may have a hard time communicating with your partner, for example. If you are in a bad relationship and you want to leave, below are a few options to consider to help you through the process:

Melissa Macgown, LMFT
Melissa listens to you and gives you practical advice and suggestions to take therapy into your everyday life. I have been working with her for about a year, and my confidence has increased, she’s helped me with boundaries for toxic relationships and has helped me find self-love."

1. Check out resources in your area

Local and national services like the National Domestic Violence Hotline can provide support if you are in a hurtful relationship and need help. Reaching out for assistance can be challenging, but there are many resources out there when you are ready.

2. Gather support

Gathering support, whether from friends and family, a support group, or a counselor, is important when making the decision to leave a bad relationship, or when recovering from having been in one. If your relationship has left you isolated from other people, reconnecting with people you love may be especially important in helping you to recover from the harm caused by the relationship. This is no minor difference, as family and friends are a big part of recovery for many individuals.

3. Seek help through therapy

Connecting with a counselor or family therapist may help if you are navigating an unhealthy relationship. They may provide you with tools and skills to help you further your healing and deal with difficult emotions more effectively.

A toxic relationship can have deeply negative effects, even leading to relationship trauma in some cases of abuse. To heal from such harm, online therapy may be an effective option to consider, as there is significant evidence showing that online therapy can help individuals dealing with trauma. For instance, one study found that online therapy “proved to be a viable treatment alternative for PTSD with large effect sizes and sustained treatment effects.”


Some of the main characteristics of toxic relationships include emotional bitterness, abuse, physical abuse, lying and cheating, gaslighting, and dislike or distrust. The vast majority of individuals who experience unhealthy relationship patterns could potentially benefit from online therapy.

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

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