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No one ever sets out to be in an unhealthy relationship. We all strive for a version of happily ever after, where our needs and those of our partner are met in a shared life we build together. But, for whatever reason, sometimes that doesn't happen. Instead, what we thought was promising turns out to be toxic.
"A toxic relationship is one that adversely impacts a person's health and well-being," says Dr. Kelly Campbell, an associate professor of psychology and human development at California State University, San Bernardino. "Because we spend so much of our time and energy on a romantic partner, these relationships are especially influential on our well-being. When they are going well, we are usually doing well. But when they are not going well, our health and happiness will likely be negatively affected."
Meet the Expert
Dr. Kelly Campbell teaches courses on intimate relationships, personality, parenting, human development, race, and racism. Dr. Campbell also hosts a call-in radio show called “Let’s Talk Relationships“ and serves as the associate director for the Institute for Child Development and Family Relations.
From the outside, it may seem like a toxic relationship is easy to spot. But things get more complicated from the inside since toxicity can often be wrapped up in flashes of romance. If that's the case—and you suspect you're in a toxic relationship—we know it's tough. But it may be time to make some healthy adjustments.
Campbell notes that the term "toxic" may be open to some interpretation. "People can vary in terms of what they consider toxic: What is toxic to one person might be perceived as normal for another," she says. "As such, the defining features can be somewhat subjective." That's why it's important to look at each relationship for its specific traits as much as possible.
"From a researcher's standpoint, there are numerous factors to consider, including communication style, conflict resolution style, dependency level, and degree of reciprocity," she continues.
Nevertheless, there are still universal lines your partner should never cross. These are five red flags to keep in mind:
You feel like you're walking on eggshells. "The person you are with is unpredictable and could get upset at the drop of a hat," Campbell says. "So, you constantly monitor what you say, how you say it, and when you say it to avoid rocking the boat."
You are investing a lot in terms of time, emotions, and money, and getting little in return. "Healthy relationships should not be one-sided," she continues. "Although sometimes people carry the burden for a period of time, such as when a partner is ill, this should not be something that continues indefinitely."
If you notice that your partner is jealous, competitive, and generally unhappy when you are doing well, then that's a huge red flag."
Your partner holds you back. "In a healthy relationship, partners celebrate each other's successes and mold each other into their ideal selves—which is a concept known as the Michelangelo phenomenon," Campbell explains. "If you notice that your partner is jealous, competitive, and generally unhappy when you are doing well, then that's a huge red flag."
You lack independence. "If your partner needs to know where you are at all times, calls or texts constantly while you are apart, goes through your phone or computer, manages and restricts your finances, or engages in other obsessive and controlling behaviors, the relationship is likely toxic," she says.
Your sense of self-worth has dramatically declined since beginning the relationship. "If this is the case, then you should examine the extent to which your partner has contributed to that outcome," Campbell notes. "Do they put you down, criticize you, judge you, disrespect you, or ignore you?"
"If someone finds themselves in a toxic relationship, they should get the help required to change it or get out of it," Campbell says.
It's important, she notes, to start creating a game plan. Depending on the level of seriousness, this can mean confiding in friends and family for advice or seeking a therapist. "A good therapist can help you cope, restore your sense of self-worth, and address safety concerns," Campbell continues. "So, if you have access to therapy, it is highly recommended you get professional help."
If the problem is more involved, Campbell recommends the above, as well as saving money to move out, keeping accurate records of abusive behavior, and obtaining a restraining order. "If you have asked your partner to leave you alone and not contact you, but they continue to call or show up unexpectedly, you have grounds for a restraining order," she says.
Keep these five options in mind when you're ready to make changes.
Talk to your partner about what is bothering you. "If they are willing to see a therapist, then go to counseling together," she says. "However, if you get the necessary help and find the same patterns being repeated over and over again, you should consider ending the relationship."
Tell trusted family members and friends about the situation, including that you plan to leave. "You may need a place to stay when you end the relationship, and people in your social network could help provide that stepping stone," Campbell continues. "At the very least, they can offer social and emotional support."
Work on your self-esteem. "Engage in activities that you value, including exercise and time with loved ones," she notes. "These activities will boost your self-esteem."
Save money. "Try to put away as much money as possible to prepare for the eventual end of the relationship," Campbell suggests.
If your partner has been violent and/or has threatened you, keep records of every instance and consider getting a restraining order against them. "Restraining orders give officers the right to search the person if the order is violated, which is important for keeping the targeted person safe," she says.
After you've left a toxic relationship, Campbell recommends reinforcing boundaries and putting your happiness first. It's also important to remember that this relationship does not define you and that you can build a future where a healthy relationship is possible. These four tips from Campbell can get you started.
Cut off communication with the toxic person. "Continuous exchanges can prolong the healing process," she says. "Sometimes it is impossible to cut off all communication, such as when children are involved. In those cases, keep the communication direct and minimal—discuss what you must and nothing more. After some time has passed, if both people heal and change their ways, a friendship may be possible. But right after a breakup, don't try to be friends, and definitely don't engage in any flirting or sexual activity with the person."
Take the time you need to heal. "Spend time with people who love you and who build you up rather than tear you down," Campbell advises. "You can also spend time with animals since they provide a good model of unconditional love and help alleviate loneliness. They can also get you out into nature and interacting with others."
Pick up some hobbies that you either used to enjoy or have always wanted to try. "Hobbies not only boost self-esteem, but they provide a good place to meet new partners when the time is right," she notes.
Work on yourself before getting into another relationship. "With toxic relationships, a person often loses themself," she continues. "It can take time to get in touch with who they are and to heal from the damage caused by the relationship."