A Therapist Explains How to Know You're in a Toxic Relationship

Updated 01/27/17
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It started out the way most modern romances do: She swiped right, they matched, and hours of witty banter ensued. During the first six months, I'd never seen her as happy and at ease as when she was with him, but slowly and surely that started to change. It began with occasional but hostile arguments that hinted at deep-rooted jealousy and reached a fever pitch when she started to sever ties with her closest friends. 

After a year of watching my friend weather the emotional blows of a toxic relationship, I'll admit the signs aren't always clear, but according to Jeremy Bergen, MS, LCPC, counselor, and co-owner of Bergen Counseling Center, there are key things to watch out for. "Occasional conflict is normal and is even healthy in relationships, but if you find yourself feeling angry, resentful, anxious, sad, or in fear of your partner, this needs to be addressed," he says. 

Unsure where you and your S.O. stand? Ask yourself these six questions to find out if it's time to take a break. 

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Do Your Family and Friends Approve of Your S.O.?

It's rare that every friend and family member will share the same opinion about your S.O., but Bergen says it's important to listen to those you trust—especially if they don't approve. "They often sense toxicity before you do since they aren't wearing the rose-colored glasses of infatuation," he says. 

If you're unsure whether to heed your friends' advice, Bergen says there's a telltale giveaway that their opinion is correct: "One large sign of toxicity in relationships is if your partner attempts to create distance or limit contact between you and your friends and family." It's normal for your habits and friendship groups to shift, but if your partner encourages you to stay away from close friends, it could be an indication of an unhealthy relationship. 

Do You Use Sex to Resolve Conflicts?

Sex is a crucial part of any strong relationship, but Bergen says it's important to reflect on when you and your S.O. are intimate and why. "Having sex is not a long-term method of conflict resolution. Problems in the relationship that disappear in the bedroom often resurface in the living room," he notes. 

Do You Have Outside Interests?

It's normal to want to spend every moment together during the early phases of your relationship, but it's also crucial that you and your S.O. foster time apart. Why? "It puts too much strain on the relationship," Bergen says. "Definitely still enjoy each other's company, but make sure there are other things you like to do." Make an effort to pursue activities you were interested in before you met—it'll encourage you to have a greater self-awareness about who you are as an individual and enrich the time you do spend together. 

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Do You Feel Constantly Criticized?

Therapists John and Julie Gottman, both of whom have a Ph.D., interviewed and observed hundreds of couples to find out what behavior often foreshadows a breakup. According to their research, criticism is one of the top predictors that a relationship won't last. 

It's important to note that there's a difference between complaining and criticizing. If your partner attacks who you are, rather than your actions, it could be a sign that they have a destructive communication style. 

"Sometimes taking a break to cool down from the heat of the moment can help you both get to a place where you can rationally discuss your feelings and the reason there's so much frustration," Bergen says. "Seeking professional counseling or taking a break from the relationship can also be healthy options, depending on your situation."

Is Jealousy a Frequent Cause of Conflict?

If jealousy has a constant presence in your relationship and is often the root cause of arguments, Bergen says that's a red flag. While it's normal in small doses, jealousy becomes an issue when one person starts to prevent the other from seeing their friends or pursuing activities. 

If you've noticed that jealousy is becoming a problem, he recommends establishing a code of trust with your S.O. "It can be helpful to make a decision to trust each other unless either of you finds a reason to doubt," he says. "It is also good to clearly define boundaries—for example, letting your partner know if it's not okay for them to go through your phone."

Does the Relationship Bring You More Stress Than Happiness?

It can be tough to gain clarity in the midst of a difficult relationship, but there's one baseline question that's surprisingly illuminating: Does my relationship bring me more stress than happiness? If that answer is yes, it might be time to seek help.

"How often you have these feelings is also important," Bergen says. "If the bad days significantly outweigh the good days, then it's time to reevaluate the health of your relationship. Talk with your significant other about what is making you so unfulfilled, or go to couples counseling to get a professional's help."

If you're concerned about a potentially harmful or abusive relationship, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1-800-799-7233. 

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