July 1, 2024

Recognizing and Escaping Toxic Relationships

Discover how you can recognize and escape toxic relationships, empowering yourself to find the happiness and peace you deserve.

toxic relationships

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Susana Spiegel

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Kirsten Andersen

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Last Update on July 1, 2024

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Are you constantly feeling like you have to hide your true thoughts and feelings in your relationship?

Do you feel drained, anxious, or unhappy, giving up things that matter the most to you to keep the other person happy?

You’re not alone.

Relationships should make you feel loved and supported, but sometimes they turn toxic, chipping away at your self-esteem and well-being.

Recognizing the signs of a toxic relationship is the first step toward reclaiming your happiness.

Let’s explore the characteristics of toxic relationships and how you can break free from their cycle.

What is a Toxic Relationship?

When you’re in a toxic relationship, it feels like you’re trapped in a cycle of pain and chaos.

It’s a situation where one or both people are consistently acting in ways that tear down the other person rather than building them up.

One or both of you may belittle each other’s feelings, gaslight one another into doubting one’s perceptions, or make you feel like you’re never good enough.

This can also make you feel like you’re constantly giving without receiving the same love and care in return.

It’s a heart-wrenching experience that no one deserves to go through, but sadly, many people find themselves stuck in these damaging patterns, often struggling to break free from the toxicity that has spread into every part of their lives.

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Common Types of Toxic Relationships

Though a lot of the time, this kind of toxicity pertains to romantic relationships, you must recognize toxic relationships aren’t limited to romantic relationships; they can also be in friendships, family relationships, or even with co-workers.

It doesn’t matter what kind of relationship it is; toxic behaviors are never acceptable, and it’s important to put your well-being first.

When determining if you are in a toxic romantic relationship with your partner, you need to ask yourself if one or both of you are exhibiting harmful behaviors. If you are, it’s important to know the importance of determining this because of the emotional or physical harm it can be causing you or your partner. Some of the signs to look out for are possessiveness, jealousy, manipulation, and a lack of trust between you and your partner. You may even find that you are in a severely toxic romantic relationship that has escalated to domestic violence, where your partner uses threats or physical force to control and intimidate you.1

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Signs Your In a Toxic Relationship

Emotional & Psychological Signs

When you’re in a toxic relationship, you may experience different emotional and psychological symptoms and not even be aware you’re experiencing this.

Some of the symptoms you are likely experiencing might be things like feeling drained or exhausted after being around or talking to your partner.

You probably can relate this to feeling like you had the energy sucked right out of you, feeling like you have nothing left to give.

Another thing you’ve probably noticed is that you feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells in fear of what your partner might say or do.

Living in fear like this can make you so afraid that you constantly second guess yourself, where then likely you tell yourself it’s safer not to speak, which eventually leads you to lose sight of who you truly are.

When losing sight of who you are, you then start to feel unworthy, unloved or doubt your self-worth due to the constantly being told or made to feel like you aren’t worth it.

While it’s definitely concerning if you notice a red flag, it’s important to keep an eye out for a pattern of multiple signs that keep popping up and pointing to an unhealthy situation. Just because you have an occasional disagreement or misunderstanding doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is toxic. What really defines a toxic relationship is when unhealthy behaviors and characteristics are consistently present over time.

Absolutely. Signs of toxicity can lurk beneath the surface, even in relationships that seem picture-perfect to everyone else. Some people are really good at hiding abusive behaviors from the outside world or might try to convince you that certain unhealthy things are totally normal. Trust your gut – if something feels off or makes you uncomfortable, don’t brush it aside just because your partner or others tell you it’s no big deal.

While there are definitely some common threads and red flags that tend to show up in toxic relationships, every situation is unique. The specific signs and behaviors can vary quite a bit depending on the people involved, their personal histories, and the way they interact with each other. Some toxic relationships might have more obvious forms of abuse, while others might have subtler types of manipulation or control going on. It’s important to look at each situation individually and not write off potential warning signs just because they don’t fit a specific pattern.

Behavioral Signs

When you are in a toxic relationship, you tend to push your family and friends away, either because your partner doesn’t want you to have anyone else or sometimes because you feel ashamed or embarrassed about the situation you’re in.

You may also find that you and your partner are constantly having arguments and conflicts that never seem to resolve, leading you to feel like you are living in a loop of frustration and hurt you can’t break out of.

All of which can cause you to struggle with your self-esteem and self-worth, leading to feelings of insecurity and hopelessness.

5 Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship

It’s never easy to admit when you’re in an unhealthy relationship.

It can be confusing and painful, but the truth is, you deserve so much better than what a toxic relationship can offer.

It’s not always easy to spot the red flags, especially when you’re emotionally invested, but here are some common characteristics that you should watch out for:

When you’re stuck in a toxic relationship, one or both of you might try to control how you think, feel, and act by using all sorts of manipulation tactics. They might try to make you feel guilty, question your reality, or use emotional blackmail to get what they want. It’s really hurtful when someone you care about tries to take your power and independence away.

Steps to Escape a Toxic Relationship

Acknowledging the Toxicity

The first and most important step you can take when trying to escape a relationship like this is to acknowledge that it’s unhealthy and damaging.

This can be hard; it means having to confront painful truths and challenging any denial or minimization of the problem.

You must be completely honest with yourself about your relationship and the negative impact it is having on your life.

Seeking Support from Friends, Family, or Professionals

Once you have taken the first step, it’s important to ask for help from trusted friends, family, or co-workers.

This can give you a listening ear and emotional support you may need while you find a way to leave the relationship behind.

Gradual Detachment vs. Abrupt Exit

Depending on your situation, you might decide it’s better to gradually detach from the relationship, or you might decide it’s better to make an abrupt exit.

If gradually detaching from the relationship seems like the best option for you, it may involve setting boundaries, limiting contact, and slowly distancing yourself from the other person.

This can be helpful if you need time to build up your support system or if you fear an abrupt exit may make the situation worse.

Sometimes, an abrupt exit may be the best if you believe it’s safer for you or fear things may get violent.2

Creating a Safety Plan

One of the most important things to consider in place when attempting to escape a toxic relationship is a safety plan. Especially if there is a potential risk of violence or retaliation. Start creating your safety plan by:

  • Setting Boundaries
  • Planning an Exit Strategy
  • Restraining Orders (if necessary)
  • Custody Arrangements

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Why It’s Difficult to Leave a Toxic Relationship

  • Emotional Attachment: Despite recognizing the toxicity, you may feel a strong emotional connection to your partner or a fear of being alone, making it difficult to imagine life without them.
  • Fear of Being Alone: The fear of loneliness can be a powerful motivator for you to stay in a toxic relationship, as you may worry about not finding another partner or support system.
  • Financial Dependence: This can make it challenging for you to leave a toxic relationship, especially if you rely on your partner for essential needs like housing or if they use financial control as a means of manipulation.
  • Fear of Retaliation: You may stay in a toxic relationship due to the fear of retaliation or escalation from the other person, worrying that leaving will trigger an angry, violent, or unpredictable response that puts your safety at risk.
  • Gaslighting: A toxic person often uses manipulation and gaslighting tactics to keep you in the relationship, twisting reality, denying your harmful behaviors, and making you doubt your perceptions and judgment. 3

Embracing Your Worth & Beginning Your Healing Journey

Leaving a toxic relationship takes a lot of strength, strength you likely thought you no longer had. It’s a significant step you are taking, but it is only the beginning of your healing process.

Emotional Recovery and Self-Care

It’s important that you continue this journey by making your emotional recovery and self-care a priority once the relationship is over.

Make sure you find someone to talk to about what you’ve experienced while in this toxic relationship, as well as how you feel even after leaving.

Whether it be talking to a therapist or finding a specific support group, it’s important you seek support.

Rebuilding Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

Being in a toxic relationship can really take a toll on your self-esteem and self-worth, which can leave you feeling inadequate, unlovable, or undeserving of healthy relationships.

To rebuild your sense of self, focus on activities and relationships that make you feel good about yourself.

This could mean doing something as simple as picking up a hobby or setting and achieving personal goals, as long as you surround yourself with positive, supportive people.

Re-Establishing Healthy Relationships

As you begin to heal, it’s important to re-establish healthy relationships in your life.

This may mean reconnecting with friends and family who have been supportive, as well as forming new relationships with people who share your values and respect your boundaries.

Take time to reflect on what you want and need in a relationship, and be intentional about cultivating connections that uplift and empower you.

Future Relationships

To keep yourself from falling into another toxic relationship, you have to learn how to set and maintain healthy boundaries in your future relationships.

This means being sure to communicate your needs and expectations clearly, asserting yourself when necessary, and being willing to walk away from relationships that do not respect your boundaries or well-being.

Remember that healthy relationships are built on mutual respect, trust, and support.

Moving Forward

Recognizing that you may be in an unhealthy relationship is hard, especially if it’s all you’ve known.

But you have the power to create a different future for yourself.

You deserve a relationship that uplifts, supports, and values you.

Remember, you are not defined by your past but strengthened by it.

Take the first step today; Cornerstone is here to help you find the joy and freedom of healthy, loving relationships.

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Author & Reviewers

susana spiegel recovery writer and SEO expert
RECOVERY WRITER & ADVOCATE

Susana is a recovery writer and advocate with over 8 years in addiction recovery. She is passionate about sharing accurate and helpful information about mental health, addiction, and recovery. She holds a Bachelor’s in Christian Studies from Grand Canyon University and has over 7 years of working in the addiction field. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director
CLINICAL DIRECTOR & REVIEWER

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges; he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues.

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