Is Your Relationship Toxic?

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There are few things more frustrating than watching a good friend of yours in a horrible relationship. No matter what you say or the advice you give, they seem to have all of the emotional survival instincts of a depressed sea captain, determinedly going down with (and on) the HRMS Douchebag all the way to the bottom of the Atlantic.

“I’ll never let go, Rose. Not while you still have shreds of your self-esteem left.”

I should know. My friends love reminding me about mine.

Back in the bad old days, I was notoriously prone for my poor-decision skills when it came to women and relationships. I was a bubbling stew of low self-esteem, a defeatist attitude towards dating and the dogged belief that I couldn’t do any better, and that was never more evident than in the way I related to the opposite sex. If I wasn’t chasing after women because I thought I could get what I wanted from them (i.e. sex) without giving a damn about how it might affect them, I was enduring relationships with women I should have long broken up with because I thought… well, because I didn’t know any better.

It was a period of extreme frustration for my friends and family because they felt so damn helpless watching me piss my self-worth away and not knowing how to wake me up to what was really going on. At the risk of quoting song lyrics, when a man thinks he loves a woman, he tends to be willing to overlook a lot… and I was willing to overlook the fact that I was fucking miserable. I had convinced myself that I was in love with the woman I was dating – and to an extent, I was – and that meant that I was willfully blind to just how bad the relationship was and how much damage it was doing to me and to my friends. Part of it was, admittedly, because I thought that this was the best that I could do but another part was the fact that I just couldn’t see how toxic my relationship with this woman had become.

After all, like the poet says: the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care, right?


You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you’re taking love advice from The Offspring.

I spent years in complete misery because I couldn’t see the signs that my relationship had turned to poison… and everybody knew it but me.

Ever since then, I’ve seen far too many people caught in the same relationship death-spiral that I was, blind to just how bad things were and convinced that maybe this was just how relationships were supposed to be. So in hopes of opening a few eyes, I give you 5 signs that you’re stuck in a toxic relationship.

5) They Undermine You At Every Opportunity

You dread hanging out with your significant other and her friends because you know that it’s going to be a non-stop parade of jokes… most of them at your expense. No matter what you do, somehow you become the punch-line of every joke and insult that gets flung about. Even a compliment gets followed up with another put-down because hey, can’t let you get a swelled head, now right?

Of course, you can’t complain about it because all that means is that you’re just a wuss who can’t take a joke. Be careful, we don’t want to hurt their widdle feewings, gang!

“Are you sure you can’t spontaneously develop the mutant ability to set people on fire? Like, really sure?”

There’s seemingly nothing you can do without getting a ration of shit from someone who’s supposed to be your partner; there’s rarely a moment where he doesn’t take the opportunity to get in a dig at your insecurities or perceived flaws. You can’ t talk about your dreams or ambitions without his taking a giant shit on them, telling you how rediculous you’re being for even imagining that you could pull them off or bringing up all of your previous failures. Everything you do is subject to constant criticism… but hey, it’s all for your own good. He’s trying to help you, after all.

It’s one thing when you and your honey playfully give each other shit.

It’s another entirely when they seem to take every possible opportunity to cut you down.

There are plenty of relationships out there that seemingly thrive on a playfully antagonistic vibe but there’s an undercurrent of genuine love and affection and the awareness that there are distinct limits. For all that you may enjoy needling or teasing each other, your partner in a relationship is just that: your partner. They’re the one who is supposed to have your back no matter what, not the one making the point of cutting your legs out from under you whenever they get the chance.

4) They Suck The Life Out Of You

One of the surest signs of a toxic relationship is often one of the hardest to recognize in yourself… but odds are good your friends have seen it.

You may have been lively and outgoing once, but lately it just seems like you don’t have any energy at all and you just can’t put your finger on the reason why.

All of your friends can, though. They may not have said anything (or you may not have been listening when they did) but they’ve all seen how you become a different person when you’re with your hunnybun then when you’re on your own. You’re lively, happy even, when you’re out on your own, but when he’s nearby, you just… deflate. You’re quieter. You seem subdued. You insist that no, you’re having a good time, but your slumped posture and monosyllable answers tell an entirely different story.

Even when he’s out of town, there’s no escape. You’re acting like your old self again and having a good time… right up until your cell starts to ring and you know letting it go to voicemail just means an even bigger ration of shit to deal with later. So you pick up and everybody around gets to watch you transform to a shadow of your former self.

You’re using so much emotional energy dealing with your partner and the stress your relationship causes that you have virtually none left for yourself afterwards. Your partner is almost literally draining the life out of you… and the odds are good they’re happier that way. Some people thrive on the attention, on the emotional charge of conflict and and drama, and all that energy’s gotta come from somewhere, right?

If even the thought of them leaves you feeling emotionally exhausted, it’s time to plan your exit strategy.

3) It’s All About Control

Sure, relationships are supposed to be 50-50, but somehow you and your girlfriend always end up doing what she wants. Your opinions and interests better match up with hers or else. The slightest concession to something you might want is a massive sacrifice, with all the attending pomp, production, grousing and resigned passive-aggressive sighing… but if you don’t give in to what she wants, then you’re staring down the crater into an emotional Krakatoa. She has a whole host of techniques to bend you to her will and she wields them with the precision and glee of a KGB interrogater trying to wring secrets from an ISIS agent.

“Fine! Fine! We’ll rent ‘Friends With Benefits’ for movie night!”

She may use her affection as both the carrot and the stick. Do what she wants and she’ll be lovey-dovey for a little… but give her the slightest bit of resistance and you’ve been exiled to the snowy wastes of Siberia until such time as you’ve shown her that you’ve suffered enough and repent of all your sins against her. Other times she’ll throw a temper tantrum – timed to cause you the most embarrassment, inconvenience and humiliation – in order to get her way. She’ll threaten to go off with someone else – someone who knows how to ‘treat her right’. She may even go so far as to flirt – or worse – with other guys in front of you just to show that she has options you don’t have if you aren’t giving her what she wants. She knows all of your sore spots and weaknesses and she won’t hesitate to exploit them if it means getting you to give in.

It’s a long string of exercises in breaking down your will; before too long, you’re giving her everything she wants because it’s so much less trouble than if you stand up for yourself.

2) You’re Always Having To Apologize or Explain About Them

Sometimes it just seems like nobody understands your sweetie like you do. Sure, the way he acts may look offputting to an outsider, but if they just knew what he was really like they’d realize it’s actually not that bad. And sure, maybe she acted unconscionably rude to your family but they just have to understand that she didn’t mean it like that… she was just stressed. Or tired. Or has food allergies. Or any number of a host of other issues that magically excuse everything that she does that pisses your friends off.

In fact, if you stopped to think about it, you’d realize that you’re having to spend most of your time apologizing for him or trying to explain that he’s not so bad once you get to know him and your friends should just give him another chance, y’know?

Many times, it’s very difficult to take an honest, dispassionate look at the state of your relationship; you rarely have the emotional distance and perspective to be completely honest and accurate. Your friends are often your best metric when it comes to gauging the health of your relationship. Sometimes they’re capable of seeing things that you’re just too close to see yourself… and when you’re perpetually having to try to convince them that no, your girlfriend really isn’t as bad as all that, it’s a sign that something’s rotten in the state of Denmark

Nobody’s saying that relationships are democracies and your friends certainly don’t have veto power over who you date, but when the majority of your friends can’t stand your partner, the odds are good that somebody’s missing something. And that somebody’s you.

1) Thou Shalt Have No Other Friends Before Them.

Everybody in a new relationship goes through a period where they spend every waking hour with their new snuggle-bunny, annoying their nearest and dearest with their sudden chronic unavailability; you’re both too caught up in that new relationship energy to bother putting pants back on, never mind notice that you’ve been neglecting your friends. But there comes a point where your absence goes beyond “guess they can’t stop bangin'” and well into “blink twice if you’re being held hostage” territory.

While your relationship with your partner is important, it’s equally important that you have a life outside of your relationship. There’s a line between when your boyfriend is your best friend and when he’s your only friend. Sometimes it’s just a case of the two of you becoming so entwined in each other’s lives that you’ve become emotional conjoined twins, unable to function without the other for long before melting into a puddle of codependency.

On the other hand, you may find that they’ve taken an active hand in separating you from your friends.

It’s actually shockingly easy to do; like the frog in a pot of water, you simply don’t notice it because it’s a gradual process, creeping up on you until you look up and realize how long it’s been since you’ve seen any of your buddies. He may have started a whisper-campaign, bad-mouthing your friends and planting the seeds of mistrust. “You know Angela is talking about you behind your back, right?” It was cute before, but Zack’s attempts at trying to steal you away from me are really starting to get on my nerves.”

“Once you realize I’m all you need, you’ll never ever leave me. Um… did I just say that out loud?”

Alternately, she may make a point of just demanding so much of your time and attention that you simply don’t have enough energy or hours in the day to actually do anything besides dance in attendance on her. Or she may just disapprove of your friends and subtly but inexorably punish you for spending time with them; never anything you can point to without seeming petty or silly, but you know that going out for beers with the guys or hanging after class is going to lead to another uncomfortable night at home.

And it’s your toxic boyfriend is concerned, it’s good thing you don’t have friends any more. By encouraging you to be as co-dependent as possible, he’s helping insulate himself against the possibility that you might wise up and leave his ass.

Having a life outside of your own little world – encouraging one, even – is a hallmark of a healthy relationship. Isolation from your friends is a huge warning sign and a common tactic of abusers. The more he or she cut you off from your support system, the more you will come to depend on them… and the more you depend on him, the harder it is to wake up to the truth: your relationship has become impossibly toxic and you need to get out as soon as possible.


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  • LeeEsq

    I think a variety of five is that your partner does not acknowledge you as boyfriend/girlfriend in public. In my only relationship, I know things went bad when my girlfriend stopped introducing me as her boyfriend and did not treat me rather platonically in a lot of social gatherings. The releationship went on longer than it should have because having a girlfriend was a novel experience for me but realtistically, I should have ended it earlier. There was also quite a bit of four because her behavior was exasperating, it was emotionally vampirism. There was a strange variety of three where my ex would make up all sorts of reasons why she couldn't get together. The plus side of this is at least my ex didn't mind it when I hanged out with my friends so at least I had some emotional support.

    Three is currently my biggest fear about entering into a relationship. My only romantic relationship sucked. Having a girlfriend that actually wants to spend time with me will be something new. At the same time I'm worried that there will be a certain lack of patience because she wants something more serious than I do.

  • Thortok2000

    5 – This is one of the reasons that I don't like 'antagonistic joking' even among friends. It's all too easy to take it too far and all too often people don't actually speak up when it's crossed the line, they just keep on trecking as if everything's okay. And especially in a crowd, it's all too easy to slip into the "it's your fault for not liking the joke" instead of "my fault for telling a bad joke."

    I prefer to stay completely away from all that stuff.

    In real life, you'll see people saying "that's just how he is" when defending the 'bad jokes.' This isn't something you should have to put up with. Ask it to stop, and if it doesn't stop, make it stop or leave.

    4 – The biggest thing I see with this is people often think this is a temporary thing or don't think it's gone on very long if they even notice it all.

    This shouldn't happen at all, not even a little bit. Yes, sometimes passion fades but intimacy replaces it. This isn't intimacy. Even when you argue with someone, if you argue well you work things out and feel better. If everything's an argument, it's time to get out.

    This is the number one ugly relationship I see. PLEASE look at your relationship and make sure it's not doing this.

    3 – Being someone with BDSM leanings, control means something else entirely to me. But even as a Dominant, there's various forms of control and some are downright manipulative and abusive, even for D/s. Passive-aggressive manipulation isn't pretty on anyone, even a Dominant.

    And even in D/s, both partners get a say in how things work. It's called negotiation. If one partner is hesitant to bring up their thoughts, feelings, and concerns, because they'll get dismissed, that's very similar to gaslighting, and doesn't belong in any relationship, even a D/s one.

    2 – This is a big one as well. Judge a person not by how they treat their betters but how they treat people they consider to be their lessers. This is one of the red flags that you could be with someone abusive, because if they ever start to think of you as a lesser, then you'll be treated just as bad, or worse.

    1 – I am a clingy, needy person, and I like a lot of time with my partner. This can cause the 'separation from others' to happen by accident. I don't mean it to. So I encourage the person I'm with to let me know if they need time because I'm going to assume they don't if they don't say anything. I also try not to make them feel guilty about not spending time with me (for some reason 'guilt-tripping' is something I tend to do even when I'm trying not to as hard as I can). Other than that I don't know what to do, personally.

    I do agree though that it can definitely be a warning sign of abuse. Even in my case, where it's not abuse, it can still be unhealthy to be 'cut off' from others, even if it's just from not having enough time in the day left over after we've had so much fun together.

    • Gentleman Johnny

      On #5
      My girlfriend and I playfully give each other shit quite a lot. The important point is that whenever one of us crosses the line, the other one says something. Then we never go there again. If someone's deliberately making fun of your insecurities, they're not a friend, they're an asshole.

      • Cactus

        Yep. With some help, I’ve come to realize that I’m moderately attractive now, but I was a painfully awkward-looking kid with completely bizarre fashion sense. (The latter is not entirely eradicated.) When my college boyfriend found some old pictures of me, he teased me mercilessly, and then would use “you used to be UGLY” as a way to shut me up. Once other cracks began appearing, this was just one more reason for me to NEVER reproduce with him–I’d never want any kid to have to deal with that from a dad.

      • melG42

        It's a tough thing to negotiate. My ex is a huge smartass, everyone he knows knows him as a smartass, and when we started dating we used to give each other tit for tat a lot in this way. But he made the same jokes over and over and over and over and over and over again in the course of our relationship, such that what had once seemed like a joke suddenly felt more like a reinforced idea, and when I pointed out that it was bothering me he told me to stop being so sensitive, see how he's just being funny, that's just who he is. Now that our relationship is over, I'm having a really hard time negotiating that, like I've lost my ability to tell the difference between jokes and red flags.

        Kudos to you two for being very deliberate about your boundaries and mutual respect. I hope I can get back there as I put myself back out into the dating world.

  • Oisin

    Is some of this advice applicable to friends also. Recently some of my friendships have turned sour

    • Dr_NerdLove

      Friendships can go toxic, just as easily as romantic relationships can.Easier, sometimes; you're less likely to be on the lookout for it.

      • Hazel

        It's true, nobody warned me how a dying friendship can be painful like a long drawn out breakup.

    • Sam

      I've them happen in a lot of "post-relationship friendzones"… one of the reasons to always take the nuclear option.

    • Mr. N

      I can easily apply #5 to a guy who I thought was my friend. Now I've realized that he probably never saw me as a friend at all.

  • I think this article is a must-read for anyone who has even a concern or worry about the issue. Because you should want to intervene if a relationship is going sour. Communication helps and it's best you help now before it spirals out of control.

    Number 5 is a big one for me, because I feel this is one of those issues that Hollywood has horribly construed to mean love. That's one big reason I feel today's romantic comedies these days, because they focus more on angry banter/bickering than actual meaning and connection between the couple. They think that all relationships are about making so many coy one-liners and thinking that represents real, intimate love.

    But I think every point here is absolutely solid. Maybe a follow up would be handling a toxic relationship as a friend? But then again, that's truely dangerous territory.

    • Dr_NerdLove

      It's incredibly difficult – almost impossible – to extricate someone from a toxic or abusive relationship until they themselves want to go. In fact, pushing too hard at it can make someone dig in deeper. The best you can do is keep lines of communication open, be nonjudgmental and let them know you're there for them when they do decide it's time to leave.But I'll probably write this up in more detail for a future article.

      • Troof.
        I tried to "save" a friend from an abusive relationship many years ago.
        She came to me, crying that her SO was cheating on her while he was out of town and had no job, no family, no other friends in the area, and thus, no where to go. She confided in me instances of emotional, mental, verbal and physical abuse at this time.
        I invited to put her up while she got a job and GTFO of that relationship.

        The next day she got engaged to the guy and they tried to file a lawsuit against me (yeah. really) for slander and harassment for "trying to break them up with malicious lies." (Frivolous nonsense, amounted to nothing. My part in the story ends there.)
        Nice story, huh guys?

        Lesson learned.
        No solution offer.

      • melG42

        GREAT point. As a survivor of more than one toxic/abusive relationship myself, I wish I knew what to say to those people who will insist on saying "well, she chose to stay in that relationship" as if that justifies the continuing of the abuse, or means she somehow LIKES to be abused. It's so maddening but I can't be dispassionate when describing the kind of mind games abusers concoct, and of course god FORBID you should get EMOTIONAL when discussing something like this, "you're just too close to it, you need to calm down," and i'm like THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT. /end rant

    • LeeEsq

      Most of the older romantic comedies focused on angry/witter banter and bickering to. Its a trope that goes back to Shakespeare. I think its frequently resorted to because its the easiest way to write a love story given time constraints, it allows writers to show off their wit, and audiences seem to like it. Romances where the people start off on good times are hard to write because you have to show how friends could become lovers. This is hard because friendship is seen as lacking sexual tension or tension of any sort. With angry banter, you start with tension present and this could quickly be made into sexual attraction/love. Its classic lazy writing.

  • Bravo! I'm sharing this with everyone I love. A good relationship is give and give. A partner should energize and inspire you, not drain you and cause you to doubt yourself. Respect = love!

  • talbiz

    thank you for writing this, I've been trying to tell my friend these things for quite a while now (I believe it's been like 2 years) and maybe if he hears it from someone that can express it better than I can he'll finally break things off.

  • ARC

    Two things to say about the article:
    1. Bravo with the switching genders from time to time.
    2. I think using some of the more extreme examples can be counterproductive: "I'm not in an abusive relationship, see, she's never done <some exaggeration for comedic effect> before!"

  • Patchie

    This article listed my every anxiety about serious dating.

    How every external-relationship interest, ambition, friend, activity, etc was an immediate threat to my partner's emotional stability — which I was solely responsible for. Anything from seeing a movie he didn't like with other friends, to going on a bike trip he didn't want to go on, to enrolling in school. Attempts to undermine, ridicule or isolate me, because that is what "normal girlfriends are like", would just drive me out the door.
    And when I reported these issues to some folks, they didn't always think of it as "unhealthy" because a lot of people think you need to suffer a bit in any relationship.

    Suffice to say, I have had many short-lived relationships and, for a while, I thought it was because I was some sort of selfish, insensitive robot.

  • Kay

    Most of these are true, but 2 actually bugs me. My friends, as well as myself to an extent, are good people once you get to know them, but can seem to be a bit unfriendly and antagonistic. Granted, this is usually not a frequent thing, but first impressions are most everything in the area we live in. I know that many people I've come to know at first thought I was a snob/arse/whatever else you want to call it, until they were put into a situation where they had to talk to me, as I can be pretty shy, and don't have an easy time approaching people, as well as occasionally being awkward, although thankfully not too often.

    Point being, some people you do have to get to know in order to see their good side. Still, other than 2, the rest of the points on the list are, for the most part, accurate, and a good guide to judging if a relationship is toxic.

  • Over-analyzer

    I have had a problem with low self esteem for awhile. I always thought something was wrong with me as a black nerd. Known for having comics in my backpack or somewhere around me. Never really fit in "the hood". I became know as "the guy who can't get a date". "You have no 'swag'. "You too dark/ugly." The last two "relationships" were HUGE to me because I was finally dating someone I thought was beautiful and sexy. One looked like my favorite porn star, "Ebony Ayes" ( I couldn't BELIEVE she initiated flirting with ME on Facebook). The other has the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen. And still work with her. But they were both toxic. I thought if I could just do better, they would like me more and they wouldn't hurt me/stop flirting around on me/sleeping with other guys.

    They both ended the same: seeing someone else behind my back, lying that they were until they either told me or I found out. Lasting about 6 months or a little longer because I didn't want to let it go. Begging them to come back no matter what they did. I was the one who was sorry for their behavior.

    I can change the fact that I need a better job (I'm a 30 year old security guard), get in better shape (5 '8 248 pounds. I was 280, so I'm getting somewhere), but I'm not really good looking and not very well endowed. I keep trying to find a way to make up for it by learning techniques with foreplay, but as my ex put it via text "with u, sex is almost always going to be an issue, and that's a big part of a relationship".

    They were also both married. I never met their husbands, as that according to them they were on the verge of divorce. I need to stop dating for awhile. I keep making bad decisions. Go back to school. Get a better job, dress better and get in phenomenal shape. I may need to just stop having sex altogether, because it always ends badly.

  • Paul Rivers

    I really only had one relationship that turned toxic. It didn't start off toxic, and for most of it it wasn't toxic – but it become extremely toxic at the end (not abusive, but toxic is definitely the right word). The girl wasn't "trying" to make it toxic, it just happened somehow.

    After that, I decided that when a girl turned the relationship toxic, it was her way of saying that she wanted to break up with me, so I'd either pull back from the relationship or just break up with her. It actually worked **much** better – I always thought they'd be angry, but mostly they just seemed relieved (when I broke up with them for that particular reason). Only 1 girl was sort/kinda an exception – she just seemed relieved at the moment, then later she decided she was angry…which was weird. (That's literally the way she phrased it to me – it was like "I thought I was fine, then the next day I was angry"). Probably best we didn't continue to date either way.

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  • Your relationship is toxic only because…when vows and values mean nothing…so does the life you are living…worthless is as worthless does…get a fucking without commitment…family trust and real love for your own… means life is a fucking worthless joke…Please sink me if you must…Life without a family you can trust and depend on is the 2016 evil fuck brainwashing sick fucked up world that wants to bleed us dry … take your fucking feel good without regard to those who you should naturally love and shove it up your ass… Love is as love does. Cheers Audiohipster