Cover Image - Is Your Relationship Toxic?

Is Your Relationship Toxic?

By Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT

Understanding Toxic Relationships

Healthy relationships nourish and support us. Like poison, a toxic relationship is one that is damaging to us. Instead of uplifting us, it makes us feel worse. When it ends, we might experience post-traumatic stress or a lessening of our self-esteem and trust in ourselves and others. Although friends and family might tell us to leave, it may be hard to let go – despite the fact that the relationship is harmful and painful.

Signs and Symptoms

In a survey conducted by Glamour Magazine in 2011, 60 percent of women 18-35 years old said that they’d experienced abuse. About half were in a physically abusive relationship, but don’t underestimate the damage of emotional abuse. It’s more predictive of stress and depression than physical abuse, which is almost always preceded by emotional abuse.(1) It’s not uncommon for people to minimize, deny, or rationalize their pain and unmet needs and thus stay in a toxic relationship. In so doing, they underestimate the real consequences to their mental and physical health, including increased stress and depression. Some signs that you may be in a toxic relationship are:

  1. You feel drained or starved instead of nourished.
  2. Your behavior is motivated by fear, anger, or guilt.
  3. Your needs and feelings are ignored.
  4. You “walk on egg-shells,” for fear of upsetting your partner.
  5. You frequently feel used, exploited, or disrespected.

Any of the following behaviors are symptomatic of a toxic relationship:

What to Do

If you’re experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, don’t keep it secret. If you or a child is being physically abused, get help and access to safety immediately. Talk to someone you trust and seek professional help – ideally in couple therapy. However, if there is violence or coercion, individual counseling for each partner is preferred. If your partner is unwilling to get individual help to attend conjoint sessions, get individual therapy. A relationship can change when only one person is in counseling.

By not reacting, and learning to trust yourself, speak up, and set boundaries, the toxic patterns in your relationship can improve. Meanwhile, keep a journal of your feelings. Observe and note your partner’s behavior, how it makes you feel, what is said and what you’d like to say. Take action to build your self-esteem and learn how to be assertive. You will need support in making changes. Consider whether you both are willing to:

  • Reciprocate more.
  • Go to individual or conjoint therapy and seek group support (attend a 12-Step Program; e.g. Codependency Anonymous, or Nar-Anon or Al-Anon.
  • Treat each other with more respect.
  • Take responsibility for your behavior.
  • Care about the effect of your behavior on one another.

On the other hand, change is less likely if either of you:

  • Continue to be secretive or dishonest and won’t admit it.
  • Violate the law or ethical standards without remorse.
  • Continue to be physically or emotionally abusive without remorse.
  • Continue to be grossly irresponsible.

By getting help, your self-esteem will increase, and you will gain the confidence to better cope with the relationship or leave. Be aware that it’s harder to leave a toxic relationship than a healthy one. Don’t judge yourself. The reasons are learned helplessness and trauma-bonding that can occur in abusive relationships. Follow the steps in Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist: Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships.

Once it’s over, you may feel relief and may not even miss your ex. However, you might still need professional help to rebuild your self-esteem, learn effective communication skills, and heal from PTSD and the detrimental effects of the relationship. This frees you to once again trust yourself and others and to have a healthy, loving relationship in the future.

(1) Sally A. Theran, et al.,“Abusive Partners and Ex-Partners – Understanding the Effects of  Relationship to the Abuser on Women’s Well-Being” Violence Against Women, 12:10 (October, 2006)

©Darlene Lancer 2017


This piece was originally published here, and is republished with the author’s kind permission. 

Author Image

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People and Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness, also available on Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 30 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own,, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”