First published in Dinah’s Voice, republished with permission.
10 signs of a toxic relationship
By Maria Mochow
No relationship is perfect, be it familial, a friendship or romantic relationship, or a marriage, yet a toxic relationship can be found in any of those. Everybody needs to love and be loved, and yet everyone is human and will fail in their efforts to be loving sometimes. But there are some relationships which do not work for your good, health, and happiness.
Here are some of the common signs that you may be in a toxic relationship:
1. You value the relationship over your own growth.
Codependent relationships need not always be toxic relationships, but one point of overlap is when the good of the individual is felt as being indistinguishable from the outcome or permanence of the relationship. If so, your relationship is likely both codependent and toxic because you are stunting your growth in the name of love. For example, if a boy feels the need to date even if his grades are failing and he can’t make the time to study, but he won’t prioritize his study time because he’s afraid his girlfriend won’t date him anymore.
Another too familiar example is the young woman who is reluctant to drop out of college but does so because her fiancé does not want to wait for her to graduate before he marries her. In communities in which female college education is valued less highly than a man’s, this type of behavior is not always recognized for the problem that it is. In fact, you might even see this sort of thing encouraged if a college education is seen as religious “finishing school” or a way for women to learn how to home-school their future children, or simply a place to meet, date and marry men of their faith.
These are examples of stunted intellectual and academic growth. In addition to these, there is spiritual growth, emotional growth, the cultivation of culture, community and friendship. A toxic relationship may be detrimental to any of these things.
2. You enable them.
If you find yourself constantly making excuses for bad or destructive behavior in your intimate friendships or romantic relationships, then your relationship is not just hurting you, it hurts your partner and everyone around you. If you take responsibility for the bad behavior of others and blame yourself for things that you have no actual control over, that is enabling them and hurting you.
“That’s only when she’s drunk. She didn’t mean what she said. She just went through a bad break up. Maybe if I had been a better friend…”
“If I had only made his dinner just as he liked it he wouldn’t have been in such a bad mood. It was really my fault that he hit the children.”
“She wouldn’t have cheated on me if I’d have only been able to satisfy her. I’m not attractive and don’t have a strong libido. It’s my fault that she strayed.”
“My son has a drug problem but I can’t do anything about it. If I had been a perfect mother this never would have happened. Let me bail him out or let me pay for the damages!”
Love does not change the truth. It is not contrary to justice, prudence and the duty one has to others and to oneself. It does not enable destruction. Love seeks the good of the other and of oneself. Sometimes the best way to show true love is to let a person go. Let them take responsibility for their own actions.
3. You don’t trust your own feelings or opinions.
If you can’t trust your own intuition or instincts and are routinely asking for your loved one’s affirmation of your common sense, that is a sign of codependency. And if this loved one is routinely demanding that you mistrust your own perception in favor of their judgement, then that is a toxic and emotionally abusive relationship. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse whereby the abuser seeks to undermine the victim’s confidence in their own perception of reality.
“If that’s what you think happened, then you’re nuts!”
“You’re imagining things because you’re crazy!”
“I never did that. You’re just too emotional and nobody believes you!”
Another form of emotional abuse is when the abuser seeks to discredit people’s honesty or reputation in order to control them. Healthy people do not beg for relationships with people and then gossip about them, telling their mutual friends what a vicious liar that person is. Abusers do. One of the hallmarks of an emotional narcissist is that they lament the person who got away and pine for them to others while simultaneously complaining about what an ungrateful liar they are or were to them. You can’t have a relationship of trust with a dishonest person, nor with one who doesn’t trust you or claims that you are dishonest.
4. You change yourself for them.
This is not to be confused with abandoning habits that you have both agreed are unhealthy, or trying to overcome an addiction because you love someone and yourself. Going to the gym together or getting outdoors more, going to counseling together or helping each other curb a smoking habit or overcome a pornography problem or an eating disorder can all be ways that a healthy relationship can help us grow.
Changes that you have not really consented to, or that you find oppressive or that you don’t feel free to refuse are a red flag. Beware of things done “for your own good” that don’t leave you feeling free, empowered or like yourself. For example, going through your partner’s closet to throw away the clothes that you don’t like and giving them a makeover that they wouldn’t choose for themselves is creepy and highly inappropriate. If they do it because they doesn’t think your clothing is modest enough for their sensibilities, that makes it worse, not better. Protect your boundaries. On that note…
5. You’re told by them what to feel and what to think.
Another manifestation of emotional abuse is demanding that you be silent about your opinions or change them in order to suit the friend or love interest or family member.
“You don’t want to date our mutual friend? Well, he loves you and I want him to be happy, so if you want to be a good friend to both of us, change how you feel!”
“How could you vote for that candidate in that election! I didn’t raise a conservative/liberal! If you’re too stupid to see things the right way, do us all a favor and don’t vote!”
“How dare you post that article on social media! You delete that right now! I don’t want my friends to see how insane you’ve become! Nobody cares about what you think anyway!”
“How can you marry that other guy! I loved you first! You should date me!”
“No brother of mine is gay! You need to start conversion therapy and that’s that!”
The common theme in all of these examples is a fundamental lack of empathy and respect for your rights and autonomy. Nobody has to like or agree with the choices that you make, or like your opinions. But a true, healthy friendship respects and values the rights, conscience and sensibilities of the other even if disagreements occur. A friend does not seek to control, manipulate or undermine the expressed wishes of a person that they love. Love respects the other’s perspective and autonomy.
6. You can’t communicate or don’t feel free to communicate what you truly think, desire or feel.
This is often what follows from the emotional abuse tactics previously discussed. If you feel that you can’t be yourself or ever relax around a person, that is a toxic relationship. No trust exists there, and where there is no trust, there is often a lack of mutual respect and security. There can also be the self-sabotaging of a relationship through excessive people pleasing, lack of a firm sense of self and the terror of abandonment which is a hallmark of codependency.
7. You spend time with their friends and family but they make little or no effort to befriend your family and friends.
You know that line from the Meghan Trainor song, “Dear Future Husband”? The one about never expecting to visit his family as much as yours? Yeah, that’s not funny. It’s not funny for guys or for girls.
8. Among mutual friends, you are constantly playing second fiddle to them.
You might object, “But we do hang out with mutual friends.” Yes, but if you broke up, separated or got divorced, whose friends would they be? Would they still be “mutual?” If you don’t think that they know, see or would stand by you if you weren’t with your partner, then that’s problematic. It might be a sign that you are being eclipsed socially.
9. You’re ashamed.
Do you like yourself as you are? Do you like the person that you are when you are with them? If you can’t be happy with yourself unless you are in a relationship or popular with just everybody you may need to grow in healthy self love. If you don’t consider your significant other to be respectable but feel you can’t stop wanting to be with them, that’s going to be a source of self loathing and mental health deterioration. But if you’re ashamed because…
10. You’re afraid.
You need somebody to help you. You need to get out of this toxic relationship. If you don’t feel safe, trust your gut and know that you aren’t safe. Shame coming from a feeling of powerlessness is very common — but this is not your fault. What he/she is doing to you is not your fault. If you don’t feel free or safe to choose or escape, what you are experiencing isn’t only a toxic and abusive relationship, it is coercion. And if sex is occurring while you are afraid, it is rape.
“If you break up with me I’ll kill myself!”
“If you ever try to leave me, I’ll kill you!”
“I can do what I want to you when I want to you! You’re my wife and you can’t deny me!”
Love does not seek to dominate. Love does not seek to cause fear. If you are trapped in this situation, get help and leave as soon as you safely can. You are not weak because this happened to you. This is not your fault.
Sexual Violence Services
DVSVS is a student-focused, survivor-driven organization dedicated to using education and advocacy to eliminate sexual violence on Catholic campuses.