There are a lot of articles like this. I’m writing another one because a great many of the articles and posts I’ve read about toxic, unhealthy, or abusive relationships feel incomplete to me. I’m going to attempt to explain why a lot of the resources I’ve read up until now don’t feel like enough, and how we can start thinking and acting differently about these relationships going forward using seven basic effects that seem to happen to people existing in a toxic framework.
First and foremost, I want to correct one of the easiest temptations we have when it comes to thinking about toxicity. It is one that I struggled with for many years, and can still sometimes stumble on today. You might already know this or it might seem surprising to you.
Toxic people are typically not evil comic-book supervillians.
When we talk about toxicity, it is good to keep in mind that those who are being toxic or abusive usually either aren’t aware of it, have no idea it’s unhealthy, or don’t have enough resources to grow and change in healthy ways even if they do. They probably come from toxic and abusive backgrounds themselves, and the way they act is the only way they know how to process their pain and their insecurity.
What does this mean?
It is more appropriate to ask what doesn’t this mean. This does not mean that you yourself should become abusive, controlling, or violent to the person in question. They are usually acting out of hurt, and hurting them further only perpetuates the cycle down the line. Do what you can to protect yourself, but try to avoid doing more than that in terms of hurting them, or acting out of spite. You may be able to find ways to set boundaries in compassionate ways, but if you can’t do that, you are always free to leave without any explanation. Trying to control them or change them in return does not help you and it does not help them.
But this also does not mean you should feel obligated to stay with someone who is toxic for you. It doesn’t mean that you need to give them second chances, offer them emotional support, or stay anywhere near them at all. No matter what their pain looks like, you should make sure that you are taken care of first, and only try to help the other if they genuinely ask for it (their consent is important too) and you feel like you are in a strong place with excess to give (probably unlikely if you are working to overcome a toxic dynamic yourself).
I want to note at this point that you yourself could also be a toxic person to someone in your life. This isn’t hard to do. When someone tries to stay in a relationship with someone they’re incompatible with, it is a near certainty that the relationship will become toxic at some point, for both parties. As you read this article, try thinking of the signs from the point of view of the person you are in a relationship with as well. This will help you to figure out from both sides if there are warning signs of a toxic relationship.
With that being said, the thing I would like to focus on in this post is that the signs I give you of a toxic relationship should not be read with intent in mind. Try to be more concerned with effects. If a toxic person does not mean to hurt you, that doesn’t change the fact that they are hurting you. It is the effect that is causing you pain, not necessarily their intent. The effect is what you need to get away from, no matter how much they mean for their actions to be destructive or not.
It is also possible that some types of behaviors fit into more than one type of effect. For instance, nearly all of them have some direct or indirect relationship to the idea of control. It is not critical to get hung up on exactly which effect a certain behavior has. If it has one or more of these effects at all, you have a problem. I will try to provide some examples for each effect, but my categorization will not be perfect.
Some of these examples might seem insignificant, mundane, or petty. Keep in mind that we are only just now as a culture learning about the nuances of consent and how it should work. We are immersed in a culture that has power, authority, and control in its center. Lots of this may seem to you like “normal” behavior. Some of these effects may be small indeed, and not all of them necessarily indicate that a relationship has become or will become abusive overall. That is solely up to the person that is in the relationship to decide for themselves. Some of us have thicker skins and more patience than others. However, it does not mean that those who are sensitive or easily hurt should be devalued or that they just need to “toughen up.” We all deserve the ability to choose relationships (both romantic and otherwise) that feel good to us and that help us to be the kinds of people we want to be.
You might also realize that you do some of these things to yourself. This can happen from past toxic relationships or a toxic upbringing, and can make you more vulnerable to other toxic people and relationships in your present and future. If you catch yourself doing these things to yourself, I highly recommend therapy with a licensed professional. You deserve to have relationships in which you are treated well, including that which you have with yourself.
I will include some specific examples of each main type of effect, some of which can be observed in the other person, both toward yourself and other people, and some that rely on you being aware of something happening inside yourself. These lists will not be all-inclusive. Toxicity likes to hide and can manifest itself in lots of different ways. Just like I am telling you to do with intent, try not to focus on my specific examples and instead focus on the effects.
The Seven Effects
Devaluation is anything that makes you feel “less than.” When someone insults you or implies that you aren’t as smart as they are, that you wouldn’t be anything without them, or that you are worthless, this is degrading you and devaluing you as a person. Most of the things that fall under devaluation also fall under the next heading, Doubt. However, devaluation effects specifically make you doubt your own worth and value as a person, which is incredibly toxic. When you feel worthless, you are more likely to give up your autonomy and control to people who you think “know better” than you do, or who you perceive to be better people.
Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling devalued as a result of someone else’s behavior, there is likely a toxic dynamic, whether they are trying to make you feel worthless or not.
Some possible examples:
- They talk down to you in a condescending way.
- They insult, mock, or scoff at you or your concerns.
- They criticize your character rather than focusing on a specific issue at hand.
- They demonize their exes.
- They disrespect or treat poorly other people in their life.
- You feel guilt or shame in yourself when expressing needs.
Doubt is anything that makes you second-guess your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Gaslighting is one of the most well-known and common forms of instilling doubt. Toxic people can use doubt in many ways, such as rewriting history, telling you that things didn’t happen the way you think they did, or telling you that you are overreacting to something they did that hurt you. This is one of the places to be careful to read effects rather than intent, because a toxic person may genuinely remember differently from you due to their own cognitive distortions or think that your reactions are inappropriate. That is why this is also a difficult effect to battle, because we sometimes worry (admirably so) about gaslighting the other person as well.
A nuance here is how forceful and insistent the person is that their version is superior to yours. Dangerous statements look like, “I didn’t say that,” or “That’s not what happened,” or “You’re making that all up in your head.” A better approach if memories are at odds would be, “I don’t remember it that way, but we were both really heated, so let’s try to find some common ground and I will try not to do anything like that in the future,” or “I apologize if I said that to you. I can’t recall saying that at the moment, but you don’t deserve to hear something like that.” Memory slips and disagreements over what happened are normal when emotions are high, and can be expected from time to time. This should not be a regular occurrence or pattern, though. If you are feeling the need to start audio or video recording your conversations, this might be a sign that toxicity is present and needs to be addressed. If one or both of you is always so heated as to not remember correctly what has happened, this indicates a serious problem in communication and conflict.
Remember intent versus effect: If you are experiencing a lot of doubt surrounding your relationship and interactions with someone else, there is likely a toxic dynamic. Some people like to have relationships that are more competitive and employ a lot of aggressive humor, but this should always be understood as a game, and it should only happen when both parties consent to it. This consent can be revoked by either party at any time, and these dynamics should not be evoking real feelings of doubting one’s self or reality.
Some possible examples:
- They tell you how you feel or should feel.
- They put you on a pedestal and then use that standard to make you doubt your “less than perfect” behavior.
- They create unrealistic expectations, making “always” or “never” promises.
- They show resentment at boundaries you place.
- You feel stress or anxiety about a relationship over long time periods.
- You repeatedly forgive things that you know are cruel or unethical.
- You find yourself questioning the quality of the relationship a lot.
Silence is a tricky effect to put your finger on, because it plays around the edges of consent. Everybody deserves to have boundaries respected, including the ability to walk away from a conversation that is too emotionally overwhelming. You never have to participate in a conversation that you don’t want to, and neither do the people around you. This is important to remember. Sometimes silencing techniques do exist in otherwise healthy relationships on a temporary basis when a situation gets too intense. However, some people use silence as a way to never address problems in a relationship. They do not have to address the problems, but it is also part of a healthy relationship to be able to communicate openly and authentically with one another. If, for one reason or another, you or the other person become completely unable to engage with a certain issue on a more extended basis, it is probably a sign that you are incompatible, which is toxic even if neither of you is doing something wrong. It may be that one or both of you need individual therapy to overcome certain barriers to communication. Go gently here. But remember that if you feel like you can never get any resolution, or that a topic that you need to address is constantly avoided, that this is a toxic dynamic.
Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling like you cannot get someone to communicate with you about something important, there is likely a toxic dynamic. Even if they need to set these types of boundaries for their own health and security (which you should respect), it may mean that you need to leave the dynamic to have relationships with people who find it easier to communicate with you.
Some possible examples:
- They are “high maintenance” in regards to how they must be approached or confronted, they might focus on your technique instead of the problem.
- They are unwilling to clearly state their desires and intentions.
- They refuse to talk at all about how previous relationships ended.
- They don’t come to you directly with concerns or complaints, you always hear things through third parties.
- They avoid you or avoid talking with you in general.
- They can only have difficult conversations with the aid of alcohol or other drugs.
- You find yourself frustrated or helpless to start a discussion.
Control is present in nearly all these toxic effects, but here I am talking about specifically controlling your behavior. This category includes things like direct consent violations, not taking “no” for an answer, and pressuring you to do something you don’t want to do. If at any point you feel like you do not have the power or ability to make your own decisions or set boundaries that you need to set, there is most likely a control dynamic in your relationship. Threats are included in this category. This is one of the most widely talked about factors in toxic and abusive dynamics, and I do not feel the need to expand much upon it here.
Remember intent versus effect: If you feel like you are unable to make your own decisions or exercise your own autonomy, there is likely a toxic dynamic. Some people may have many strict requirements about what they need in a person to be compatible. It does not mean their needs are unreasonable or invalid, but it also does not obligate you to be that person for them.
Some possible examples:
- They violate your consent or physical boundaries.
- They get jealous easily and use that to control you.
- They make threats or demands toward you.
- They talk about you in ownership terms.
- They pressure you to get closer to them than you want to get.
- They have double standards regarding what kind of behavior is acceptable from each of you.
- They try to make rules for you that you don’t agree to.
- You find yourself afraid to set boundaries.
- You feel like you must do something you don’t want to do to salvage the relationship.
Deception includes lying by comission, where someone tells you something that they know isn’t true. But it also includes lies of omission, where a person doesn’t necessarily tell you something untrue, but they leave out important information that might significantly change the way you interact with them.
An example to illustrate this concept is that some people have different boundaries around information and what they need to know in order to feel safe and consent to a relationship. People with stricter boundaries who require more sharing of information are not being unreasonable. For instance, if someone you are close to does not like to inform you about their sexual behavior, that is something they should state up front, and let you choose whether to engage with them sexually or not. If you need to know about their sexual behavior in order to have a relationship with them, they are deceiving you if they agree to this or accept the information without then telling you that they have no intention to inform you. They may feel like it is “not your business.” That is a boundary they can set, but it needs to be done explicitly. Anyone can also set boundaries around being intimate with people who have high need for privacy. You do not owe them sexual intimacy if you are not comfortable with the level of disclosure they are willing to provide. If someone doesn’t want to share something with you, they need to at least let you know that they don’t plan to share that information.
Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling deceived or lied to in a relationship with someone, there is likely a toxic dynamic present, whether they think it is reasonable to share specific information or not. Trust is important to a healthy relationship, and if you find yourself unable to trust a person in your life, it is not a good idea to stay close to that person.
Some possible examples:
- They have a history of lying to or cheating on people.
- They lie to you.
- They demand high levels of privacy or secrecy between their mutual friends, for instance getting upset if you talk to friends about the relationship.
- You hear different stories from them and from others around them.
Blame is one of the more common toxic patterns, and falls into the areas that may feel petty or insignificant. It is also a challenging concept to navigate. We absolutely need to be able to hold people accountable for the ways that they violate our boundaries, and to express emotions we have about the ways they treat us or talk to us. However, it is important to remember that no one can “make us feel” anything. We own our own emotions. We own our own reactions. Blame is often found when someone who is toxic or abusive is called out for this behavior. “Well you were so out of control I ‘had’ to take charge of the situation and make you behave.” There are many options in response to someone’s actions being upsetting to us. We can walk away or we can set boundaries. However, if someone chooses to control you in response to their emotions about your behavior, this is not okay. They should not be making you responsible for their emotions or their actions. This is blame, and foists the responsibility of their own choices onto someone else. Someone else being toxic to you is never your fault. Conversely, blame can manifest from the opposite side, such as when people claim to do things “for your own good,” when you haven’t asked for this. It shows that they do not see you as responsible for your own behavior and may be an indication that they will not see themselves as responsible for their own behavior in the future, or do not generally see people as being agents or responsible adults.
Remember intent versus effect: If someone else is blaming you for their feelings or actions, there is likely a toxic dynamic present. They may very well have a lot of strong feelings in reaction to you or what you do, but that is not your responsibility, and you shouldn’t feel like it is. (Please keep in mind that all of this is assuming that you are not violating their consent. If you are not controlling or attempting to control them, and if their emotions are a result of you not letting them control you, then the responsibility is theirs. If you are violating their consent, then they have a very good reason to be upset.)
Some possible examples:
- They refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.
- They frame relationships around the concept of need instead of mutual and enthusiastic consent.
- They display signs of addiction to substances or behaviors.
- They dismiss your concerns because “their problems are worse.”
- They project their own feelings or behaviors onto you.
- They make you responsible for their happiness.
- They have high levels of insecurity and demand constant reassurance.
- They tend to manage you or do things “for your own good.”
- They imply that they are a burden or a bad influence on you and that you are incapable of telling them “no.”
- You find yourself cleaning up after their messes a lot.
- You find yourself giving them advice or find them giving you advice a lot.
- You spend a large amount of time obsessing over the relationship or trying to figure out how you can fix it without involving them in the process.
- It seems like all the problems in the relationship are “your fault” and the entire responsibility for fixing them is put on you, rather than making a team effort.
Confusion can be very similar to doubt and deception, but this is the category that most clearly illustrates that effects are more important than intent, and there is a reason I am distinguishing it from the other two. It is one of the most “passive” categories. Confusion happens, in its most basic form, when a person is a hypocrite. A toxic person may genuinely think they are living by their high ideals. They may not even be going out of their way to convince you of this (which might more accurately fall under gaslighting). Their reputation might precede them, as is the case with many “big personalities” and deep thinkers. But this doesn’t change the fact that when someone’s words and actions don’t line up, it makes it hard to call them out and to believe our own perceptions. If we are motivated to think highly of someone, and to give them the benefit of the doubt, it can be really hard to recognize that they are doing the exact opposite of what they claim to be doing much of the time. We might think they are unaware they’re doing it, and that is possibly the case. But if this type of thing is hurting us, we are absolutely justified in leaving, no matter how well someone talks their talk.
Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling confused and unable to put your finger on what a person is doing that is making you uneasy or hurt, there is likely a toxic dynamic. If their actions and words don’t seem to line up or if their behavior doesn’t seem to make sense, this is an important red flag that something may be amiss.
Some possible examples:
- Their actions and words don’t line up.
- They don’t seem able to be honest with themselves.
- They keep bringing up an issue that you thought was resolved.
- When having a discussion, they shift the topics rapidly to avoid resolving individual issues, otherwise known as “Moving the Goalposts.”
- You feel like you are getting mixed signals.
Now, there is a lot of nuance in talking about power, consent, and boundaries. These things can be complicated and confusing. I’ve given some examples above, but I’d like to talk about them more in depth. Everyone has a right to set boundaries. Actually, I’d say everyone has a responsibility to set boundaries. This is the only way we can communicate authentically with one another. I’d even go so far as to say that most toxic relationships exist because people either fail to set clear boundaries, or ignore unclear boundaries even if they notice them. They might not clearly set boundaries because they are afraid the other person will leave them if they do. They might ignore unclear boundaries because they want something out of the relationship and don’t want to understand that the other person doesn’t want it the same way.
Please start setting boundaries. The people in a relationship are more important than the relationship. Always. In order to be able to give consent to a relationship, the people within it must have a clear and accurate picture of who the other person is, to the best of their ability to communicate, in each moment. It is a form of deception to not set boundaries with someone, and it opens to the door to feeling consistently violated when someone walks all over boundaries that were never told to them in the first place.
In my observation, most toxic relationships are a result of one or both people deciding that their ability to stay in the relationship is more important than respecting the consent and well-being of the other person. This is, on some level, understandable. Our culture is riddled with examples of violating boundaries that seem completely normal. “If you loved me you would….,” “I’m doing this for your own good,” “You should want to…..” The dominant cultural romantic narrative is one of sacrifice and martyrdom for the ones we care for. Because we have grown up in such a culture, these kinds of things seem normal, or even desireable. However, I have not observed many cases of relationships governed by this narrative being healthy or sustainable.
Here’s the thing. What you want is valid. What they want is also valid. If what you want and what they want are incompatible, then the two of you are incompatible. That sucks, but it’s true. Neither of you is a horrible person for not wanting what the other person wants. However, if you decide to try to change yourself to fit another person, or if you decide to try to get another person to change to fit you, you are laying the groundwork for creating something toxic. Yes, someone you are in a relationship to should want to meet your needs (within reason) and want to bring you happiness (while remembering that your emotions are your own). But it is YOUR responsibility to find a person that really and authentically wants that. It is not the responsibility of someone you want in your life to give those things to you just because you want that and you want it specifically from them. It is not your right or responsibility to try to guilt, pressure, or force them to give it to you.
While every single person out there deserves love, and deserves relationships that are fulfilling to them, there is not a single person on this planet that owes that to any other person on this planet. The reality might be that people that are compatible with you are hard to find. That reality might be challenging, and it might be unfair to you, but it does not entitle to you start pushing other people around to fit into what you want.
This is a long post. It is long because toxicity is nuanced and rarely completely one-sided. The only thing this post can do is to help you notice and pay attention to those things that don’t feel right. It can’t tell you when it is right to leave. It can’t tell you the best way to protect yourself or keep yourself safe. It can’t tell you if a relationship is salvageable or not. It can’t tell you when toxicity crosses the boundary into abuse. The best that any of us can do in the face of toxic dynamics is to stop participating in them, whether that means setting, enforcing, and respecting boundaries, or whether it means walking away in full. Ultimately, you are responsible for deciding if something is worth sticking around for or not. I would encourage you to set high standards for this.