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How Can I Tell If My Relationship Is Toxic?

Searches about toxic relationships have been pretty popular this year. Staying at home more often and spending more time alone with our partners and family members may have attributed to this question. A lot of people question toxic relationships beyond their romantic relationships, questioning their friends and family too. Any relationship can be a toxic one and here are some ways you can tell.

Toxic Traits in Relationships

  • One or both of you engage in a lot of criticism. This goes beyond a complaint and moves into attacking someone’s personality. “You are so lazy, you never do the dishes!”

  • There is a lot of defensiveness present. Defensiveness is playing the victim in order to shift blame. “Well I wouldn’t act this way if you didn’t ignore me all the time, you are the problem.”

  • Contempt is present. This goes beyond criticism and can be considered verbal abuse, name-calling, eye-rolling, mocking, and shutting down the other person's sense of self.

  • Shutting down and ignoring the other person otherwise known as stonewalling. This is when someone withdraws from speaking or interacting.

  • Dishonesty and direct lying. Even small lies create rifts in the trust in your relationship.

  • Cheating is never a sign of a healthy relationship.

  • One or both of you have a problem with drugs or alcohol.

  • Physical violence or property damage is present in the relationship. This includes physical harm directly or from throwing and breaking things.

What Can I Do If I Think My Relationship Is Toxic?

It can be hard to resolve toxic relationship traits without professional help. Often our concerns can become criticism and that brings out defensiveness. In John Gottman’s research, he found predictors for divorce he calls “The Four Horsemen'' which are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. These are all signs of unhealthy relationship traits. Here are some tips for the antidotes of those traits:


A good way to avoid criticism is to use a gentle start. This is where you talk about your feelings and needs in the situation without using blame. Instead of “You always call me names when we are in conflict and that is toxic,” try saying something like, “I feel hurt when I get called names, I need to take a break to avoid disrespect in our conflict.”


To avoid defensiveness, it helps to take responsibility. When your partner tells you that you haven’t been spending much time with them lately instead of giving an excuse about how much you’ve had to work, try saying, “You’re right, I haven’t made much time for us, maybe we can go out to dinner tonight.”


If there is contempt in your relationship, again, try expressing your own feelings and needs. Instead of yelling at your partner and calling them a degrading name, tell them, “I’m feeling really disrespected here and I need a break in order to speak calmly to you.”


A good antidote to stonewalling is self-soothing. Did you know taking time out to calm down and engaging in something relaxing can easily switch toxic communication into healthy communication? When we are emotionally flooded, we can’t think straight or listen to others because of our body going into fight or flight mode. Nothing good will come out of talking to our partners when we feel that way. Try taking a 20-minute break to engage in deep breathing, meditation, or anything distracting when you notice you are flooded during a conflict.

The best thing you can do is find an individual or couples therapist to discuss your concerns about your relationship. If you don’t feel safe addressing this with your partner, an individual therapist is a good place to start. If you feel safe enough, talk to your partner about your desire to improve your relationship and ask if they would be open to attending couples counseling with you. If the relationship is with a friend or family member, seek out a family counselor if both parties are open to it.

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