10 Early Signs of A Toxic Relationship: Are Yours Red Flags?

“A toxic relationship can be like a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode at any moment,” says narcissist abuse recovery coach Lisa Concepción.

Knowing the early signs of a toxic relationship can help you sort out the little problems before they blow up.

Do you feel lonely in your relationship? Spotting such red flags early on may save your relationship from sinking into a swamp.

Your toxic other can damage you emotionally and mentally in many subtle and serious ways, the effects of which can last long after you’ve left them.

Early Signs of A Toxic Relationship
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10 Early Signs of A Toxic Relationship

It can be difficult to recognize the early signs of a toxic relationship, especially when you are in it. 

Here are the common early signs of a toxic relationship:

1. Lack of Empathy and Support: When Your Feelings Are Dismissed

A key early sign of a toxic relationship is the increasing lack of empathy and support from your partner.

You may find that they are dismissive of your feelings or needs, and do not show any interest in your life outside the relationship.

This can leave you feeling isolated and lonely, and can be a red flag that your partner is not emotionally available to you.

[See the 20 red flags of a narcissist.]

2. Emotional Distance: When Your Partner Withdraws

If your partner starts to withdraw and become emotionally distant, it might signal a toxic relationship.

They could start canceling your plans together or stop communicating with you as much as they used to. This can leave you feeling confused and unsure of where you stand in the relationship.

In toxic relationships, you may feel like you’re the only one invested, leaving you trapped and unappreciated.

You feel trapped in a situation where you feel like, no matter what you do, it’s never enough for them.

They take your efforts for granted, in a way that they are entitled to everything that you do for them. While they act out of duty or in expectation of rewards rather than love.

3. Constant Criticism and Toxic Communication: Undermining Your Confidence

Another early sign of a toxic relationship is constant criticism and toxic communication.

Your partner may start to nitpick everything you do, and make you feel like you can never do anything right.

They may also use insults or put-downs to make you feel small and powerless.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy love | Katie Hood

4. Cruelty: Recognizing Physical, Mental, And Sexual Abuse

The toxic person may use anger, shame, or even alcohol or drugs to subdue you, the victim. Then they start inflicting physical, emotional, or sexual torture on you.

Abuse and cruelty can take many forms in a toxic relationship, including physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

  • If your partner is physically violent with you, it is important to seek help immediately.
  • Mental abuse can be just as damaging and can include things like gaslighting, manipulation, and emotional blackmail.
  • Sexual abuse can also occur in a toxic relationship, and can include coercion, non-consensual acts, and pressure to engage in sexual activity.

5. Controlling Behavior and Possessiveness: Losing Your Autonomy

Controlling behavior and possessiveness are also early signs of a toxic relationship.

Your partner may try to control who you see, what you wear, or how you spend your time.

They may also become possessive of you, and try to isolate you from friends and family.

6. Extreme Jealousy and Envy: Breeding Resentment and Hostility

Jealousy and envy can be signs of a toxic relationship, especially if they are extreme or unwarranted.

Your partner may become jealous of your relationships with others, or envious of your success or accomplishments.

This can lead to feelings of resentment and hostility in the relationship.

7. Deception and Manipulation: Lies, Gaslighting, Triangulation, and Cheating

If your partner starts to lie or deceive you, it can be a sign of a toxic relationship.

This can include half-truths, gaslighting, triangulation, and cheating.

If you catch your partner in a lie, it is important to confront them and make it clear that this behavior is not acceptable.

Even when you keep wishing you were out of the toxic person’s reach, imagining life without them feels overwhelming, making you put off cutting the tie.

8. Social Isolation: When Your Partner Cuts You Off From Loved Ones

If your partner tries to isolate you from friends and family, it can be a sign of a toxic relationship.

They may try to make you feel like you don’t need anyone else but them, or that your loved ones are not good for you. This is a red flag that they are attempting to cut off your support network.

A toxic relationship traps you, leaving you dependent on them for validation of your decisions.

Their excessive demands on your time and attention make you feel guilty for spending time with others.

This leaves you vulnerable and helpless, unable to share your struggles while they manipulate or hurt you. And ultimately pushes you into intense loneliness.

This study found that loneliness is strongly connected to sadness, fear, alertness, and hostility. These emotions form a feedback loop with loneliness, reinforcing each other.

The study also found that loneliness can impact emotional hypervigilance in daily life.

9. You Are Always Walking On Eggshells: Constant Hypervigilance

If you feel like you are always walking on eggshells around your partner, it could be a sign of a toxic relationship.

You can never relax or be yourself, afraid that any misstep could result in anger or punishment.

Hypervigilance in a relationship is an emotionally charged state where a person is constantly on edge, anxiously anticipating negative outcomes or harm.

The heightened sense of alertness can make it difficult to relax and have trust in the relationship. The perpetual fear of danger can stop the motivation to engage with them.

10. Justifying Toxic Behavior: When Excuses Become the Norm

If you find yourself making excuses for your partner’s toxic behavior, it may be a sign that you are in a toxic relationship.

You may try to justify their actions or blame yourself for their behavior, when in reality it is their responsibility to treat you with respect and kindness.

Effects of a Toxic Relationship

Emotional Distress

A toxic relationship deeply affects your emotional well-being, causing anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

Feelings of entrapment and emotional dependency can make leaving the relationship seem daunting, with fear of your partner’s reaction adding to the struggle.

Physical Health Issues

  • Toxic relationships can also harm your physical health.
  • Stress and anxiety may result in headaches, fatigue, and a compromised immune system.
  • In extreme cases, physical abuse can cause injuries and lasting health issues—seek medical attention if needed.

Difficulty Trusting Others

  • A toxic relationship can leave you distrustful of others.
  • This may make you become guarded and hesitant to open up, and difficult to establish and maintain new, healthy relationships.
  • Learn to acknowledge your fear and trust issues and slowly work to rebuild trust.

Lowering of Self-Esteem

  • A toxic person can damage your self-esteem, with criticism, manipulation, and belittling to make you doubt your worth.
  • Shame and remorse may persist beneath the surface, limiting your ability to break free.
  • Remind yourself that your self-worth doesn’t depend on someone else’s opinion.

What To Do When In A Toxic Relationship?

If you suspect that you are in a toxic relationship, it is important to act to protect yourself. Here are some steps you can take:

Recognize the Signs

The first step is to recognize the signs of a toxic relationship. As we discussed earlier in this article, some common signs include:

  • Constant criticism or belittling
  • Controlling behavior
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Jealousy and possessiveness
  • Verbal or physical abuse

Develop a Safety Plan

If you are in immediate danger, call emergency services right away. If you are not in immediate danger but still feel unsafe, it may be helpful to develop a safety plan. This could include things like:

  • Identifying a safe place to go if you need to leave quickly
  • Creating a code word to use with friends or family if you need help
  • Keeping important documents and belongings in a safe place

End the Relationship

If you have determined that your relationship is toxic, it may be time to end it.

This can be a difficult and frightful decision, but it must be done to prioritize your safety and well-being. Here are some tips for ending a toxic relationship:

  • Set boundaries and make them stick to them
  • Seek support from friends, family, or a therapist
  • Consider getting a restraining order if necessary
  • Be clear and direct about your decision to end the relationship

Seek Professional Help

Know that you’re not alone and there is help available.

If you are struggling to cope with a toxic relationship, seek professional help. A therapist can provide support and guidance as you navigate the healing process.

They can also help you identify patterns in your past relationships and work to break those patterns moving forward.

Assure yourself that healing takes time. Be patient with yourself, and don’t be afraid to seek support.

It is never selfish to protect and prioritize yourself. You deserve your own love, care, and compassion.

“The most important thing you can do in a toxic relationship is to put yourself first. That means setting boundaries, seeking support, and taking steps to protect yourself from harm.”- Dr. Ramani Durvasula

However, keep in mind that every relationship is unique, and a couple of these signs above may not warrant a breakup.

How to know if it’s time to move on?

“You can’t change someone who doesn’t see an issue in their actions. You can only change how you react to them.” — Unknown

If you are doing any of these, then it might be time to move on:

  1. You constantly think about the toxic person, always afraid of their wrath.
  2. Your attempts to change them add more stress and toxicity to your relationship.
  3. You believe you are not good enough, and that there is something wrong with you.
  4. You can’t bear how they make you feel, but you feel too helpless without them in your life.

Toxic Relationship Quotes

“The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.” — Maya Angelou

“Toxic relationships are like a cancer that slowly eats away at you.” — Dr. Ramani Durvasula

“Toxic relationships are like a slow poison that can take a toll on your mental and emotional health,”—Dr. Jennice Vilhauer

“A toxic relationship can be a major source of stress and anxiety.” — Dr. Melanie Greenberg

“Toxic relationships can be incredibly damaging to your mental and emotional health.” — Dr. Andrea Bonior

“A toxic relationship can be like quicksand, slowly pulling you under.” — Dr. Terri Orbuch

“Toxic relationships can be incredibly damaging to your mental health.” — Dr. Mariana Bockarova

“Toxic relationships can be like a slow poison, slowly eroding your sense of self-worth.” — Dr. Samantha Rodman

“Toxic relationships can be incredibly damaging to your mental and emotional health.” — Dr. Judith Orloff

“Toxic relationships not only make us unhappy; they corrupt our attitudes and dispositions in ways that undermine our healthy functioning.” — Dr. Barton Goldsmith

“It’s important to recognize that a toxic relationship is not a reflection of your worth as a person. You deserve to be treated with love and respect.” — Dr. Gary Brown

“If you’re in a toxic relationship, know that you’re not alone. There is help available, and you deserve to be in a healthy, loving relationship.” — Dr. Jenn Mann

“In a toxic relationship, you might consistently feel drained or unhappy after spending time with your partner.” — Jor-El Caraballo


Why do you, the victim, put up with their toxic behavior?

A victim may stay in a toxic relationship out of fear (for their own safety if they leave), emotional and financial dependency on the offender, lack of support, or the hope that their partner will change. They may also be burdened with shame, guilt, and low self-esteem, believing they are to blame for the toxicity, which can make leaving the abusive relationship difficult.

Why is it hard to start a new relationship after ending a toxic one?

Starting a new relationship after ending a toxic one can be difficult due to lingering emotional trauma affecting their ability to trust others and form healthy attachments. Moreover, the person may still be healing from the traumatic experiences, battling with feelings of guilt, shame, and low self-esteem, which can make them hesitant to open up to a new partner or fearful of repeating past mistakes.

How do I know if I am a toxic partner?

You can recognize if you are a toxic partner by reflecting on your relationship behaviors. Find out if you try to control their behavior, refuse to take responsibility for your actions, are manipulative, emotionally unavailable, tend to criticize or belittle your partner, and consistently hurt or cause them distress. The best way to find out is to ask them if they find your behaviors toxic. If you feel you are the toxic one, seek the help of a therapist or counselor to work through your underlying issues.

What are the early red flags of a toxic relationship?

One of the earliest signs of a toxic relationship is a breakdown of communication. If you cannot communicate effectively with your partner, and there are frequent misunderstandings and feelings of frustration, this may point to a cycle of negativity that is about to escalate.
Another early sign of a toxic relationship is a lack of trust. If you find yourself constantly questioning your partner’s actions or motives, it may be a sign that your relationship is turning toxic. This lack of trust can lead to feelings of insecurity and anxiety, which can have a negative impact on your mental health.

What does toxic love look like?

Toxic love appears as a high-stress, emotionally draining, and unstable relationship. Both people are conflicted and overly critical of one another, remaining hypervigilant, regretful, and even vengeful.

Final Words

My advice from my years of experience treating relationship abuse victims in my clinic:

“The right way to deal with a toxic person is to not engage with them, not try to make them see their faults, not try to change them, and not try to get them around to your point of view. Make your peace your priority.”

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Trust your instincts: If something doesn’t feel right in your relationship, it probably isn’t.
  • Don’t ignore red flags: Early signs of a toxic relationship can escalate quickly if left unchecked.
  • Notice if your partner treats you differently: This can be an accurate sign of their true character.
  • Take care of yourself: Prioritize your own well-being and don’t compromise your values or beliefs.

You deserve a healthy, loving relationship. Don’t settle for anything less.

• • •

Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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