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

— by Dr. Sandip Roy.

“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
Photo by RODNAE Productions, Pexels

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

1. They Dismiss Your Feelings As Invalid.

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.

“Toxic people … are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them.”

— Travis Bradberry

[See the 20 red flags of a narcissist.]

2. They Emotionally Leave The Relationship.

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. They Hollow Out Your Self-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.

Worse, many of these people show that they are sadists inside. They derive satisfaction from creating chaos in your life, pushing your buttons to go into panic or rage, and leading you into harmful things.

When they see you getting submissive or resistant, they may start using outright insults to make you feel “useless” before others.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy love | Katie Hood | TED

4. They Become Hostile, Cruel, And Abusive.

The toxic person you love is probably damaged beyond repair. And they can hurt you so much that you aren’t left with any hope of getting better.

They can use anger, shame, or even alcohol or drugs to subdue you, the victim. Then they start inflicting physical, emotional, or sexual torture on you.

  • If your partner is physically violent with you, please seek help immediately. Reach out to your friends, family, and colleagues who support you. Don’t be afraid to involve the anti-abuse social groups and legal authorities.
  • Mental abuse can be just as damaging and can include subtle things like gaslighting, emotional blackmail, and slandering.
  • Toxic lovers can use sexual abuse as a way to punish the other person. It may include coercion, non-consensual acts, and pressure to engage in unnatural carnal acts.

5. They Seize Your Autonomy And Freedom.

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.

A bad relationship can make you doubt everything good you ever felt about yourself. They can feed you negative bits of news about you, minimize your achievements, and make you feel like you are a “loser” compared to others.

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

“Toxic relationships are like a cancer that slowly eats away at you.”

—Dr. Ramani Durvasula

6. They Turn Jealous, Envious, And Resentful.

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. They Lie, Cheat, Gaslight, & Triangulate.

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.

“A toxic relationship can be like quicksand, slowly pulling you under.”

— Terri Orbuch

8. They Cut You Off From Your 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.

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.

Love should not make you feel like walking on eggshells - PIN

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. They Keep Justifying Their Toxic Behavior.

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.

How Toxic Relationships Affect Your Health

Emotional Distress:

  • Emotional Upheavals: Navigating a rollercoaster of unpredictable emotions.
  • Anxiety and Panic Spells: Enduring frequent, stress-induced panic attacks.
  • Despondency: Feeling a persistent sense of hopelessness.
  • Depression: Suffering prolonged periods of deep sadness.
  • Feelings of Entrapment: Trapped by emotional, not just physical, bonds.
  • Emotional Dependency: Relying on the abuser for emotional sustenance.
  • Hypervigilance: Constantly bracing for emotional turmoil.
  • Fear of Partner’s Reactions: Anticipating hostility stifles genuine expression.

Physical Health Issues:

  • Stress and Anxiety: Relentless background stress can cause physical symptoms like headaches, migraines, muscle aches, fatigue, digestive issues, and a weakened immune response.
  • Physical Abuse: There can be signs of physical abuse by the toxic partner or the victim herself, leaving long-term scars and effects.
  • Medical Attention: Abuse-induced injuries may require medical/surgical attention and even hospital admission.

Difficulty Trusting Others:

  • Increased Distrust: A toxic relationship sows deep-seated skepticism towards others.
  • Guardedness: The victim adopts a defensive stance, hesitant to share personal thoughts or feelings.
  • Difficulty Forming Connections: Forming new relationships, and even talking to unfamiliar people, can seem like tough challenges due to past hurts.
  • Acknowledging Fear: There is a layer of fear that needs to be addressed as the first step towards healing.
  • Rebuilding Trust: Trust issues and emotional aloofness may need a slow, mindful approach to restore faith in others.

Lowered Self-Worth:

  • 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:

1. 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

“It is better for someone to break your heart once by leaving your life, than for them to stay in your life and break your heart continually.”–Terry Mark

2. 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, develop a safe getaway plan:

  • 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

3. End the Relationship

If you have seen a few of the signs above, and are losing hope that things will ever change for the better, it may be time to end it.

A breakup can be frightful. There are many things to fear — handling challenges without that person, autophobia, inability to find another person, people rejecting you, and financial hardships.

On the other side lies your safety and independence. You have to give up on people sometimes, not because you don’t care, but because they don’t.

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.

Give them the “gray rock” treatment until you have a getaway plan. Not playing is the best way to win with a toxic partner.

Seek Professional Help

If you are struggling to cope with a toxic relationship, seek professional help.

  • A therapist can provide emotional retraining and guidance as you go into the healing process.
  • They can help you see patterns in your past relationships and break those patterns moving forward.

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

How To Know If It’s Time To Move On?

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.

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

— Maya Angelou

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

 — Unknown


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 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 are constantly questioning your partner’s actions or motives, it may be a sign that your relationship is turning toxic. This may come from a lack of trust and can lead to feelings of insecurity.

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

You know best whether to end a relationship.

And when you do, then don’t feel guilty. Charles Orlando has a powerful message:

“You don’t let go of a bad relationship because you stop caring about them. You let go because you start caring about yourself.”

From my years of clinical experience treating relationship abuse victims, I know that:

A good way to deal with a perennially toxic person is to not try to make them see their faults, ask them to change themselves, or get them to agree with you. Make your peace your priority.

Dr. Sandip Roy.

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.

√ Also Read: How To Quit A Toxic Relationship?

√ Please spread the word if you found this helpful.

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