Agony aunt: toxic relationships

How do I know I’m in a toxic relationship, and what should I do if I am?

A toxic relationship can be defined as a relationship characterised by behaviours from an individual that are emotionally and physically damaging to their partner. In order to understand whether your relationship is toxic, you need to consider whether it fits into any of the following examples:

A belittling relationship

This is where an individual will completely belittle their partners’ ideas or anything they say (even in public), and sometimes cover it up with phrases such as “I’m just joking. Can’t you take a joke?”

Bad temper:

If you’re in a relationship where you have just given up trying to disagree with your partner because of their temper, then your relationship is toxic. If you confront their actions they often blame their outburst on you, stealing your ability to have any control in the relationship, which results in a huge reduction in your self-esteem and confidence.

Guilt-inducing behaviour:

This is where an individual controls the relationship by making their partner feel guilty. They will often include other people to enforce that guilt on you, for example, your boyfriend might tell you how disappointed their mother was that you didn’t come around for dinner last night. A guilt inducer has the power to temporarily remove guilt if you end up doing what he/she wants you to do.


This can present itself dangerously in one of two ways. If your partner is ‘over-dependent’, you’re likely to be making most of the decisions, meaning that the nature of the outcome is “your fault”. If you make a ‘wrong decision’, your partner will show it through passive aggressive behaviour. It is toxic to experience constant anxiety as you worry about the effect of your decisions on your partner.

On the other hand, your partner can be extremely independent and still have negative impacts on your life. The independent individual can control their partner by keeping up uncertainty, which can be highly distressing and make you feel insecure in the relationship.

“User” behaviour:

This can start with your partner seeming very friendly, which they are, as long as they get everything they want from you. The relationship becomes one-way nature in the sense that you will never end up doing enough for them. Users will drain you and will leave you if they find someone else who will do it more them.

Possessiveness and paranoia:

Your partner may start off being jealous over small matters, but over time they will become increasingly suspicious. For example, they will check the ‘Find Friends’ app if they feel you have gone somewhere without telling them or they will get suspicious if you spend more time with your friends than you said you would. This can prevent you from living your own life, and normally occurs if your partner has been lied to in the past.

However, just because you have experienced some of these scenarios before, doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationship is toxic. Most of us manipulate or control every so often (no one is perfect), but what distinguishes a toxic relationship is the severity and frequency of these situations.

Why do people behave in toxic ways and why do others put up with it? The answer applies to both people: poor self-esteem rooted in underlying insecurity. Toxic individuals behave this way because they don’t believe others will love them and willingly deal with their needs. Their partners stay with them because they too believe they are unlovable and no one else will meet their needs.

What to do?

So, what do you do if you’re in a toxic relationship? Unfortunately, you cannot change your partner, but you can change yourself. This may result in your partner deciding to change his/her behaviour too.

The ideal approach would be to calmly confront your partner by identifying the elements of their behaviour that are problematic, and suggesting other ways that would work better. You have to believe that you deserve to be treated with more respect in the relationship in order to make this work.

The only way to turn a toxic relationship into a healthy one is being willing to leave the relationship if nothing changes. If you’re unwilling to leave, you will have limited power in your relationship because your toxic partner will know ultimately, regardless of what they do, you won’t actually leave. You need to have enough self-confidence to know that you will be alright if your relationship ends. If they repeatedly refuse to make necessary changes, then ending the relationship is your only escape from their toxic behaviour.

Taylor Sands

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