Toxic Relationships

Updated 3/22/22

All relationships have their struggles and all long-term relationships are hard work. However, some relationships exist with an extremely high level of stress without any end. In this post, I’m going to discuss why this happens, what to watch out for, and how to turn the page if you’re in this pattern.

What is a toxic relationship?

The term toxic relationship is thrown around in our field quite a lot. I hear it among sex therapists, couples therapists and Sex Addiction Therapists. But what exactly makes a relationship toxic?

Most relationships don’t begin toxic in a toxic state. So if you think of it as there is a chemical change in a pool of fresh water, it can take some time before the chemistry actually becomes toxic. This is true of relationships as well. Most relationships begin with people who are enjoying each others’ company. Over time, a combination of personal attachment issues, personal histories, life changes, and the emotional bond itself change. This can change the chemistry of your relationship.

There are always 3 processes going on in every relationship.

    1. Your relationship with yourself and your own history.
    2. Your partner’s relationship with their history and themselves.
    3. Your relationship itself and its history.

All of these things start to mix together when you’re with someone. It’s impossible to be in a relationship with no current baggage. However, many people aren’t even aware when there is an issue arising and where it’s coming from. This can lead to some serious ongoing issues in the relationship. These things can be big, obvious symptoms, or they can be smaller and more discreet. The smaller, more discreet things build up over time, while the larger, more problematic symptoms can cause immediate damage.

  • Defensiveness
  • Passive aggressiveness
  • Manipulation
  • Secrets
  • Game playing for validation
  • Using sex as a weapon
  • Avoidance
  • Belligerence
  • Blaming and shaming

Symptoms of a toxic relationship.

This can be a little complicated to define. However, the basic advice that I could give is to look for extremes. If things seem to be teetering towards an extreme, then it’s more likely that you’re going to end up in a toxic relationship.

The other thing is to look for loops and patterns. If you’re having an argument or debating issues over and over again with no resolution, you’re possibly in a pattern that can become toxic. This is even more commonly identified with intensified fighting and even more resistance to compromise.

Overall, the toxicity is when there are two things occurring at once. There is a lack of containment and a consistent pattern of hurting each other. You’ll probably easily understand the consistent pattern of hurt, but here’s how to think about containment. Are you able to manage and hold your emotions and release them in a way that doesn’t harm you or someone else? I would have you identify where you aren’t able to contain quite as well. It’s likely when you’re triggered by something. What is it that you’re triggered by?

There are entire books written on the topic, but here are some signs that you could be in a toxic relationship. It doesn’t mean that 100% for sure that you’re in a toxic relationship, but here are some things to look for:

  1. Disregard for your partners’ feelings.
  2. Focusing on your partners’ problems and issues rather than your own.
  3. A mountain of resentments.
  4. Unmanageable insecurities.
  5. Continuous fighting with no repair.

Off-label signs that your relationship is in a toxic pattern. 

There are also things that aren’t always directly linked to toxic relationships that you can look for as well. These are often behavioral outcomes that come from being in a relationship that has turned volatile and/or disconnected:

  1. Avoidance of talking about certain things.
  2. An over reliance on sex as an only source of connection.
  3. Secret keeping.
  4. Affairs and cheating.

If you’ve experienced these things, it’s quite possible that your relationship had some serious issues that you need to look at. This can very difficult as some of these issues include betrayal. When you’re in the midst of a betrayal, it’s very hard to examine the broad, complex issues that preceded the betrayal itself.

Why do these relationships continue? 

People often hang onto hope that the other person will change. Others stay because they’ve been so invalidated by someone who they really love that they want to have the person realize how valuable they are. Again, it’s important to build a solid relationship with yourself in all relationships, but toxic relationships are often filled with our own insecurities and wounds.

Is it possible to make relationship changes?

The short answer is “yes.” As long as everyone in the relationship is willing to put work in. This means that people have to be accountable and take responsibility for their own part. This can be really difficult because there are hurt feelings involved. When we’re hurt, it’s hard to let our guard down so that we can try different things. It’s also very vulnerable to let others know that we’re being accountable for mistakes, misunderstandings, etc.

If you experience these on a daily basis, you are likely in a relationship that would be considered to be toxic. Detoxifying your relationship needs to consist of the following:

  •    Opening up Communication
  •    Setting Clear Expectations
  •    Becoming Close Friends
  •    Being Assertive vs. Aggressive, Passive, or Passive Aggressive
  •    Accepting Differences
  •    Sexual Relationship Built on Respect
  •    Stop Assuming

Should you stay or go?

First rule is that people have to be physically safe. If the toxicity has turned to a point of physical violence, you need to separate until safety can be assured. You also have to be willing to accept that such safety may never happen with that person.

The other way of identifying whether you should stay or go is to have your own red lines in relationships. Identify what is never OK with you. If those things are crossed, then it’s likely time to move on.


Because of the difficulties people have with identifying that they are in a toxic relationship and the complexity of many of the issues associated with these problems, I highly recommend you seek out a counselor or therapist to help you and your partner improve on these skills.

If you’re in Texas and looking for a therapist to help you with issues surrounding relationship toxicity, please feel free to contact us today.