Whether it’s friends, family, or romantic partners, our relationships can build us up, help us relax, or make us better people. But not all relationships are healthy for us. While we used to just call them “bad friends,” the term toxic relationship brings a deeper differentiation from just a friend who doesn’t call on your birthday. Instead, a toxic relationship is one that is actively worsening our lives in some measure. Worst of all, it can be difficult to determine a toxic relationship because the toxicity may be mixed with good memories or fun times. Identifying a toxic and unhealthy relationship in your life can improve it immeasurably by allowing you to begin fixing the situation.

What is a Toxic Relationship?

One of the problems of the toxic relationship term is how broad of a definition it can have. Most tend to focus on individual traits or signs a toxic person may display. While these can be helpful, the signs also can differ because the context of your relationship is important in defining its toxicity. Instead, we should initially boil down what it is at the fundamental level.

A fulfilling relationship should support you when you need it, build you up to feel happier and secure, and not make you feel weak, scared, or ridiculed.

Any type of relationship can become toxic, but almost all toxic relationships lack support and respect. A fulfilling relationship should support you when you need it, build you up to feel happier and secure, and not make you feel weak, scared, or ridiculed. This person should also respect your autonomy, your beliefs, and your time. Together, respect and support are the cornerstones of a good relationship. A relationship that lacks these elements is missing what makes a friendship or partnership worthwhile.

More Specific Traits of Potential Toxicity

Now that we’ve addressed what toxic relationships are at their core, we can begin to look at some key signs of a toxic relationship and ways you can determine if you’re in one.

  • They are always criticizing or putting you down.

  • They are a bad influence on you.

  • You don’t like yourself when you are with them, i.e., they bring out bad traits in you.

  • They are always at the center of drama.

  • You can’t rely on them, but they demand reliability from you.

  • You feel manipulated or used by them.

  • They don’t respect your boundaries.

  • The spotlight must always be on them, even when it should be on you (birthdays, promotions, weddings, etc).

  • You feel relief when plans with them are cancelled.

  • There is outright abuse or bullying occurring within the relationship (get help immediately, if so).

The problem is that since the context matters so much, those traits can fit a lot of relationships. A strained friendship isn’t necessarily toxic. It’s important to consider how many of these traits are displayed regularly and in a pattern.

How Can You Find Signs if the Relationship is Toxic?

Even still, it can be difficult to identify a toxic relationship since you’re so close to the subject. You may even find yourself mentally writing-off red flags because you enjoy the friendship. Talking to trusted friends or family members who have witnessed the friendship or partnership or visiting a therapist can give you an important outsider’s perspective.

If you’re still not sure, you can test for certain traits. Testing a relationship normally isn’t a nice thing to do, but in this case, you’re specifically watching for signs of toxicity. For example, if your friend is overly critical, the next time you’re together, make a mental note of every time they criticize you. If they expect you to do all the work in the relationship, stop contacting them or planning get-togethers. If you don’t see or hear from them for a long period of time, it’s a clear indication of where they stand.

If you find that it doesn’t make you feel happy or a better, more fulfilled person, it may be a toxic relationship.

Finally, take an objective look at the actions and habits of your friend, family member, or partner (almost like a pros and cons list) to get a clear picture of the health of the relationship. If you find that it doesn’t make you feel happy or a better, more fulfilled person, it may be a toxic relationship.

What Can You Do About the Toxic Relationships?

If you believe you’re in a toxic relationship, you have a few routes you can take. An early step can be talking directly to the other person to discuss your concerns. From there, you can set clear boundaries in order to establish control and comfort within the relationship. This may be your only option if your toxic relationship is a family member, for example, so it may be worthwhile relying on a family therapist. If the person is willing to work on the relationship to improve it, you may be able to salvage it! If they are resistant or unwilling to, however, it may be time to take it to the next step.

Ultimately, you are prioritizing your mental and physical health over someone who hasn’t shown you support or respect to this point.

Here, you may want to simply spend less time with them. While this may not resolve the issue, it may allow you to maintain the relationship while keeping them at an arms-length. Instead, you can fill that time with other, healthier relationships in your life. This may not necessarily work with a romantic partner or someone who demands your time and attention.

The final step is to simply end the relationship. If the friendship or romantic entanglement is a detriment to your life, it may be for the best. This may be emotionally difficult, but you shouldn’t feel guilty. You’re prioritizing your mental and physical health over someone who hasn’t shown you support or respect to this point.

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Ultimately, what’s most important here is your well-being. Friendships can be life-changing and enrich our lives beyond measure, but only if they are built on care, support, and respect. If you find you’re in a toxic relationship, resolving it is one of the healthiest things you can do.