Need to know
Ashley, a 37-year-old woman whose name we’ve changed to protect her confidentiality, first started dating a man we’ll call John when she was 19. For the first nine years of the relationship, they lived apart and broke up twice. Though they went through on-again, off-again cycles, they eventually married, and Ashley moved in with John, a man she saw as her high-school sweetheart. Soon, his previously covert tactics of control (such as micromanaging how she loaded the dishwasher) became more overt and distressing (such as forbidding Ashley from having friends and family to visit, and making physical threats). After six years of a toxic marriage, Ashley finally managed to get out. She describes her story as a long and painful process of becoming an emotionally mature adult.
In our work, as psychologists in both private practice and hospital settings, we meet many clients like Ashley – and we’ll return to her story later. Many of these clients describe feeling as though something is seriously off in their relationship, yet they struggle to pinpoint the source, especially when the abuse and control are psychological in nature. These harmful non-physical interactions can be almost invisible, and those experiencing them often end up suffering for far too long. Many of these people are stuck in what we would call a ‘toxic relationship’, which can be described as a pattern of interactions that induce emotional harm and drain to either or both parties involved.
Do you find yourself in a relationship where you feel something is off, but can’t quite put your finger on it? Perhaps you experience chronic confusion, feel on edge, and are riddled with anxiety? When you attempt to address concerns with your partner, do you leave the conversation feeling more confused? Do conflicts result in escalated screaming matches? Are tactics used such as slamming things or standing in doorways to block the other from leaving? When friends and family raise concerns, do you try to convince them about what is so wonderful about your relationship? Do you interrupt your partner and find yourself unable to manage your own emotions in their presence? Do you dislike the person you have become in this relationship? Are you wondering if perhaps your relationship might be toxic?
In this Guide, we will help you process what is happening. If you come to believe that you’re in a toxic relationship, we will offer practical guidance on how to safely exit.
What to do
Take stock of your relationship
If you’re worried about your relationship, there’s a theoretical framework in psychology that might help. It’s called the Stages of Change Model, and it describes the different stages that people go through when they’re considering making changes in life. The first stage is the precontemplation stage. If you’re in a toxic relationship, but you don’t fully realise it – then this is the stage you’re at.
During precontemplation, you might be dealing with difficult feelings or emotions, but you haven’t yet identified the roots of your problems, and you’re not yet actively considering solutions. At this point, you might be confused or unaware that abuse is happening. Identifying the cause of your problems and speaking out about them can be challenging, especially if your partner resorts to belittling and disregarding your experiences. This is even more so if the toxic relationship dynamics have persisted over an extended period. Hopefully, the following steps of this Guide will help you get out of the precontemplation stage and into the next stage, known as contemplation.
To see what the precontemplation stage can look like, let’s return to Ashley’s story. (Although we’ve used her experiences as an illustration throughout this Guide, note that men too can be trapped in toxic relationships.) Like many people in toxic relationships, for a long time Ashley’s judgment was clouded by her empathy for her partner. Today, as she looks back on the relationship, she can see a million red flags flapping in the wind. Yet, at the time, these things were almost impossible for her to detect: subtle dysfunctions that made the relationship toxic.
There was jealousy, possessiveness, being blamed for his emotional state, stonewalling (which amplified her chaotic emotions and desperation), and his constant challenging of her commitment and love. Because of her partner’s insecurities, Ashley thought she had to prove her love to him. She thought his needs were more important than her own. She thought how he felt and what he wanted mattered more than anything she felt and needed. If she was not prioritising his feelings, she feared she would face punishment by being ignored or accused of things that were not true. While they were dating, Ashley’s partner would ignore her for days to weeks. After they got married, this escalated to months.
Know the red flags
If you have a hunch that there is something significantly wrong and harmful with your relationship, then, according to the Stages of Change Model, you are entering the contemplation stage. This stage doesn’t involve doing anything about the situation; it’s where you start to generate ideas for making a change, which takes courage. To help you reach this stage or work through it, here are some more detailed examples of the kinds of behaviours that often show up in toxic relationships:
- microaggressions: verbal or nonverbal actions that transmit animosity, disregard or bias towards your identity or attributes. Such actions might involve rejection or invalidation of your emotions and experiences, name-calling and belittlement. Also watch out for degrading, patronising or contemptuous comments, and/or dismissal of your viewpoints and apprehensions;
- psychological aggression: the use of spoken and unspoken language to intentionally cause emotional and mental harm to someone in order to establish dominance over them;
- explosive anger: sudden outbursts of overwhelming and extreme displays of uncontrolled emotion;
- coercion: the use of force, threats, intimidation or manipulation to compel an individual to behave in a certain way due to the creation of fear or anxiety;
- intimidation: the use of threats or aggressive behaviours to generate an atmosphere of fear;
- manipulation: subtle or overt efforts to influence or control the thoughts, feelings, decisions or actions of a partner, often through deceptive or dishonest tactics;
- gaslighting: playing with the other person’s perception of reality to make them distrust their own instincts, reflections or judgment;
- economic control: putting restraints over financial resources to limit the other person’s autonomy and decisions;
- threats: declaring threats of physical harm and intentional efforts to intimidate, demean, seclude or disregard an individual;
- humiliation: intentionally degrading, belittling, shaming or embarrassing a partner by subjecting them to situations or comments that weaken their self-worth and dignity;
- isolation: attempting to separate a person from their supportive social network to increase their dependence on the intimidator. These methods are used to cause detriment to an individual’s sense of personal value or psychological wellbeing; and
- physical violence: the purposeful use of physical force and conduct to cause bodily harm to one’s intimate partner.
Questions to ask yourself if you’re worried
An important way to spot that a relationship is toxic is to consider whether any of these red flags show up consistently, and to become aware of any extreme and/or rigid patterns of behaviour. To help you assess your own relationship, here are some further questions to ask yourself:
How are decisions made in the relationship? If you notice your partner makes all the decisions and you’re just going along with them, that might be an indicator that something is amiss. Likewise, is there equal consideration for both parties’ wellbeing, or is there a pattern where all the decisions favour only your partner?
Who is saying ‘no’ to what? Is your partner not communicating with you? Are they withholding sex? Are they withholding purchases or controlling finances? In a toxic relationship, your partner might refuse to discuss topics such as finances, extended family, sexual issues and religious practices. Not allowing certain subjects to be discussed, and shutting out a partner’s opinions is a way of controlling decision-making. Does your partner put limits on how often you discuss something or what you can bring up as a concern?
Are you ‘allowed’ to talk to other people about your relationship? What are the unspoken rules and expectations in your relationship? Does your partner dictate who you are permitted to speak to? Are these boundaries reasonable or is your partner attempting to control and manage their insecurities? Is there secrecy surrounding the relationship?
How long do arguments last and what do they look like? After an argument, does it take a long time for your emotional connection to return to a state of harmony? Do your arguments escalate to screaming? Does one person silence the other? Are issues ignored? If you try to leave to take a break, does your partner follow you or block your path? If you answered yes to any of these questions, that could be a sign something is seriously amiss.
Are arguments used to punish you? Does your partner withhold affection and communication rather than solving the potential issues? Stonewalling can be a severely harmful form of abuse because it not only increases a sense of abandonment, but also takes power away from the partner being stonewalled. It is often a tactic used to get one’s needs met without having to be vulnerable or direct, and it can help to maintain control. Taking breaks from arguments helps de-escalate conflict between partners, but only when those breaks result in both parties coming back together to negotiate and hear one another out.
Do you respect one another’s boundaries and wishes? Is there empathy, respect and care for each other’s needs, feelings and autonomy? Is there openness, acceptance and accommodation on both sides? If not, this is a worrying sign.
Is your partner rushing things? Does the romance seem too good to be true? In the early stages of your relationship, did your partner engage in ‘love bombing’: making grandiose gestures of affection, aggressively planning for your future together, or trying to lock in commitment by marriage or pregnancy? Do you feel they were rushing the relationship? Remember, time is the best resource for assessing the health of a relationship across different contexts – for getting a feel for your partner’s family dynamics, their friendships, how they manage conflict, and how they cope with stress and grief. Time will allow you to see whether their apparent values and words match up with their behaviours. Our clients who are in toxic relationships often feel as though they were rushed into the relationship. Now they feel stuck because they are dependent on their partner for housing or finances, or because of ongoing manipulation. So, try, if you can, to allow enough time to pass before progressing to the next level of your relationship.
As you think about your answers to these questions, pay attention to the patterns, themes and persistent behaviours that arise. Start writing things down. Privately take notes of what you observe and experience. Also, share your concerns with friends and other people you trust to gain a more objective perspective on your relationship.
A key moment of awareness for Ashley came a dozen years into her relationship, while she was on her way to meet a group of college friends for Valentine’s Day brunch. Ashley had offered to pay for the meal of a friend as thanks for this friend driving her there. The closer they came to the exit for their brunch date, the more Ashley’s anxiety escalated. Her vision became blurry and she began to feel weepy and shaky. She felt guilty, as though she was doing something terribly wrong. She later realised that this was a fear response. She was terrified because she had been anticipating the wrath of her husband when he found out that she had covered the cost of two people. Ashley was worried she would be punished with verbal berating, criticism or, worse, stonewalling.
Do something about your situation
It took Ashley three years of active education, seeking professional help, and deep personal emotional work before she could identify the abuse in her relationship and start making changes. According to the Stages of Change Model, she had entered the action stage – when you’re ready to take action to make adjustments to your relationship. If you feel ready to try to detoxify your relationship, here are some key steps to take:
Use clear and direct communication in setting boundaries and expressing your wants and needs. To explore the state of your relationship honestly, it is imperative that you express your thoughts, beliefs and emotions. A helpful starting point can be to establish a clear understanding of your core values. Take time to reflect on what matters most to you, such as a peaceful life, good relationships with family and friends, having children, a career, meaningful goals, a supportive partnership. Doing this can enhance your confidence and assertiveness when you discuss boundaries with your partner and help you begin making changes to the relationship.
Ashley’s core values for family and emotional closeness were threatened by her husband’s behaviour and attitude throughout the relationship: not allowing people into their home, being hypercritical of her friends and family, and refusing to attend social events – all forms of manipulative isolation.
‘What I wish I would have done [back] then, was to set boundaries, communicate my needs more directly, and be willing to let the person go,’ reflects Ashley. ‘I wish I would have had standards for myself to not put up with this kind of treatment. I wish I would have made different choices.’ If you recognise yourself in these accounts, try to avoid being quiet about concerns or issues you have in the relationship. Be sure to speak up clearly and honestly about what you want or where you might disagree.
Share what is going on in private. Talk to your trusted friends and family – it will help you get a clearer perspective of your situation and the changes you need to make. Very late in her toxic relationship, Ashley began disclosing what she was experiencing at home to a few friends. Having other people reflect on her situation and share their reactions helped validate her experience. It also provided an outside perspective on the harmful ways in which she had been treated, while highlighting how abnormal the dynamics were.
Develop strong coping strategies. Being in a toxic relationship can lead you to feel excessively dependent on your partner, and make you want to withdraw socially. This might be because the gradual erosion of your self-esteem has made you fearful, or because of the control and isolation tactics used by your partner. To overcome these difficulties, it’s vital that you develop psychological and emotional coping strategies, including working to bolster your self-esteem and resilience. It’s beyond the scope of this Guide to elaborate on these strategies, but other Psyche Guides might help you to cope with difficult emotions, motivate yourself to change and engage with life when you feel down. One particularly important coping strategy is to build connections with trusted support systems, such as close friends, mentors or a therapist.
Prepare to experience guilt. Feeling guilty as you try to make changes in the relationship is completely normal. This can be for many reasons, including your partner’s manipulation tactics or a fear of being judged by society or your immediate social circle. If you have a history of being blamed for others’ emotions and life outcomes, you might be especially likely to feel guilty when trying to assert yourself or set boundaries.
It’s important to deal with these feelings because, left unaddressed, they could deter you from making the changes you need to make. Whenever these guilty feelings rise up, lean in to them and ask yourself: ‘What is causing this feeling?’ This will help you identify where the guilt comes from and if it is something you should be taking responsibility for. Here are some examples we’ve heard:
‘I feel guilty leaving my partner at home this weekend while I go on a retreat because society has told me my place as a mother is to stay home.’
‘I feel guilty because my partner is telling me that I am selfish for wanting to go back to college.’
‘I feel guilty for not going to my partner’s family dinner, even though her mother publicly mocks me when I am there.’
Articulating your feelings in this way will help you recognise which feelings of guilt are reasonable and justified and which are not. Talking things over with a trusted friend or relative will also help. Developing a better understanding of the source of your guilt could help you to overcome or reduce it, allowing you to stay focused on making the changes to your relationship that you need to make.
Keep some things personal and separate. Aim to develop a sense of agency and autonomy outside of the relationship. This is especially important if there is an ongoing and unhealthy codependency in your relationship – that is, the sense that each partner can survive only with the exclusive help of the other. Say you enjoy rock climbing and your partner prefers reading. It is OK for you to feed your personal interest while your partner supports you emotionally as they stay home and read a book without you. It’s also appropriate to have friendships separate from your partner and to obtain support from them that your partner is unable to give you. You and your partner alone cannot meet all of each other’s needs. The key is that there exists both separateness and a sense of connection with your partner. Trust and boundaries are important to achieving this.
Seek therapeutic support. If you are in a position to do so, it will help you to assess and understand your situation if you take part in individual therapy. Your therapist can support you in your efforts to improve your relationship and, if necessary, in making decisions around ending it. Couples therapy can also be a safe place for you and your partner to process and explore what you feel and think, and to identify the history and patterns in your relationship that are contributing to your distress. The couples therapist can also provide an objective perspective and highlight the problematic interactions you’re unaware of. Many couples wait until they are at a peak crisis to engage in therapy together. Don’t wait so long. A word of warning though: you should avoid couples therapy if there is any ongoing physical abuse in the relationship, in which case, you need to get out – see the next step of this Guide.
In the Stages of Change Model, the next stage is the maintenance period. If you’ve managed to achieve some meaningful positive changes in your relationship, this stage is about ensuring the positive changes you’ve made are lasting. To do this, you might want to have check-ins about how things are going in the relationship. Are there unaddressed issues? Are you slipping into old habits? Are you making time to maintain and reinforce the changes you have made to work towards a healthier relationship?
On the other hand, if you can’t detoxify the relationship, then you need to get out. In which case, the maintenance phase is about ensuring you don’t lapse back into the relationship or end up in a different toxic relationship. More on that in the next and final step (and the Learn More section below).
If you need to get out, create a safety plan
‘I enabled and stayed in an abusive relationship with this person for 14 years!’ says Ashley. ‘Those 14 years of emotional whiplash have resulted in many missed opportunities. Throughout my life, I missed out on living in other cities, going to specific schools I was accepted to, and living in emotional freedom. My vulnerability was exploited while I was dehumanised and devalued. I feel sorry for the young girl who was so naive and abused.’ Until Ashley learned to love herself and uproot so many of the unspoken rules and dynamics that had begun in her family history, she was unable to detect that her relationship was toxic.
Many of Ashley’s family and friends could sense things were harmful, yet she actively protected her own narrative: ‘I still contend that leaving my marriage was the hardest decision I have made in my entire life.’
Of course, we can’t tell you in this Guide whether you need to exit your relationship (unless you are being physically abused – in which case you should get out urgently), but it’s perhaps worth noting that oftentimes people return to and stay in toxic relationships because they can be intoxicating.
A high intensity of emotions produces an impact similar to that of drug use. Being codependent on another person can be intense in this way; it can feel addictive. The thought of losing your codependent partner can make you feel desperate. So, when the relationship, with all its serious flaws, does continue, you might have an overwhelming high of relief. For Ashley, when the lulls of being ignored resulted in her ex coming back to give her attention, it brought her a flood of intense soothing emotions. The emotions were extreme at both ends – during the abandonment and during the attention later given.
Besides codependency, there are other complex factors in toxic relationships that might keep the bonds strong, such as economic inequalities, and acquired or imposed social and gender roles. These make it difficult to emotionally detach and move on as an individual. Many people stay stuck in toxic relationships because of financial dependency, religion or their children. In fact, a toxic partner might weaponise your shared children as a way to manipulate you. You might fear that, if you leave, you won’t be there to protect them. Talking to trusted friends, relatives or a therapist will help you consider how these factors might be affecting you.
If you’ve tried everything you can to improve the relationship but to no avail, or you’re experiencing ongoing abuse and you’ve made the decision to get out urgently, here are some basic guidelines to follow:
Make sure you have a plan in place for after you’ve left the relationship. It’s vital that you take the risk of severe or deadly harm seriously, especially if your partner is volatile, abuses substances, or has a prior history of violence.
- Secure a place to go/stay.
- Make an extra set of car keys accessible.
- Keep your phone charged and accessible at all times.
- Stay in regular and frequent communication with your family and friends.
- Prepare any children or pets for what happens next.
- Keep an emergency escape bag packed with clothes, toiletries, etc.
- If you are married or have other legal ties to your partner, meet with your lawyer in private to prepare the next steps.
- If you suspect your partner is tracking your whereabouts, then erase all search histories and information from your electronic devices.
- If at any point you feel threatened, call the police.
Once out of a toxic relationship – or safe from the harm of an abusive relationship – many of our clients have experienced a boost in their ability to function in various aspects of their lives. They often feel a resurgence of joy and pleasure that were suppressed while they endured the toxic relationship. We wish these positive outcomes for you too. For more on life after a toxic relationship, please see the Learn More section below.
Key points – How to end a toxic relationship
- Learn to distinguish healthy from toxic relationships. A healthy relationship involves feeling accepted and secure. A toxic relationship causes chronic emotional and/or physical harm.
- Take stock of your own relationship. If you have a nagging feeling that something is seriously off, it’s important that you slow down and look at what’s going on.
- Know the red flags. These range from microaggressions to financial control to gaslighting to violence.
- If you’re worried, ask these questions. If you think your relationship might be toxic, dig deeper by asking yourself questions such as ‘Who says “no” to what in your relationship?’ and ‘Does your partner seem too good to be true?’
- Do something about your situation. If it’s safe to do so, speak up clearly and honestly about your concerns, develop coping strategies, and prepare to deal with feelings of guilt.
- If you need to get out, create a safety plan. If your partner is volatile, take the risks seriously and plan your exit carefully. This includes having a safe place to go and stay.
Reasons for hope after a toxic relationship
Watching clients transform after they leave a toxic relationship (or establish healthy boundaries) is why we stay in the business of therapy. Moving away from a toxic relationship results in a vast shift in one’s sense of self: decreased anxiety, and clarity of one’s thoughts, feelings and needs. The confidence that comes with being in a healthy interdependent relationship fosters the kind of connection and support we talked about earlier in the Need to Know section above. After they’ve left a toxic relationship, it doesn’t take long before we see our clients’ moods improve; they soon begin to thrive with a sense of optimism, freedom and hope. Change is no small feat. It often comes with uncomfortable emotions such as sadness and grief. However, for our clients, the payoffs outweigh the negative emotions.
After you leave a toxic relationship, it can be helpful to resume therapy to continue processing what happened in the relationship and to explore your own history, attitudes and beliefs that might have contributed to the problems. Embark on self-exploration. Take time to grow confident and grounded in yourself. Do not rush into a new relationship, as you could repeat the patterns that existed in your last one. Learn what healthy relationships are. Learn who you are. And don’t hesitate to set boundaries – they are critical for fostering reciprocal regard in a relationship. If your boundaries are not being honoured, it may suggest you and your partner need more time to find ways to navigate relationships with respect.
Give yourself and any new potential partners time to explore whether you can be in a healthy relationship. In the dating phase, assess how you work through conflict together and whether trust can exist over time. Allow feedback and sharing in your social circles in order to gain an outside perspective from those you trust.
Maintaining healthy relationships
After ending a toxic relationship, it is vital to cultivate a community of support to sustain what the Stages of Change Model refers to as the maintenance phase. In this phase, you will increase your sense of self, take emotional responsibility, and become self-sufficient.
Remember, healthy relationships are marked by mutuality: mutual love, respect, trust and vulnerability. They involve equal distribution of labour, shared values, and standing in as a witness to each other’s life changes. Couples who feel a sense of equality report higher levels of satisfaction, trust, dependability, emotional connection and more open communication. As a relationship philosophy, it is important for couples to understand the necessary balance between autonomy and connection. You must be able to maintain your emotional self, friendships and hobbies outside of the relationship, as well as a sense of closeness and shared meaning with your partner.
Effective communication serves as the cornerstone for demonstrating affection between romantic partners. It is an essential element for cultivating robust connections. The ability to self-regulate while tuning in to your partner’s thoughts, feelings and needs is a core element of being an emotionally healthy adult. Conflict is normal and exists in all relationships. Listening with empathy and care in a calm and constructive way is the best recipe for maintaining a connected relationship, while still holding space for respectful disagreements.
Links & books
The episode ‘Defining Emotionally Abusive Behaviour’ (2020) of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People talks about common issues that are observed among couples and helping them identify red flags.
In the episode ‘Should I Stay or Go?’ (2016) of the Dear Sugars podcast, the hosts Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond answer a series of letters sent by people who aren’t sure if they should leave their relationship.
The book Attached (2010) by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller shows what a secure attachment looks like.
The book The Emotionally Destructive Relationship: Seeing It, Stopping It, Surviving It (2007) by Leslie Vernick covers how to identify and track the invisible elements of a toxic relationship.
In the US, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource for identifying what might be considered toxic or abusive, from financial to psychological to physical forms of abuse. They can be contacted on 1-800-799-7233, or text START to 88788.
In the UK, Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is 0808 2000 247.
In Australia, the support service 1800RESPECT can be contacted on 1800 737 732.
The PDF ‘How to Identify and Cope with Emotional Abuse’ (2018) produced by Verywell Mind describes examples of abuse and specific behaviours that might be difficult to recognise as toxic.
The US Government’s Office on Women’s Health lists steps to help in leaving an abusive relationship safely.