How do you know if you are in a toxic relationship?


In this article:

  • October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence doesn’t always start with physical or verbal abuse—we discuss how to spot the signs of a toxic relationship.

  • When should you leave a toxic relationship? Think about how you would feel if someone you loved were in a similar relationship.

  • If you or someone you know may be in a toxic or violent relationship, and you need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233

When many people think of domestic violence, they picture a partner being physically abusive or exploding in a torrent of verbal abuse. It’s true that those two situations are part of the definition of domestic violence, but this hostility doesn’t always start with such obvious displays of abusive behavior. Often, a relationship exhibits signs of toxicity that can escalate over time.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which means it’s a good time to take a look at your relationships and your loved ones’ relationships to discern whether there might be warning signs of abuse. Last year, Providence’s Innovations of Health podcast focused on identifying and finding safety from domestic violence. This year, it talks about recognizing the traits of a toxic relationship. Host Brette Borow, founder and CEO of HerFeed, spoke with Anna Nuun, licensed marriage and family therapist for the Providence St. Joseph Mission Heritage Medical Group. Here are a few of the topics they discussed and what to do if you spot warning signs:

Identifying patterns in relationships

Nuun identified communication and trust as two of the most important traits of a healthy relationship, but she said it’s also important to establish healthy patterns. “Using the example of honesty,” she said, “it's this predictability that my partner and I are going to communicate with each other honestly, regardless of how difficult the situation we're in is, regardless of what's come up last minute, regardless of all the vulnerabilities that we have. When you create these patterns, you know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from you.”

When two partners have established patterns of communication, trust and honesty, they can feel safe with each other.

What is a toxic relationship?

In toxic relationships, on the other hand, there is an imbalance between the two people. One partner may be working harder than the other, and while the results are most obvious when there is physical, verbal or emotional abuse, there can be subtle signs, too. For example, if you are going out with your friends, your partner may say they’re going to miss you too much and would rather you just spend the night with them. If that happens just once, it may not be a big deal. But if your partner continues isolating you from your family and friends, that establishes a troublesome pattern.

Another subtle pattern occurs if you always assume you’re wrong, and your partner steps in to “fix” your mistake. That creates an unhealthy dependency on the partner, who can then use that dependency to control you. Over time, you tell yourself you’re very lucky to have this person in your life, which makes it difficult to spot when your relationship with your partner is becoming abusive.

“These isolated incidents that happened once or twice may not seem like a big enough thing,” said Nuun. “But over time, you really start to get into the pattern of it growing, and that's when more of the violence can happen — the explosions, the name calling.”


Nuun pointed out that some partners use gaslighting to control the other person in the relationship. Over the last few years, “gaslighting” has become a commonly used word, but not everyone knows what it means. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to confuse the victim, causing them to question their own judgement. Some signs of gaslighting in a relationship can include:

  • Lying about something and then refusing to admit the lie.
  • Telling you that you are overreacting.
  • Saying that if you acted differently, they wouldn’t treat you like this, so it’s really your fault.
  • Minimizing hurtful behavior with phrases like, “It’s just a joke.”
  • Insisting that something you remember never happened, or that you remember it wrong.

When your partner is gaslighting you, you can feel isolated and powerless, and it can damage your self-esteem and your ability to build healthy relationships with them and others.

How you can know when to leave

If you are unsure whether you are in a toxic relationship or just going through a “rough patch,” Nuun suggests using this test: Think about your favorite person in the world. If you were to swap places with them and someone was treating them this way, would you be OK with that? If not, that’s a huge red flag. “Somewhere, we have our instincts,” said Nuun. “But our instincts get lost because our  insecurities come up to say, you know, maybe on some level he or she is right.”

It’s also important to consider how much you are communicating in the relationship. A “rough patch” is only acceptable in a relationship when both partners are taking action steps to get better. In a toxic relationship, there is no problem-solving taking place.

If you or someone you know may be in a toxic or violent relationship, and you need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233

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Related resources

A list of local and national behavioral health resources

Stories from Providence Intervention Center

Real talk about consent and sexual assault


This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Providence Mental Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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