Love is one of the most profound emotions that humans experience. When we fall in love, we feel alive, seen, understood. Love lights up the brain’s reward circuitry like nothing else. It can be the most exhilarating and transformative experience. However, love also has a darker side. Sometimes, love that starts off healthy ends up becoming toxic and destructive.
What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship is one that leaves you feeling anxious, sad, lonely, or insecure on a regular basis. In a healthy relationship, both partners support each other’s growth. In a toxic relationship, one partner tries to exert control and power over the other. Toxic relationships are characterized by jealousy, manipulation, lying, criticizing, and controlling behavior. The toxicity stems from issues like poor communication, incompatible values, lack of trust, disrespect, and an imbalance of power. At its worst, a toxic relationship can turn into psychological, emotional or physical abuse.
Signs of a toxic relationship
- Feeling like you have to walk on eggshells around your partner
- Often feeling anxious about your relationship
- Partner isolates you from family/friends
- Partner puts you down, criticizes you often
- Partner tries to control your actions/decisions
- Partner checks up on you excessively via calls/texts
- Frequent lying, manipulation, jealousy from your partner
- Partner has major anger issues
- Partner makes you feel guilty often
- Partner cheats on you but blames you for it
Stages of a toxic relationship
Toxic relationships often start out healthy, with both partners treating each other well. However, over time toxicity creeps in through a series of stages:
1. The honeymoon phase
This is when the relationship feels exciting and dream-like. Everything seems perfect, your partner puts you on a pedestal. You cannot believe you found someone so amazing. During this stage, some warning signs like jealousy or controlling behavior may emerge but you chalk it up to them just really liking you.
2. Tension building
Over time, you start noticing your partner’s flaws more. Disagreements happen occasionally. Something feels off. You realize your partner can get insanely jealous over small things or tries to restrict your freedom. However, these instances are still infrequent so you let them slide.
3. Blow up
Major fights happen where toxic behavior can no longer be ignored. Your partner may scream at you, put you down or even get physical at this stage. They later apologize and promise to improve, which leads you to give them another chance.
4. Honeymoon again
Your partner goes back to treating you extra nicely for a while. They promise to change and be less controlling. They again behave like the person you fell in love with. You feel hopeful that the relationship will get better.
5. Repeat cycle
The tension keeps building again though, leading to another blow up down the road. The time between blow ups keeps reducing. You walk on eggshells to avoid setting your partner off. But the cycle repeats again and again, with the relationship getting more toxic over time.
Why people stay in toxic relationships
When a relationship turns toxic, why do people stay instead of leaving? There are many complex reasons for this:
People with poor self-esteem often feel they do not deserve better treatment. Their partner reinforces this by constantly putting them down.
It is hard to accept that the once sweet partner turned into an abuser. Easier to rationalize their behavior than face reality.
The thought of being single again can be scary for some. They worry about never finding love.
If someone grew up around abuse, they may think it is normal behavior in relationships.
When in love, people can dismiss red flags easily. The heart wants to believe the partner will change.
Years of put-downs can destroy self-confidence. The victim feels unworthy of better treatment.
Guilt and shame
Abusers make victims feel like the abuse is their own fault. This stops them from opening up.
Some victims depend entirely on their partner’s income. They feel trapped in the relationship.
The partner may threaten to harm them if they leave. This fear keeps them from getting out.
Walking away from an abusive relationship is tough after investing time, energy and emotions in it.
If a partner promises to improve, victims feel hopeful and give them one more chance.
How to heal after leaving a toxic relationship
Ending a toxic relationship takes tremendous courage. The decision to leave is just the first step though. The healing process after can be challenging but these strategies help:
Cut all contact
Your ex may try to manipulate you into coming back. Block them on everything to avoid this.
Spend time alone
Take a relationship detox. Spend time alone to reconnect with yourself again.
Lean on friends
Spend more time with close friends who make you feel secure.
A therapist can help overcome trauma and regain self-worth.
Focus on your needs. Do things that make you feel good like hobbies, exercise, travel.
Toxic relationships can make you blame yourself. Remind yourself that you are not at fault.
In future relationships, set clear boundaries early on for what behavior you will accept.
Find your voice
Speak your mind freely. Don’t let anyone stifle your voice ever again.
Healing takes time. Have patience with yourself through the ups and downs.
How to avoid toxic relationships
Once you have healed from a toxic relationship, you can take steps to avoid repeating the same patterns. Here is some advice:
Notice red flags early
Signs like extreme jealousy, controlling behavior, anger issues should raise alarms. Do not ignore these.
Take it slow
Rushing into love can make you overlook warning signs. Take time to really know someone first.
Be clear about what behavior you will not tolerate right from the start.
Trust your gut
If something feels off, listen to your intuition. Don’t rationalize red flags.
Watch for love bombing
Sudden, excessive displays of love can be a manipulation tactic.
Maintain your own interests and friendships. Don’t let your life revolve around one person.
Speak up as soon as your needs are not met. Silence allows toxicity to grow.
Know your worth
When your self-esteem is high, you will not accept poor treatment.
Be ready to walk away
If major red flags persist even after communicating issues, be willing to end it.
Falling in love gives us wings, but a toxic relationship breaks us and clips our wings. Look out for the warning signs and muster the courage to walk away before things get worse. Invest time in healing yourself. With healthier relationship habits, you can find someone who helps you soar while keeping your feet on the ground.