How to spot the signs of a toxic relationship

Toxic relationships have a habit of manifesting in different ways, making it all the more confusing for people to spot the signs of an unhealthy relationship, especially at the system with others, and thus, have a much better chance at a good relationship outset.

Toxic relationship

For many people, the signs of a toxic relationship are glaringly obvious.

Many toxic relationships consist of the classical indications that one would expect, such as:

However, not all toxic relationships look or sound the same. For those stuck in an abusive relationship, the features of an unhealthy relationship can leave them feeling confused, frustrated, and helpless.

Romantic relationships

Research shows that most people in toxic relationships are fully aware of the situation.

Although all this may not be the case at the beginning of the relationship, as the connection between partners develops, the toxic behaviours become increasingly prominent and harder to ignore.

Bad behavior

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of a toxic relationship is that many people tend to minimize or ignore their partner’s abusive behaviour, particularly initially.

Toxic partners

According to therapist John Kim, ‘many people struggle to leave bad relationships despite knowing something is wrong.

There is no doubt that the relationship is unhealthy. 

Unfortunately, for most couples, it’s just a matter of time before one partner attempts to address the relationship issues or leaves altogether.’

Can a relationship still get classed as ‘toxic’ if it is not abusive?

According to mental health experts, there are many different manifestations of toxicity in relationships, and not all bad relationships contain abusive behaviours.

However, according to John Kim, toxic relationships without apparent signs of physical or emotional abuse can be just as dangerous and impactful.

Why may you ask?

The harm that a toxic relationship can have on a person’s physical and mental health can be a slow burner. There are no clear reasons or hard evidence to exit a relationship, yet the negative feelings are profoundly present.

Such feelings can slowly eat away at a person, which eventually results in low self-esteem, a stunt in growth, and a severe disconnect between one’s friends, family, and the self.

Toxicity comes in many forms

Relationship experts state that toxic relationships without any clear indications of foul or abusive behaviours can be the most dangerous for people.

Moreover, the adverse effects of an individual being ‘stuck’ in their current relationship are often insurmountable.

Toxic situation

Kim says that ‘toxicity is like a slow leak, but a leaky faucet can drown you.’

Thus, people must recognize the telltale signs of a toxic relationship and take the appropriate course of action before their health gets seriously impacted.

Red flags of a toxic relationship

Red flags of a toxic relationship - Camino Recovery

The red flags of toxicity in a relationship are not as apparent as many people think.

Understanding what the telltale signs of a toxic relationship are will help people make sense of what is happening and take action before things get any worse.

#1. Using subtle control

There are clear-cut signs of controlling behaviours that unequivocally denote that a partner is doing their best to control you.

Such behaviours may include:

  • Accusing you of talking to people that you ‘’shouldn’t’’ be speaking to
  • Making you feel embarrassed or humiliated in front of family and friends
  • Making you feel guilty about something you did or didn’t do (and then punishing you in various ways, i.e. using the silent treatment, bringing up past mistakes, making you feel drained by their negative presence and making you feel stupid)
  • Not allowing you to go anywhere without your partner being present
  • Telling you what you can or cannot eat, wear, etc.
  • Demanding a full breakdown of your actions, whereabouts and any activity that they are not involved in
  • Making you feel uneasy in their presence

Red flag central

As well as the telltale signs above, there are more subtle signs that often occur within toxic relationships that can be much harder to notice.

Such subtle interactions may seem confusing or make you feel uneasy, yet you cannot put the finger on why you suddenly feel so uncomfortable.

As much as you might doubt yourself – the toxic individual knows what they are doing and the effects their actions and behaviours have on healthy people.

Therapist John Kim explains that controlling behaviours within toxic relationships may manifest as ‘a subtle in-between-the-lines push’ where one partner can make the other feel guilty for one reason or another.

Kim further states that we can get people to change by leveraging what we know about them and their past and that sometimes such subtle control tactics may come from a good place rather than a bad one.

For example, we may think we know what is best for our partner, but what we believe is ‘best’ may not necessarily sync with our partner’s values, wants and needs.

When a relationship is toxic

It is often the case (especially in a toxic relationship) that one partner can be controlling without even knowing it.

Inherently, most people have a partner’s best interests at heart, but deep inside, their behaviour is upsetting and can disrupt the core values of the other.

Essentially, any behaviours, actions, dialogue, or otherwise that take you away from your beliefs, core values, and inner truths get considered controlling.

#2. Never taking responsibility

In a healthy relationship, two people learn from each other.

This growth process can often be uncomfortable as we learn things about our partner and ourselves that may be challenging to confront.

Healthy relationships

Within healthy relationships, there is a level of understanding and compassion where two people commit to learning from each other and are always seeking to meet the other’s needs and wants as much as possible.

However, in toxic relationships, the process often works in reverse.

Toxic behavior

Many toxic people allow their egos to control them and often end up in relationship cycles or behaviour patterns that do not serve them or their partner.

A toxic person may blame someone else for their own feelings and exhibit controlling behaviour where one partner may feel trapped, depressed, and feel as though their emotional safety is under threat in some way.

Ownership is what makes a relationship blossom and grow; if we cannot push our egos aside, the likely result is that the relationship will become lop-sided, and both partners will end up feeling frustrated and helpless.

By taking ownership of the things that go wrong in a relationship, we ultimately improve the quality of the connection with our partner, increase our support system with others, and thus, have a much better chance at a good relationship.

#3. Engaging in passive-agressive behavior

Toxic people tend to engage in patterns of passive-aggressive behaviour, which may show up through jealousy, constantly checking up on their partner’s whereabouts, and wanting to know what the other is up to at all times.

Of course, none of these behaviours is sustainable in the long term, and such toxic behaviours are often deal breakers in what could have been an otherwise healthy relationship.

As well as checking a partner’s social media or text messages for clues of foul play, a person may also pout or exude negative energy.

They may even refuse to talk at all, or worse, reassure their partner that everything is ‘fine’ when it isn’t.

#4. Defamation of a partner’s character

Attacking or putting down another’s character may not always be direct or intentional.

However, the way we speak to the people in our lives can have a monumental impact on their self-esteem, mental health, and our relationships’ future.

We may not intend to hurt a loved ones’ feelings, but that doesn’t mean that our behaviour doesn’t impact them.

For instance, if a partner makes a casual comment about your weight, they may not think such statements are hurtful and may not intend to offend, yet these remarks can be long-lasting and may even be relationship deal breakers.

Mental health and the effects of a toxic relationship

Mental health and the effects of a toxic relationship - Camino Recovery

There may even be dire consequences, particularly regarding comments around weight or appearance, as many people struggle with eating disorders and other mental health issues.

Such toxic behaviour may or may not be intentional, but it can hurt the future of a relationship and produce a build-up of resentment and anger.

The healthiest relationship takes the other person’s feelings into account and considers the implications of their words and actions on the other partner.

#5. Being unable (or unwilling) to forgive

We all make mistakes occasionally, and despite our best efforts, we can’t always show up as our ‘best self’ in our relationships.

Whether we are the toxic one or the problem lies with our partner (or a mixture of both), spending time getting to know ourselves and our partner will help us to work through a rough patch much more effectively.

To do all this, we must forgive ourselves and our partner for any past wrongdoings.

Whether we can’t stand to be around our in-laws, or we can’t bear the way our partner chews their food, we must cultivate forgiveness if we want to have a healthy relationship.

Professional help

For those who struggle with forgiveness and letting go, you may want to consider speaking to a mental health professional who will help you to break through the barriers of anger and resentment.


A one-sided relationship is no fun.

Therefore, as long as we refuse to cultivate forgiveness and work on letting go of past hurt, it will continue to control our thoughts and emotions, all of which do not serve our best interests in the long -run.

People who struggle with forgiveness may benefit from:

Contact us

If you think you may be in a toxic relationship and need support in navigating your emotional well-being, speak to one of our specialists today who can help.

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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