What Does It Mean to Be in a Toxic Relationship?

There are many ways to answer the question, “What does it mean to be in a toxic relationship?” This article will provide the basic definition…


There are many ways to answer the question, “What does it mean to be in a toxic relationship?”

This article will provide the basic definition of a toxic relationship. You will also learn more about the different ways a relationship may be toxic. The goal is to help you identify if there are any toxic traits in your own relationships because you must name this problem before you can heal the issues.

What It Means to Say a Relationship is Toxic

The definition of toxic from Oxford languages includes “poisonous,” and “very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.”

From this definition, you can see that the easiest way to describe a toxic relationship is that:

Toxic relationships are those that are harmful to the mental, emotional, or physical wellbeing of one or both partners.

Insidious means proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects. An example of this “insidious” harm in toxic relationships is gaslighting. Bit by bit, someone who is gaslighting you, works to make you question your reality. This is done in subtle ways that make you wonder if you’re the “crazy” one.

What Types of Relationships are Toxic

There are numerous ways a relationship may be toxic. But frequently, these relationships involve codependent and narcissistic symptoms in partners.

People with codependent symptoms and those with narcissistic symptoms are often a perfect complement for one another’s emotional and behavioral hooks. For example, a codependent aims to please others to find self-worth while a narcissist craves attention. Ross Rosenberg calls this the “human magnet syndrome.”

The Push/Pull Dynamic

Frequently, such relationships have a push/pull dynamic. You also may have heard this described as a “runner/chaser” dynamic.

Being in an on-again/off-again relationship, a situationship, and being in a relationship that runs hot and cold are all examples of how this push/pull dynamic manifests in toxic relationships.

This type of pattern is also a feature of toxic relationships involving love addiction/love avoidance.

Love Addiction and Love Avoidance

Codependency expert, Pia Mellody, explains, “Love addicts focus almost completely on the other person they are addicted to; they obsessively think about, want to be with, touch, talk to, and listen to their partners, and want to be cared for and treasured by them.”

On the other side, the love avoidant will frequently create intensity outside of this relationship. This means they will often be unavailable for a variety of reasons including work, substance abuse, and at times affairs with other people to give some examples.

Attachment Theory and Toxic Relationships

The co-addicted cycle of love addicts and love avoidants also overlaps attachment theory. Love addicts present with more anxious attachment and Love avoidants have avoidant attachment.

Typically, people in their codependency have anxious attachment. And research indicates this insecure attachment is common in narcissists. Kaufman (2018) found that anxious and avoidant attachment can be associated with narcissistic traits.

Related: How Do I Heal My Attachment Style?

The Spectrum of Toxic Relationships

Codependency and narcissism exist along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum are people with codependency who completely sacrifice themselves to please others. On the other extreme end of the spectrum are grandiose narcissists who tend to be more abusive, manipulative, lack empathy and need consistent praise.

In the middle are people who have lost themselves in the relationship but still feel resentful and demanding at times. People with vulnerable narcissism also exist here. Vulnerable narcissism includes hypersensitivity to criticism, anxiety, depression, and feelings of inferiority alongside feelings of entitlement in their relationships.

Walking on Eggshells

You may also feel like you are walking on eggshells as a result of being a toxic relationship.

This is understandable especially considering abuse is present in many toxic relationships. In fact, researchers found that 43.9% of partners with those with pathological narcissism report abuse being present. Abuse may be emotional, psychological, verbal, financial, sexual, or physical in nature. Psychological abuse includes threats such as your partner saying they will leave if they don’t do what they want. Or they may say things like “If you really loved me you would [insert their desire here] to coerce you. This may also include sexual coercion and pressure.

Finally, they may also threaten to harm or kill you, a loved one, or themselves when they’re upset.

Toxic Relationships Can Be Unpredictable

In safe, healthy relationships there is a sense of security that you can trust your partner to be consistent and dependable. Here you know that when they tell you they will be home by 6pm they mean it as an example. You also know that even if there are problems, they’ll keep showing up to fix them.

However, in a toxic relationship, you really can’t predict what will happen next. You don’t know when, perhaps, your partner will do something rude, hurtful, or humiliating next for example. This may include calling you a name, making fun of your weight, lying about using drugs, or discovering they are cheating as examples.

Related: 7 (Not So Obvious) Signs of Emotional Abuse

You Can’t Communicate Together

Commonly, in toxic relationships, partners feel like they “can’t” communicate together. This often means that one or both partners at times will become aggressive. Perhaps they will yell or throw things. They may also prevent the other from taking a break from fights at times which further creates conflict and a lack of safety.

Related: My Boyfriend Yells at Me But Then Apologizes. What Should I Do?

Other ways you may struggle to communicate include one or both of you shutting down or putting up walls with one another.

Related: Good Communication in a Relationship: A Couples Therapist Explains

Toxic Relationships are Harmful to Your Wellbeing

Emotionally these relationships may feel “poisonous” in that one, or both, partners deteriorate mentally or physically. For example, if you find that you have less energy than you used to since you’ve begun dating your partner because they drain you, this is a sign of toxicity. Commonly, people get sick more often due to the exhaustion and stress of such relationships.

In toxic relationships, people frequently feel depressed and anxious as well.

Related: Why Do I Feel Like I Don’t Know Myself Anymore?

You May Feel More Anxious in a Toxic Relationship

Toxic relationships are by nature, highly stressful. As such, people in toxic relationships frequently experience anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep,
  • Muscle tension including consistent jaw clenching or neck and shoulder pain,
  • Being easily fatigued,
  • Panic attacks,
  • A sense of pressure in your chest,
  • Your mind going blank, and
  • Struggling to concentrate or focus

Why It Makes Sense You May Be More Anxious

A good clue you may be in a toxic relationship is if you feel more anxious, nervous, or unsettled. This anxiety may also manifest as a sense you can’t trust yourself. Or like you’re the “crazy” one in the relationship. This feeling is completely understandable and may be further reinforced by gaslighting.

Another common reason you may be more anxious is due to increasing money concerns. Researchers Day, Townsend and Grenyer (2022) found that of those partners of pathological narcissists they interviewed, 32% reported financial burdens created by the narcissist. This includes racking up debt, stealing, controlling money, and being completely dependent on their partner financially i.e., not having a job and expecting their partner to pay for everything.

You May Become Depressed

Depression is common in toxic relationships. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Being tired no matter how much you sleep,
  • Gaining or losing weight,
  • Appetite issues (both feeling more and less hungry),
  • Low self-esteem,
  • Sleep issues, and
  • A sense of being hopeless or powerless (like life isn’t worth living or like you are stuck)

What to Do if You’re in a Toxic Relationship

If you notice that you’re in a toxic relationship, you may feel overwhelmed right now. This is completely understandable. You don’t need to figure out every next step right now.

The most important thing is you are being brave enough to be honest about what’s really going on in your life. You must, after all, name a problem to solve it.

Resources if You are Experiencing Abuse

You may, understandably, immediately want to figure out how to fix the relationship you are in. But if you are experiencing abuse, it’s recommended that you begin to practice some self-care first.

If your life is in danger or your money is being controlled, you will need a safety plan to exit this relationship. You can use this resource to create a personalize safety plan for yourself.

Here you can find legal help to protect yourself.

Finally, if you want to talk or text with someone now for support you may call the number 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. Or you may chat with someone online here.

Healing a Toxic Relationship

It is possible to heal a toxic relationship and the best course of action will be to attend therapy together.

Related: Can a Toxic Relationship Be Fixed? A Therapist Explains

However, if your partner is unwilling to go with you, then it is recommended you attend therapy alone. Here, you can focus on minimizing your own role in the push/pull dynamic as relevant. You can also learn how to communicate more effectively personally as you may also be aggressive or shut down at times.

Finding Balance

If you tend to focus too much on your partner, you can also heal the relationship by learning to show yourself more self-care.

Related: How to Take Care of Yourself – 6 Simple Self-Care Strategies

Or if you tend to be overly self-involved you can learn to become a better listener and more empathic in therapy.

This helps brings balance to the relationship which is so needed.

Finding Support

If you are choosing to find a therapist at this time, you may look for therapists who specialize in codependency, trauma, and/or narcissism to best support you.

A helpful resource to find a therapist in your area is the Psychology Today Directory.

Or for an affordable, convenient therapy option you may choose to use Better Help. If you use this link, you will get 15% off your first month of therapy.

You Can Do This

Wherever you are at today, you can heal from a toxic relationship.

And whether you can attend therapy, or not, at this time, there are many books which can help your healing. You can find many books which will be supportive at this time over on the Healing Resources page.

Free Help

There are many free resources on this blog to support you including the articles, “Self Worth Journal – Free Daily Journaling Worksheet,” “I Want to be Happy in My Life: 5 Tips to Be Happy Now,” and “Setting Relationship Boundaries: 4 Important Limits When You’re Dating.”



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About The Author

Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.

This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.

Her third book, Therapy Within Reach: Setting Boundaries, will be released September, 2023.

If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to krystal@confidentlyauthentic.com or DM her on Instagram. Your name and any other identifying information will always be kept confidential.

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