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10 Behavioral Signs of a Toxic Relationship

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The author enjoys researching and writing about relationship problems, especially those involving toxic behavior and narcissism.

Here are 10 signs that you're in a toxic relationship.

Here are 10 signs that you're in a toxic relationship.

Toxic Behaviors That Spell Trouble in a Relationship

Relationships should be safe and joyful. Of course, no relationship is perfect, but some partners are more dishonest, condescending, and controlling than others, and you should know the signs to look for to identify these troublesome partners that make for toxic relationships. Here are the top 10 signs that your partner is toxic (with examples):

  1. Possessive
  2. Controlling
  3. Entitled
  4. Condescending
  5. Undermining
  6. Distrustful/Dishonest
  7. Judgmental
  8. Faultless/Blameless
  9. Backbiting
  10. Selfish

1. Possessive

Possessiveness originates from an individual's feelings of insecurity. The possessive individual demands complete dedication and loyalty and becomes jealous and controlling if their partner causes them to doubt this dedication in the slightest. If a partner tries to break free of a possessive individual, it increases the individual's insecurities, and they become desperate to regain control.

Specific examples of possessive behavior in a relationship:

  • All your decisions are based on your partner's approval.
  • Your partner decides who your friends are.
  • Your partner systematically removes people close to you on "your" terms and replaces them completely or converts the closeness to one that is on "their" terms.
  • You cannot go anywhere or do anything without your partner or their approval.
  • Your partner checks your phone constantly and (in some cases) uses it to send messages pretending to be you.
  • Your partner uses your social media pretending to be you, edits your friend lists, and uploads posts to "reaffirm" your devotion to each other.
  • Your partner checks your personal emails.
  • Your partner becomes distrusting and upset when you deny them access to the above.

Note that many of the above behaviors are considered abusive. If your partner repeatedly seeks to control your behavior, friendships, and communications with others, it's a sign that you're in an abusive relationship. If this is the case, please seek help.

Possessiveness can be normal to a certain extent in romantic relationships—you may feel a bit jealous if you see your partner getting too chatty with someone of the opposite sex or liking a suggestive photo posted by a member of the opposite sex on social media. But extreme possessiveness indicates a lack of trust. The possessive partner fears their significant other will leave them and does everything in their power to prevent that from happening.

Possessiveness often results from insecure attachment styles and fear of rejection. To address these feelings of insecurity that have arisen from past trauma, rejection, or other issues, the possessive partner may benefit from therapy.

A partner who's controlling asks you often about your whereabouts and wants to know what you're up to all the time.

A partner who's controlling asks you often about your whereabouts and wants to know what you're up to all the time.

2. Controlling

Possessive and controlling behaviors are often similar. A controlling individual’s primary concern is their own self-interest. They are petty and immature at heart and have to restrain their partners from doing things that will place them outside of the individual’s control or prevent them from achieving goals that will make the individual feel inferior.

Specific examples of controlling behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner keeps asking you about everyone you know or meet, including details of their lives, how much time you spend with them, and what you do together.
  • Your partner is easily jealous of others. This is displayed by negative comments and backbiting after they encounter a person.
  • Your partner is an expert at destructive criticism.
  • Your partner demands to spend more time with the group of friends the person they are jealous of is part of in order to undermine them.
  • Your partner displays vehement and persistent mood swings.
  • Your partner needs to feel like they are the center of attention.

This manipulative personality trait stems from disorders that deal with narcissism; stubbornness; bipolar, borderline, or histrionic personality disorders; and anti-social behaviors. People may be controlling as a result of anxiety, or it may be a learned trait from prior family trauma.

3. Entitled

An individual with entitlement issues believes that the world revolves around them, and they are entitled to be treated like royalty while feeling no empathy for the people around them.

They are experts at asking for favors, dropping hints, freeloading and demanding time from their partners. Their idea of a "perfect" relationship is based on a material show of affection.

Specific examples of entitlement behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner expects you to be their personal chauffeur.
  • Your partner feels massively put upon when you ask them for a favor but expects you to jump at the opportunity to do them one.
  • Your partner drops hints like, "The rock is the most important thing."
  • Your partner reminds you of what their ex used to buy them, e.g., "My last boyfriend bought me a diamond necklace!"
  • Your partner never pays for anything and always expects you to take care of the bill.

Entitlement is often a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder and can cause long-term damage and conflict in relationships. Entitlement can also cause social and psychological damage and chronic disappointment, and it creates a problematic cycle of defensiveness and anger. This can be very challenging for a romantic partner to deal with.

A partner who puts you down and condescends to you is often secretly insecure.

A partner who puts you down and condescends to you is often secretly insecure.

4. Condescending

Simply put, condescension is “masked nastiness” and is used by individuals with low self-esteem to feel better about themselves. It is a passive-aggressive form of communication where the individual belittles their partners verbally while maintaining a friendly facade. Passive aggression is implied through either tone or body language, for example, a quick roll of the eyes or a sideways smirk.

Specific examples of condescending behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner has a habit of rolling their eyes while replying when you ask for their opinion on something.
  • Your partner always says, “If that’s what you want.”
  • Your partner speaks with a double and condescending meaning.

5. Undermining

Undermining is a behavior that uses negativity as a social tool to stop people from accomplishing something or reaching a goal. An individual will undermine their partner for the purpose of keeping control of the relationship to a level they are comfortable with. They will subtly discourage any major decisions their partner may be considering, which may decrease the individual’s control and create insecurity.

Specific examples of undermining behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner lies regularly to make you change your mind.
  • Your partner relishes gossip.
  • Your partner keeps you away from your friends by telling you bad things about them.
  • Your partner makes up lies about your friends and family.
  • Your life decisions are based more on what they want rather than what you want.
  • Your partner makes you feel bad about decisions you make and blames any consequences on your thinking.
  • You observe your partner undermining others.
  • Your partner is unable to see others’ happiness and actively works toward undermining them.
If your partner spies on you and doesn't trust you with your friends and family, that's a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

If your partner spies on you and doesn't trust you with your friends and family, that's a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

6. Distrustful/Dishonest

Individuals with trust issues are suspicious of everyone around them and are scared that loyalty to them is being betrayed by their partners. In most cases, individuals with trust issues are the same individuals who are themselves dishonest with their partners.

Because they are dishonest, they expect their partners to be dishonest as well and become suspicious and controlling of their partner's actions. The slightest miscalculated action or a slip of the tongue from their partner can aggravate their issues with trust and increase their insecurities, leading to escalated behaviors of control, possessiveness, etc.

Specific examples of distrusting behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner reacts to simple questions with suspicion.
  • Your partner answers questions vaguely but gets upset if you don't answer their questions clearly.
  • Your partner spies on you—stalks you or uses electronic software and devices.
  • Your partner keeps tabs on everything you do, everywhere you go, and everyone you meet.
  • Your partner threatens your friends.
  • Your partner demands access to all your personal social media and email accounts.
  • Your partner opens your mail.
  • Your partner checks your phone.
  • Your partner goes through your bag and/or pockets.

Distrust often stems from an anxious attachment style or individuals who are particularly anxious and needy when it comes to their close relationships. This attachment style stems from a feeling of unworthiness and may be the result of a primary caregiver's anxious or unpredictable behavior early in life.

The lack of trust comes from the feeling of unworthiness—your partner may believe that you are unfaithful or dishonest or that you will abandon them because they do not deem themselves worthy of your love.

Studies have indicated that showing appreciation for your partner may help reduce their anxiety, and setting clear boundaries and expectations while following through on your promises will help assure them that you will not abandon them. However, attachment styles are thought to develop as a result of childhood caregiver attachment and environment, so if you observe these behaviors in your partner, it's important to understand that it's not your fault, and you can't fix it.

7. Judgmental

Judgmental individuals find fault with everything and everyone, particularly their partners. They have a habit of glorifying themselves by homing in on the smallest fault in their partners and magnifying it either verbally or through body language and actions.

This behavior stems from control issues as the individual tries to groom their partner into a pre-determined version of an "ideal" mate. Judgmental individuals also find it difficult to socialize, be carefree, and make or keep friends.

Specific examples of judgmental behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner cares more about what others think rather than what you think.
  • Your partner is critical of your style.
  • Your partner is critical of your friends.
  • Your partner is critical of your family.
  • Your partner is critical of your occupation.
  • Your partner is critical of others.
  • Your partner is constantly trying to change you—they have passed judgment that "you need help."
Dealing with a partner who acts as though they could do no wrong is exhausting and frustrating.

Dealing with a partner who acts as though they could do no wrong is exhausting and frustrating.

8. Faultless/Blameless

Faultlessness or blamelessness is when an individual cannot admit to their own mistakes and will look to blame others for the negative consequences of their actions.

They put more value on preserving a spotless self-image than on maintaining good relationships with their partners, friends, colleagues, or family. They harbor a delusional belief that the world is against them if their mistakes become obvious and cut off relations with those who point them out.

Specific examples of faultlessness/blameless behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner exaggerates and blames you for small things.
  • Your partner uses emotional manipulation to blame others for situations they’ve created.
  • Your partner gets you involved in conflicts with others to stand up for you because they secretly know their argument isn’t credible.
  • Your partner never admits to mistakes and becomes defensive and vehement.

9. Backbiting

Backbiting is slandering someone when they are not present. Backbiting behavior from an individual can stem from personal insecurities, jealousy, and resentment. Normally, the reason for the slander is something insignificant and not clear-cut, and the backbiting individual will resort to attacking a victim’s character, exaggerating gossip, and making up outright lies to convince others of their victim’s bad character.

It is a repetitive habit and often practiced around the individual’s partner, in which case it also comes down to control. By backbiting to one’s partner about someone, the individual is attempting to sway their partner to their insecurities about that person, seeking sympathy through emotional blackmail, and creating a situation where their partner cannot develop or maintain a healthy relationship with that person.

Specific examples of faultlessness/blameless behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner always talks smack about one person or several people.
  • Your partner is sweet like sugar in front of people they talk badly about.
  • Your partner gets upset or feels insecure when something good happens to someone else.
  • Your partner isn’t good at being happy for others.
  • Your partner criticizes others constantly.
  • Your partner focuses on insignificant things such as clothing brand, hair, make-up, and money.
  • Your partner is always convincing you how much better they are than a certain person—richer, wiser, smarter, prettier, doctor, etc.
  • Your partner is always competing.
Selfish partners only care about themselves and don't consider the implications of their actions.

Selfish partners only care about themselves and don't consider the implications of their actions.

10. Selfish

It takes two people and a lot of give and take to make a healthy, lasting relationship. Selfish individuals do not understand this, nor do they want to. To them, the relationship is all about perks financially, socially, and materialistically. Selfish individuals believe that their personal happiness is their partner's happiness and that their partners are there to grant them all their whims.

Specific examples of selfish behavior in a relationship:

  • Your partner mostly talks about themselves.
  • Your partner only thinks about how things affect them and no one else.
  • Your partner expects things from everyone around them while contributing very little to them in return.
  • Your partner has an entitlement mentality.
  • Your partner doesn't give in to anyone whether they are right or wrong.
  • Your partner promises things that they never follow through.
  • Your partner thinks it's okay to lie, manipulate, and exploit you or others in order to get what they want.
  • Your partner doesn't consider the impacts of their actions and believes themselves to be above reproach.

Selfishness can actually be caused by low self-confidence. Anxiety and tending to personalize issues can result in selfish behaviors.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Selfishness can also be a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder, a personality disorder with no known cause that results in an individual feeling excessive self-confidence, self-importance, entitlement, and superiority. Many signs of a toxic partner included here are also signs of narcissistic personality disorder.

Dealing with a narcissist can be extremely challenging, especially when the personality disorder is undiagnosed and the individual is not in treatment. Narcissists have a hard time maintaining healthy relationships and may benefit from therapy or medication.

Is it possible to move toward a healthy relationship if one or both of you is toxic?

Is it possible to move toward a healthy relationship if one or both of you is toxic?

Can You Move Past These Issues Toward a Healthy Relationship?

If you recognize some or all of the above-referenced traits in your partner (or yourself), there are a few things you can do if you'd like to salvage the relationship.

Begin Couples Therapy

Couples therapy is a great way to get your relationship back on track if you are concerned about toxic behavior. A therapist can help you or your partner recognize toxic behaviors and learn how to work through them together. This approach is not always successful, but many couples would rather try to work with a therapist first rather than break things off right away.

Seek Therapy for Yourself

Individual therapy is a great way to work through your emotions, whether you decide to stay with your partner or not.

Don't Hold on to the Past

If your partner is making legitimate efforts to change their behavior, bringing up the past will only be harmful to your mutual healing.

Build a Support Network

Keep in touch with friends and family, attend support groups, or join classes. Maintain a network outside of your relationship to support you, regardless of whether the relationship works out. Having people on your team who do not engage in toxic behavior and who support your ambitions and goals is critical.

Is Your Partner Toxic, or Is It Abuse?

Some of these behaviors can be exhibited to a certain extent that does not constitute abusiveness. However, your partner's treatment of you rises to the level of abuse if they:

  • Engage in controlling behaviors that isolate you or affect your ability to communicate with friends or family, seek employment or remain employed or attend school
  • Intimidate you and physically prevent you from leaving during an argument
  • Prevent you from accessing your money or bank accounts
  • Verbally abuse you (such as regular name-calling and put-downs)
  • Threaten to harm or kill themselves
  • Threaten to harm or kill you
  • Sexually assault you
  • Engage in physical violence toward you, your pets, or your loved ones

If you believe you are in an abusive relationship, don't hesitate to seek help. Here are a few resources you may find useful:

Your local courthouse should have resources to help you seek a restraining order against an abusive current or former partner. Remember that abuse is not your fault, and you should not feel guilty or ashamed about seeking help.

Moving on from a toxic relationship can be incredibly challenging, but it's worth it!

Moving on from a toxic relationship can be incredibly challenging, but it's worth it!

Ending a Toxic Relationship

Often, even if you try to work things out or attend couples counseling, toxic relationships don't work out, and making the decision to end the relationship is the right call.

The first step toward preparing to leave a toxic relationship is ensuring that you have a support network available to you to support you through this change and give you the confidence you need to follow through with ending the relationship. Keep in touch with friends, family, classmates, or colleagues who can support you through this challenging time.

After breaking up with your toxic partner, cut off all contact with them and remember that you are breaking up with your partner because the relationship is toxic and can't be salvaged. You deserve better. Find ways to express your emotions, whether it's through art, writing, music, or just talking things out with friends.

Recovering from a toxic relationship is challenging work. Remember to be gentle with yourself and give yourself room to heal. Fear, emotional dependency, and love can prevent you from leaving a toxic relationship, but you have to put yourself first and reclaim yourself. You are worth it!

“At some point, you have to realize that some people can stay in your heart but not in your life.”

— Sandi Lynn

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 HubTen5