When reflecting on your relationship, has there ever been a moment where you asked yourself, "Is this normal?" or "Am I supposed to feel this way?" While on one hand, relationships can be serotonin-inducing and offer a great source of fulfillment and belonging, on the other hand, they can also be the exact opposite, leading to feelings of darkness and loneliness-which means you may be in a toxic relationship.
If your partner thrives on manipulation, triangulating, gaslighting, or other controlling behaviors, there's a strong probability your relationship may be feeding off toxicity, Sharon Peykar, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship coach in California, tells HelloGiggles. She went on to explain that as the "receiver of toxicity," you may feel ashamed, blamed, or secretive as to what's happening within the confines of your relationship. Similarly, those in toxic relationships may also feel like they're always on the verge of having to apologize.
Navigating life's ups and downs alongside a toxic partner aren't easy, and shouldn't be something you have to deal with, especially alone. In support of those who are seeking help and guidance, HelloGiggles spoke with experts to help identify toxic relationship red flags, how to exit the relationship and how to move forward when you are ready to date again.
Toxic relationship red flags:
Sometimes, it's hard to comprehend what behavior is considered "toxic" versus what behavior is excusable based on circumstance (i.e. your partner acting out because x-y-z). Arizona-based relationship coach, Nura Mowzoon, Ph.D, suggests paying close attention to the below red flags, which can signal that there may be toxic dynamics within your relationship.
1. Constantly seeking approval and/or acceptance from the partner and mistaking it for love.
This can be especially tough on individuals whose love language is words of affirmation. When we are validated with positive remarks, we take it as a sign that we are doing something right; but, that doesn't necessarily mean that whatever the other person is doing or saying to us is right either. If your partner is using approval as a weapon against your feelings and actions, it's probably time to move on.
2. Affection is given or withheld as reward or punishment.
Sometimes, we withhold affection because we want to prove a point or punish our partner for wrongdoing. For example, your S.O. asked you to run an errand or tag along with them and a group of friends for a night out and you forget. Now, as punishment, they may refrain from intimacy. On the flip side, your partner may also use affection as a reward by saying, "Can you do x-y-z? You know I love you." Unfortunately, some use affection as a strategic tool to get someone to do what they want and try to cushion the blow with a reward in the form of intimacy or verbal affirmation. This is no way to nurture a relationship.
3. One or both people in the relationship keep score of who did what for whom and emotional manipulation frequently occurs to even the score.
The easiest way to identify this in your relationship is by paying attention as to whether you and/or your partner keep score of who does what in the relationship, such as with chores or who was the last one to plan or pay for a date. Whoever has the "lowest score" may experience emotional manipulation, like guilt. This tit-for-tat mentality is no way to carry out a relationship. Plus, how is any good deed supposed to go unpunished?
4. The relationship feels like an emotional roller coaster.
No relationship (or even friendship) is perfect, and at some point, the very low lows and the thrilling highs make their presence known. However, no partnership should mimic a rollercoaster with turbulent twists, turns, and drops at every corner. One way to tell if your relationship is heading this way is when the occasional (keyword: occasional) highs are intoxicating, making the frequent lows feel "worth it," per Dr. Mowzoon.
5. You feel isolated from loved ones or friends as if nobody understands your relationship the way you do.
The beauty of having close friends and family is being able to lean on them for support and guidance-but that can be difficult if no one in your immediate circle understands or is aware of what's going on in your relationship. While there's no relationship manual and not all are the same, there are obvious red flags your loved ones will pick up on. Not understanding the inner workings of your relationship may be one of them.
How to end a toxic relationship:
Acknowledging you're in a relationship that's fueled by toxicity is a big step, but knowing how to safely remove yourself from the situation is just as important. The number one thing you can do prior to exiting a relationship is to have a set plan and not be impulsive with your decision-making, Dr. Peykar says. Allowing enough time to plan your exit won't only give you a proper amount of time to explore and research your options, but also limit the risk of putting your safety in jeopardy with last-minute decisions.
If you're living with or are financially dependent on your partner, work on building financial self-sufficiency by creating a budget sheet, building your credit, learning about new insurance plans, or setting aside money every month. Likewise, it's also crucial to have a strong support system in place, Dr. Mowzoon says. "The stronger the support system, the higher the likelihood that they won't go back to the toxic relationship," she adds. While a support system looks different to everyone, one could include family and friends you trust, support groups, and/or self-help literature.
Additionally, part of your support system may include a therapist or professional relationship coach. "Healing the core issues that drew them to the toxicity in the first place is critical," she says. Dr. Mowzoon also adds that working through trauma that was brought on from the relationship can help you from repeating "old patterns and tendencies," such as making decisions rooted in unhealed traumas and insecurities; entering relationships that mirror the way they were taught to understand love and attachment as a child; or falling into relationships that require them to "sacrifice their own sense of self in order to keep others happy."
Just remember that you don't have to heal or work through your thoughts, feelings, or trauma alone.
Dating after a toxic relationship:
Going forward, Dr. Mowzoon advises not to dive heart first or attach yourself too quickly in your next relationship. While the honeymoon phase may be rainbows and butterflies, you still need a self-aware mindset to distinguish whether certain behaviors point to those red flags.
"Once you become physically intimate, your ability to think critically, see red flags, and walk away [can be] greatly diminished, and you're much more likely to stay in the relationship because you've now bonded with them in a way that chemically is very hard to break," she explains.
Instead, take things slow; think of the beginnings of your relationship like baby steps. Dr. Mowzoon suggests getting to know the person you're interested in to see if they're worth the attachment rather than the other way around: attaching first (being intimate) then learning about the person. That way, if there is no emotional spark, you aren't blinded by a physical, more deeper chemical connection.
Just like your partner earns your trust, they should also earn your attachment, Dr. Mowzoon says.