Toxic Relationships: Definition, Signs, and Advice

Updated: Jul 25

“Love should never cost you your peace. It should never cost you your joy. It should never cost you your happiness. If there’s more negative in the situation than positive, something has to change” — Carolyn Gamble [1].

Author: Hadeel Alhadi

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship, according to professor Lillian Glass, is any relationship between persons who are not supportive of each other and disrespect, undermine, and compete against one another in often prolonged arguments [1]. This is not to say that any relationship that experiences disagreements and occasional fights is toxic, but rather, it is the persistent and exhausting negative interaction between persons in the relationship. The harm caused in such cases can sometimes be unintentional and a result of past trauma or undiagnosed mental health condition(s) [1].

What does psychology have to say about toxic relationships?

The Intermittent Reinforcement Theory states that people stay in toxic relationships because they are addictive and provide inconsistent gratification [2]. Contrary to continuous reinforcement, which consistently rewards one for performing a desired action, intermittent reinforcement does not administer the reward every time the desired action is performed; instead, the reward is achieved irregularly. This inconsistency causes the person receiving the reward to act frantically in hopes of obtaining the reward on their next attempt, just like in gambling [2]. Additionally, intermittent reinforcement rewires the brain’s biochemical pathways responsible for dopamine synthesis, and inconsistent gratification causes heightened dopamine responses in anticipation of the reward [3].

Why do post-secondary students stay in toxic relationships?

One of the main reasons why people, particularly post-secondary students, remain in abusive or toxic relationships is because they are under the impression that they will always get justice if they seek help [4]. Unfortunately, more often than not, the signs of toxic relationships often go unrecognized, and students think that “waiting a little longer” or waiting for their partners to “change” is a realistic endeavour. These relationships may involve fear, abuse, and isolation, and are often surrounded by a great deal of insecurity [5]. Reaching out can be difficult, and even then, not approaching the correct people or services may amplify these negative emotions. Especially in cases of one-sided abuse, victims may not always understand that they are being abused at all, or may be fearful that the abuse will worsen if their partner finds out that they reported them [5].

How can you identify a toxic relationship?

  1. The unsupportive pattern of behavior:

Any partnership entails supporting one another and celebrating each other’s achievements; however, in a toxic relationship, these successes are viewed as a source of competition and they create tension in the relationship [6]. This typically results in one partner having to hide their successes, leading to negative experiences or anxious feelings when they receive good news.

  1. Silent treatment and communication issues:

The silent treatment is a manipulative technique that includes the refusal to communicate with someone as a form of “punishment” even though the other person may be willing to initiate the conversation [5]. Other forms of toxic communication include conversations that are filled with hostility, sarcasm, and constant criticism. Toxic communication results in partners avoiding discussion with each other and eventually leads to the accumulation of more negative feelings.

  1. Guilt and lack of self-care:

In a toxic relationship, a person is manipulated into feeling guilty about caring for their personal needs and setting boundaries. Additionally, one partner may consistently agree with the other partner’s suggestions and plans regardless of whether these plans work for themselves. In general, a person in a toxic relationship prioritizes their partner’s needs and wishes even if they go against their own preferences and personal needs [7].

  1. Jealousy, controlling behavior, and isolation:

Toxic partners tend to display controlling behavior such as constantly questioning their partners, violating their privacy, and displaying unhealthy jealousy from their partner’s relationships with others. An accompanying behavior to such a pattern is ‘gaslighting’, which refers to the person’s tendency to make their partner question their memories, emotions, and perceptions, sometimes twisting them to fit what that abusive partner wants the victimised partner to feel from them [1]. This behavior can be a sign of an abusive relationship [4].

Do Any of These Signs Sound Familiar?

First and foremost, if you suspect you are in physical danger, alert the authorities. The domestic violence support line can be reached at 800-799-SAFE (7233) and is available 24/7. If your or someone you know is in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, you can decide whether the severity of the conflict is low enough to work on it through therapy or support groups, or if the conflict cannot be resolved and requires stronger intervention.

Always remember: walking away from a toxic relationship is not cowardly; you are not giving up on someone by protecting yourself, your dignity, and your own right to freedom.

“Love should never cost you your peace. It should never cost you your joy. It should never cost you your happiness. If there’s more negative in the situation than positive, something has to change” — Carolyn Gamble [1]. 

Editors

Alison MacPhee, Jasmine Kokkat, Rhea Verma

Designer

Web design by Majd Al-Aarg

Additional Credits

Cover photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

References

  1. Ducharme J [Internet]. New York (NY): Time; c2021. Toxic relationships: Signs, help and what to do; 2018. Available: https://time.com/5274206/toxic-relationship-signs-help/#:~:text=Lillian%20Glass%2C%20a%20California%2Dbased,other%2C%20where%20there’s%20competition%2C%20where

  2. Kim J [Internet]. New York (NY): Psychology Today; c2021. 5 signs of a toxic relationship; 2020. Sussex Publishers. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-angry-therapist/202001/5-signs-toxic-relationship

  3. Gattuso R [Internet]. New York (NY): The Talkspace Voice; c2021. Owning your part in a toxic relationship; 2019. Available https://www.talkspace.com/blog/am-i-in-toxic-relationship/#:~:text=Fundamentally%2C%20toxic%20relationship%20behaviors%20are,compassion%20for%20the%20other%20person

  4. Pietrangelo A [Internet]. San Francisco (CA): Healthline; c2021. Silent treatment: How to respond to it and when it becomes abuse; 2019. Available: https://www.healthline.com/health/silent-treatment

  5. Bratcher NA, Farmer-Dougan V, Dougan JD, Heidenreich BA, Garris PA. The role of dopamine in reinforcement: Changes in reinforcement sensitivity induced by D1-type, D2-type, and nonselective dopamine receptor agonists. J Exp Anal Behav [Internet]. 2005;84(3):371-399. Available from: doi:10.1901/jeab.2005.82-04

  6. Satow R [Internet]. New York (NY): Psychology Today; c2021. Love me, love me not; 2017. Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/life-after-50/201701/love-me-love-me-not

  7. DeVito M. Why do college students stay in unhealthy relationships and why are peers hesitant to intervene? [social work thesis, internet]. Herne Bay (NZ): Digital Commons; 2012. Available from: https://digitalcommons.providence.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1083&context=socialwrk_students

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