Are you in a toxic relationship?

It’s sometimes hard to spot toxic behaviours, especially if you feel you’re in a healthy and happy relationship. But even the healthiest relationship can face challenges, so it’s important to know what a ‘toxic relationship’ looks like and how to manage if you find yourself in one.

This can help if:

  • you’re not feeling right about your relationship

  • you’re worried that your relationship is toxic

  • you and your partner have frequent arguments.

Image of three young people sitting on a lounge. The two girls on the left have neutral expressions and are looking at the man on the end, who is sitting with his head hanging down and his hands crossed on in his lap. He looks upset.

What is a ‘toxic relationship’?

There is no single definition of a ‘toxic relationship’. The term usually refers to a relationship that is unhealthy for those involved, which can include abusive relationships.

Ultimately, relationships are shaped by how the people involved in them behave. So, a ‘toxic relationship’ is really a relationship where one or more of the people in it are behaving in a toxic way.

The difference between a ‘toxic’ relationship and an ‘abusive’ relationship

While you might think that toxic behaviours aren’t as serious as abusive ones, it’s not that simple. There isn’t an exact criteria for judging what makes a behaviour toxic, and many toxic behaviours could be considered abusive. Confusing, right?

The bottom line is: any relationship that poses a threat to your wellbeing and leaves you feeling upset, anxious, exhausted, angry or belittled isn’t a healthy one. 

If you’re worried that some of the behaviours in your relationship could be considered abuse, you can visit 1800RESPECT to speak with a trained counsellor. The service is free and confidential. 

Common toxic relationship behaviours

Communicating in an unhealthy way

The key to a good relationship is being willing to talk to each other, and to do it with kindness and respect. Toxic communication behaviours can look like any of the following:

  • Giving the ‘silent treatment’. It’s totally okay to need space to think after a disagreement, but a lengthy period of deliberate silence that 'punishes' the other person won't solve anything.

  • Making the other person feel like the aggressor. Everyone should feel comfortable and safe when chatting with their partner/s. If you're defensive or accusatory, then you may need to work on your communication skills.

  • Guilt-tripping each other. Making your partner feel guilty for expressing their needs, wants or emotions is unkind. Using their guilt to get what you want is unhealthy and manipulative.

  • Refusing to understand how the other person communicates. It’s normal to have mismatched communication styles, especially if you had very different upbringings. Not making an effort to understand each other can lead to more arguments down the line.

Showing a lack of respect or empathy

A healthy relationship involves equal effort and interest, as well as mutual support. Constantly ditching each other, changing plans at the last minute or leaving the other on read can make any relationship feel really lonely

If you’re the one planning all the dates or starting every conversation it can feel like your partner doesn't really care about you, and that they lack respect for your time, energy and emotions. 

Being possessive and jealous

A lot of people see their partner as their friend, too. But if you're each other’s only friend, you’re drifting into a toxic area. 

Making each other feel guilty about seeing friends or doing things solo can be really harmful to your relationship. This kind of possessive behaviour can also impact your other relationships, since you’re likely spending less quality time with your friends and family. Deliberately isolating someone from their loved ones is bordering on abuse, and isn’t okay.

It’s also not cool to be deeply jealous of someone’s long-standing friendships, or unfairly suspicious of what they get up to when you’re not around. This could be a sign that your relationship isn’t built on trust, which is super important. 

Relying on each other too much

It’s natural to want to care for your partner and bring them joy, but relying on each other for everything can be a bit risky. You may have heard this described as ‘codependency’. This can mean that your relationship becomes less about loving each other and more about not being able to cope without each other.

Here are some of the things you and your partner should be able to sustain or develop without relying completely on each other: 

  • Social connection. You have and can make your own friends and connections, and you don’t expect each other to always be present and involved. 

  • Hobbies and interests. You have your own interests and you don’t see each other’s hobbies or interests as a threat.

  • Good wellbeing. You aren’t each other’s only source of happiness. You can find other things that boost your wellbeing and create a positive mindset. 

Putting each other down, or not standing up for each other

There’s a difference between banter and bullying. Casual negative comments from your partner can chip away at you over time, especially since they’re coming from someone who supposedly loves and adores you.

Remember that your partner doesn't decide your worth as a human being. Everyone deserves to feel respected and loved.

Keeping the relationship a secret

Keeping relationships a secret from parents, friends and other family can be risky. There may be some genuine reasons why you and your partner would want this (like if you’re in a same-sex or polyamorous relationship with someone who hasn’t come out yet), but think carefully about the true intentions behind this idea. 

If a potential partner wants to keep your relationship a secret, you have a right to ask why and to hear the truth.

If you’re under 18 and an adult suggests you have a secret relationship, this goes beyond toxicity and isn’t okay. Learn more here about what you can do in this situation.

Turning minor disagreements into major arguments

Disagreeing with your partner on some things is normal and healthy. But arguing daily, or not being able to disagree without it turning into a huge conflict, is a problem.

Your idea of what an argument or fight looks like might be different from your partner’s idea, but a healthy disagreement generally looks like: 

  • not yelling or screaming at each other

  • not lying to each other or making the other person feel guilty

  • not talking over the other person or refusing to listen to them

  • not resorting to violence or abuse to win an argument. 

How to manage toxic behaviours in a relationship

Talk about it

Not every relationship that’s grappling with toxic behaviours has to end in a break-up – you may be able to communicate with your partner about these issues and work through them. Here are some tips on how to approach the conversation: 

  • Before the chat, reflect on the behaviours and think of some examples so that you feel confident talking about them with your partner/s.

  • Avoid labelling your whole relationship as ‘toxic’. Instead, focus on the behaviours and how they make everyone in your relationship feel.

  • Give the other person time to think, and don’t push them for an immediate response. You may have had time to think of examples, but they could be surprised by the chat and need some space to collect their thoughts.

Overcoming toxic behaviours can be tough. There’s no shame in seeking professional help to get through it. Consider seeing a relationship counsellor, peer worker, or psychologist for additional support. 

End the relationship

If you feel confident that talking through your issues won’t help then it’s probably time to consider breaking up. While that might be a really hard decision to make, remember that everyone deserves to be in a relationship where they feel loved, valued and respected. 

Get some tips on how to end a relationship and how to cope with a break-up

Build your self-awareness

Regardless of the decision you make about your relationship, it’s important to reflect on your own actions. Working with a professional or using self-help strategies to overcome your own toxic behaviours will help you be a better partner and have healthier relationships.

What can I do now?

  • If you need to talk to someone immediately about your relationship, you can call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

  • If you’re feeling okay right now but you’re keen to chat with someone later, you can book in a ReachOut PeerChat session for some one-on-one support, or visit the Online Community.

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