Counsellor reveals the six worrying signs you could be in a toxic relationship

man and woman looking sad at home on sofa to represent toxic relationship
Think you might be in a toxic relationship? The first step is recognising it. (Getty Images)

From narcissists to love bombers, we can sometimes be quick to label people we're dating or in relationships with in a certain way. And this can include branding someone 'toxic'.

That said, being able to identify certain behaviours in our partners and look after our wellbeing is crucial. So how can we recognise what really is concerning, and what might just be something we don't particularly love?

Here, we consulted a relationships expert about what the genuine red flags of toxic relationships are (whatever your gender or sexuality), and what you can do if you find yourself in one.

What is a toxic relationship?

Females couple with relationship difficulties.
Toxic traits can be displayed by either one or both partners. (Getty Images)

"There’s no set definition of a toxic relationship, but I would suggest that it’s one where one party – or sometimes both parties – feels as if there is nothing positive about the relationship and how they are treated," says BACP-registered counsellor Georgina Sturmer.

"This type of relationship is characterised by unhealthy, unkind or manipulative behaviours. And this toxicity may spill over into other relationships, and into how they feel about themselves."

As Surmer mentions, unhealthy behaviours aren't always just the fault of one partner. "When we think about toxic relationships, the stereotype suggests that there will be a 'perpetrator' and a 'victim'. But it’s also possible for two people to co-create a toxic relationship where they each feel trapped and unhappy, but they don’t feel as if they can escape."

And how can we be careful to distinguish between negative behaviours that are actually toxic and those that could be experienced in any relationship? "It can be really hard to notice the tipping point when behaviour becomes toxic. Many of us become annoyed or irritated by things that our partner says or does. But there are red flags to look out for," the counsellor highlights.

"Ask yourself whether you still enjoy their company, whether you still feel valued, and whether your partner still encourages you to be yourself and independent."

The signs you could be in a toxic relationship

1. Feeling a sense of fear or dread about your partner

While hopefully this doesn't sound familiar, if it does, this is key in indicating you aren't in a safe or loving relationship.

"This might be because of abuse that has happened (whether it’s physical or emotional) or it could be because of a threat or fear that they will harm you," Sturmer points out, both of which are examples of domestic violence.

While more women than men are likely to be victims of domestic abuse overall – 1.7 million women and 699,000 men 16+ in the year ending March 2022 – anyone can experience it, and it is never the victim's fault. It's important to seek help from someone you can trust.

2. Isolating yourself

As with other signs, this one could be hard to recognise straight away.

"If you’re in a toxic relationship, your partner might encourage you to distance yourself from your loved ones in order to build a sense of control over you," the counsellor explains.

3. Feeling watched

"Although you might not be with your partner all the time, you might feel as if they are watching you. In some instances of tech abuse, they might be using cameras or tracking devices. Or it might simply be a fear that they know what you’re up to at all times, even if you’re not with them," says Sturmer.

Three people listening with care to their friend as she talks in a cafe.
You might feel controlled or watched by your partner even when you're not with them. (Getty Images)

4. Feeling a need to change your behaviour or views

Of course, normal feedback in a relationship is healthy, like telling your partner when something has upset you with the intention of resolving it, feeling heard, and preventing it from happening again (and vice versa). But having to fundamentally change who you are day-to-day can be a sign of something different.

"If you’re in a toxic relationship, you might feel under pressure to change your views or values to align with those of your partner. Sometimes a partner might express their anger or jealousy or frustration, and you might feel compelled to change how you behave in order to keep the peace," explains Sturmer.

5. Noticing that you’re relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms

Your overall lifestyle could reflect what's going on in your relationship.

"If you’re feeling trapped or unhappy in a relationship, you might rely on coping mechanisms in order to soothe yourself. These can be positive, for example, exercise or eating healthily. But more often than not, we reach for unhealthy coping mechanisms if we’re unhappy, like alcohol or drugs," says Sturmer.

6. Diminishing confidence or self-esteem

"If your partner is quick to judge and criticise you, then it can be really hard to maintain your confidence," the relationship expert explains.

"Gradually these words or actions might start to seep in to influence how you feel about yourself. You might start blaming yourself for the problems in the relationship, or believing that you don’t deserve to be treated better than this."

Shot of a young man looking stressed out at home alone
Has your self-confidence taken a knock? (Getty Images)

What to do if you're in a toxic relationship

Some of these signs can be quite subtle at first, and some more serious. But none of them are okay.

"It’s important to try and understand whether a relationship has gone sour because life has got in the way. Perhaps there are external pressures and stresses that are making your partner act differently," says Sturmer.

Certain toxic behaviours, like any form of abuse, are never acceptable, but some things can be worked on (possibly with professional help). The expert suggests considering: "Is it possible that they will change? And if you think you might be the person who is acting negatively, do you understand why? This could be the result of your own experiences, leading you to treat others badly or to push other people away."

With many toxic relationships though, especially for those who feel they could be in danger, it's important to get help. "The most important part is to reflect on whether you feel fundamentally safe, secure and appreciated in your relationship," Sturmer points out. "If you think that you need to seek support, reach out to a trusted friend in your support network. If that doesn’t feel possible then there are lots of organisations that can offer support, including SHOUT, National Domestic Abuse Helpline, ManKind and Galop."

Text 'Shout' to 85258 for free, confidential, and anonymous support with your mental health, 247. Women can call National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 for free at any time, day or night. Male victims of domestic abuse can call ManKind on 01823 334244. And to speak to LGBT+ anti-abuse charity Galop, call 0800 999 5428. If you are in immediate danger call 999.

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