a couple sits on a bench looking upset. recognizing toxic relationships

How to Identify & Navigate Unhealthy Relationship Patterns

Toxic relationships can drain your joy, make you feel bad about yourself, and can keep you from reaching your full potential. But how do you know when a relationship is toxic? And how can you navigate unhealthy relationships for greater wellbeing and emotional freedom. As an experienced therapist, couples counselor, and breakup recovery expert, I know how damaging toxic relationships can be. Learning to recognize toxic relationship dynamics can help you avoid getting deeply involved in situations that are unhealthy and unfulfilling for you. 

Read on to learn how!

What Is a Toxic Relationship? 

First of all, let’s note that anytime a relationship turns violent, whether physically, sexually, financially, verbally, or emotionally, it goes beyond toxicity. In such cases, it becomes a violent relationship, and it warrants a different approach and intervention.

Toxicity, on the other hand, arises from a process that both partners contribute to. It often involves a struggle to regulate emotions, quick escalations into defensiveness and blame during arguments, one-sided dynamics, enabling destructive behaviors, and a lack of healthy boundaries. Toxic patterns in a relationship typically develop without malicious intent on either side, but they can be a result of unresolved wounds, painful past experiences, or inadequate role models in early life.

of this journey. When you and your partner experience difficulties, work through them, and emerge stronger, you develop a shared history that binds you together. 

Recognizing Toxic Patterns

Here are a few examples of toxic relationship patterns to watch out for:

  • Emotional Escalation: Toxic relationships often involve frequent and intense emotional escalations during conflicts. Arguments quickly become heated, leading to hurtful comments and a lack of emotional safety.
  • One-Sided Dynamics: In some toxic relationships, one partner may be overly invested in “saving” the other, leading to an imbalance where one person’s needs are met while the other feels empty and unsupported. See also: “How to Stop Being Codependent.”
  • Enabling Destructive Behaviors: Partners may engage in destructive behaviors together, like substance abuse. This can keep people feeling stuck in unhealthy habits. 
  • Cyclical Triggers: In a toxic relationship, both partners may find that they uniquely trigger intense emotional reactions in each other. For instance, a person with abandonment fears in a relationship with someone who avoids conflict might lead to a vicious cycle of escalating demands and withdrawal, also called a pursuer-distancer pattern.
  • Communication Difficulties: Partners with different communication styles, shaped by past experiences, may struggle to effectively convey their needs. This can result in resentment, criticism, defensiveness, and feeling unsupported.

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The Problem with Labeling People “Toxic”

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In recent times, there seems to be a growing trend of labeling relationships and people as “toxic” and promptly cutting ties. While this is sometimes the healthiest option, it can be a problem when we attribute all issues in the relationship to the other person rather than looking at our own role. Recognizing our own contributions to unhealthy relationship patterns is an essential part of personal growth and empowerment. 

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

If you suspect a relationship might be toxic, look out for these signs:

  • Boundary Violations: Feeling like your boundaries are consistently being tested, stepped over, or violated is a relationship red flag
  • Explosive Anger: When angry reactions feel threatening and out of proportion to the situation, that’s a concern.
  • Criticism and Personal Attacks: Frequent criticism and personal attacks during conflicts can be emotionally damaging and can contribute to a toxic dynamic. 
  • Humiliation: Partners who humiliate or put each other down create a toxic environment.
  • Contempt for Others: When someone expresses contempt for others, it can indicate underlying toxicity.
  • Avoidance of Accountability: How someone responds to feedback can reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. If they avoid accountability or blame others, that can signify toxicity.

Healthy Relationships vs. Toxic Relationships

While no relationship is perfect and conflict is inevitable, healthy relationships differ in how they approach conflict and challenges. In a healthy relationship:

  • Both partners feel emotionally safe enough to share their vulnerable feelings. 
  • Listening and validating each other’s experiences, even when perspectives differ, is a priority.
  • Both partners seek solutions and are accountable and reflective during conflicts.
  • While healthy conflict can be challenging, addressing the conflict doesn’t cause further harm to the relationship. The focus is on repairing and reestablishing connection.

Can a Toxic Relationship Become Healthy?

While sometimes leaving a toxic relationship is the best solution, it is often possible to heal a toxic relationship and create a healthier connection. This work requires both partners to acknowledge the toxicity of their dynamic and take accountability for their role. Couples therapy can be a valuable resource for addressing and transforming toxic patterns. However, if one partner remains unwilling or unable to recognize their contribution to the toxicity, it might be time to reevaluate the relationship and consider whether it aligns with your well-being. Addressing a toxic relationship requires self-awareness, humility, and sometimes, the wisdom to know when a relationship is beyond repair.

Addressing Patterns of Toxicity

If getting into toxic relationships is a pattern for you, it’s essential to get support from a good therapist in understanding what draws you to these dynamics and how you can break the pattern. Often, it stems from painful past experiences or the influence of early role models. Exploring your attraction to toxic relationships and acknowledging your role in perpetuating toxic patterns is the first step. 

Healing from Fallout of a Toxic Relationship

If you have walked away from a toxic relationship, you may be left with emotional and psychological wounds. These wounds can make it difficult to trust others, be vulnerable, or feel secure in future relationships. Healing from a toxic relationship begins with understanding how the experience has impacted you. With self-compassion and patience, you can work through these wounds, choose healthier partners, and set and maintain healthy boundaries in future relationships.

Support for Toxic Relationship Healing & Recovery

If you suspect that your current relationship is toxic, or you’re currently healing from the aftermath of a toxic relationship, then reaching out for support can be a very important step forward. A good therapist or couples counselor can help you understand the toxic dynamics, heal from the past, and find healthier ways of relating in the future. 

And if you would like to do this valuable work with me, I invite you to schedule a free consultation


Dr. Paige M., PhD, LMFT

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