According to recent figures, approximately 29% of women have experienced physical, sexual, or psychological abuse during their lifetime, with psychological abuse being most common among women in their mid-20s to early 30s.
I spent nearly a decade in a toxic relationship. At 21, I didn’t know what a toxic relationship was, why I should avoid them, or any of the signs to look out for. So I wrote this blog for the 21 year old me, and anyone else who isn’t aware of the signs.
What is a Toxic Relationship?
We never really know what we’re heading into with a new relationship. Any relationship can be complicated or difficult and the dating world is complex. Which makes it even harder to assess the warning signs of a toxic relationship. If you’re anything like me, who always goes in expecting the best from people, that has sometimes lead to not fully owning that there are some of the worst out there.
Toxic relationships embody unhealthy behaviours, including emotional, psychological and physical abuse. A toxic relationship consists of behaviours that are damaging to their partner. When you’re in a toxic relationship, your world involves dominance, control, passive aggressive and/or actual aggressiveness. We risk our very selves by staying in one. A toxic relationship is living in a state of fear. It is not a safe place.
A Toxic Relationship Changes You
Recently I was with friends and they remarked on how different I am now vs six years ago. And it’s true. I am an entirely different person. Because now I am me. Before then I was someone else entirely. And the defining moment that changed my life completely was ending a near decade long toxic relationship. A psychologically abusive situation that among other things dictated how I dressed, who I socialised with, how I acted and what I did. It was both mentally and emotionally depleting living in a constant state of fear and anxiousness.
It’s still painful to recall those memories of a time that I lived as a shadow of my present self. Addressing the guilt and shame I still feel for tolerating it for as long as I did. And understanding the long terms affects that an emotionally abusive relationship has had on me and my life. But I’m going to look back. Because I want to support anyone who is currently in a toxic relationship, of any form, and clearly highlight some of the signs of a toxic relationship. To help you avoid them in the first instance, and encourage you to walk away if these signs seem all too familiar to your present situation.
Signs Of A Toxic Relationship
Lots of attention, never-ending compliments, constant affection, promises for the future. Sounds wonderful right? But it isn’t. Love-Bombing is a form of psychological manipulation and one of the warning signs of a toxic relationship. It is used as a way to create intense excitement and confirm that the relationship is love at first sight. It embodies intense attention and rapid commitment, but this doesn’t last. Once you’re invested and you love and care for that person, the devaluation stage begins.
I was 22 when I experienced love-bombing. He showered me with affection and attention and was caring, kind and loving in ways I could only have dreamed of at that age. He proposed quickly. I was so overwhelmed with all this love, that I didn’t hesitate in saying yes. I moved 120 miles away from my home town, friends and family to be with him. But as the months progressed, things began to change.
Psychological abuse follows a pattern of abuse and manipulation, often involving a phase of ‘grooming.’ Love-bombing is often a trait found with Narcissist Personality Disorder. It plays on obtaining the other persons love and commitment and then once this is secure, all affection is removed and abusive, manipulative and controlling behaviours appear.
2. You Live In Fear Of Displeasing Them
Instead of treating your love with tenderness and care, they abuse it. It is used as a way to harm you. They exploit the trust and love you have given to them., and they’ll use your love as a reason to get what they want. You lose yourself being so transfixed on ensuring your partner’s happiness. Your whole world becomes about them, and that’s what they want. Full control.
“We should fight for our relationships, but if fighting means ripping yourself to shreds and piggybacking all his demons, you need to leave.”— Tara Love
3. You Begin To Feel Isolated From Friends And Family
Have you ever been in a situation where someone has said to you, “You are all I need, and I should be all you need.” ? Or not spoken to you for days because you went out with a friend? Messaged you constantly and expected regular updates on your whereabouts and who you are with? Accused you of being a cheater or not loving them enough because you socialised with some friends one evening? Maybe even demanded that they come in tow? Isolated you from friends or family so your support group dwindles because you see people less and less?
This all happened to me. And all of these scenarios, are signs of emotional manipulation. Isolating you from friends and family is one of the clear signs of a toxic relationship. Love shouldn’t be encased in fear. You shouldn’t be frightened of spending time with loved ones or the consequences of doing so. By isolating you they also remove your support network. It becomes harder to see and speak to people. It is one of the very reasons I created The Authentic Optimist. Because we need those support systems in our lives and it’s important that we have these conversations.
“I started to believe what he was saying, maybe I didn’t love him if I didn’t give up my friends and family. Maybe he really was all I should need. Love should not make you feel like walking on eggshells.”— Emma Xu
4. You Are Always Apologising
They never apologise when they are in the wrong. The situation becomes twisted. It’s always your fault. You end up apologising just to keep the peace. It’s tiring arguing a point that’s always going to be ignored. You just cannot reason with an unreasonable person.
But it eats away at you. Always being in the wrong. Forever to blame. Consistently needing to apologise. It affects your self-worth and your confidence. You start to believe that you can’t do anything right. They stoke that fire by saying no-one else would have you, and you genuinely begin to wonder how you would ever find somebody else, even if you did leave. Who would put up with you being such a burden?
5. Panic Mode Is A Near Constant State
A toxic relationship causes stress, anxiety and it can even lead to depression. If you are feeling unhappy, drained, emotionally and mentally exhausted, these could be warning signs of a toxic relationship.
Throughout my relationship, I lived in this near constant state of panic. I would worry if I was slightly later than I said I was going to be. Or I didn’t message back quickly enough to his check ins. Would he be in a good mood today, or a very bad one? Was I wearing something he didn’t like? Could I dare ask if I could go on that weekend away with friends that everyone was talking about and I was desperate to go on too? Although very aware that his reaction to the question alone was causing me intense anxiety. And I already knew it would be a, No.
Externally to those around me, I was trying to appear happy and upbeat. Attempting to retain somewhat of the person I am and was. In effect it was like there were two versions of myself that weren’t really me at all.
6. They Criticise You Often
I remember that on some days he would spend an hour or more listing reasons why I was annoying. Things I was bad at. Ways I had aggravated him. Berating me. It was a monologue of negativity. And when I was feeling sufficiently low, when I seemed to have shrunk even further into myself, he would state, “What’s the matter with you? Come on, cheer up, let’s have a nice day.”
Criticism damages the relationship by eroding trust, intimacy and your own self-esteem. It is an effective way to state their superiority and your inferiority. For them it is all about control and maintaining the upper hand. And criticism is a sign of an emotionally abusive partner.
7. You’re Becoming Used To Scare Tactics
My partner mainly used emotional abuse to control, but he would scare me. He would punch a wall near to my head. Or drive fast in the car to elicit fear. He used a number of tactics to frighten me, to ensure I knew he was in full control. And it worked. I was scared of the possibility of what he would do if he didn’t like an answer or action. I lived in fear of what might happen. Because deep down, you’re waiting for the day that the scare tactics go up a level.
8. They Have Major Jealousy Issues
Unreasonable jealousy becomes something reasonably expected. I started to amend how I acted, instead of realising that I was doing nothing wrong. Because I wasn’t taking any action, or doing things to incite jealousy. Merely my existence as a person around other people triggered his jealous feelings. And this form of unreasonable jealousy really isn’t reasonable at all.
9. They Have Two Faces. One For You, One For Everyone Else
When I walked away from my toxic relationship, most people only knew one side of his personality; The outdoor public version. The nice guy. Very pleasant. Very amicable. Quiet. Reserved. Polite. They weren’t acquainted with the version that had been my daily life; The controlling, manipulative, angry, emotionally abusive side that had kept me in the shadows for so many years.
They create this perfect image that’s so far removed from the version you are getting, that it’s unbelievable for anyone else to think they could be anything other than the nice guy/girl personified. It’s the version I had fallen in love with originally too. That great guy. It was as unexpected to me as it was to friends and family that that lovely man wasn’t the only character residing in my ex-partner. So I waited for the nice guy to emerge again, and I enjoyed the fleeting moments when he did. And I lived for those moments where I felt comfortable again. But it never lasted for long. Eventually the ‘other’ version came back around, reminding me that Mr Nice Guy was but a brief and inconsistent persona that became less frequent over time.
10. You Have Two Faces Too
There was the version that was more like me; The me from before, and a me I wanted to be again, although it wasn’t quite me at all anymore. Years of emotional abuse had beaten it down and left a watered down version. But it was a semblance of me. And this was the version everyone else saw, the desperate fight to retain my true self.
But then there was also the person I had to be with him; The quiet, timid, agreeable, controlled version. A depleted character who felt trapped. Living with anxiousness, stress and constant worry, but not knowing how to escape. The version that had to be something else to keep someone else happy.
And somewhere in those final years, that’s when the penny dropped. It became more obvious that I was two versions of myself. One was a form of survival mode within the relationship, and the other was trying desperately to engage in life outside of it. It was the moment I realised that I needed to leave.
I Finally Saw That Things Would Never Change
I’d spent nearly a decade hoping for the person I’d fallen in love with to return, but it was never a case of them returning because they had always shown me two sides. One part had been hidden until I was sufficiently invested enough not to walk away at the first sight of it, so they had tricked me. But then I had tricked myself that this was love. I had ignored the warning signs of a toxic relationship. An unbalanced relationship that swayed mostly towards negative and toxic, and very occasionally towards nice and lovely. I had for too long convinced myself that this was an acceptable balance for a loving relationship.
But it wasn’t. It didn’t incorporate the basic elements required for a healthy relationship; affection, trust and respect. And importantly I didn’t want to be two versions of myself anymore. I didn’t want to live in the shadows. Or be in constant panic, isolated from those I loved. I shouldn’t need to be scared of how someone might react or treat me. Tolerate criticism and watch my self-confidence and worth diminish further. If I didn’t make a change, I was going to get more lost in the darkness and maybe lose myself completely. It was time to accept that I was in a toxic relationship and one I no longer wanted to be a part of.
“Staying in an unhealthy relationship that robs you of peace of mind, is not being loyal. It is choosing to hurt yourself mentally, emotionally and sometimes, physically.”— Kemi Sogunle
Always Prioritize Your Wellbeing
I hope this was helpful in highlighting some of the signs of a toxic relationship. Please go with your gut instinct if it’s telling you something is amiss. Don’t ignore it. Prioritize your emotional well-being and if the relationship doesn’t support that, it’s time to walk away.
If you’ve ended a toxic relationship, surround yourself with supportive people. Find ways to process your experience in healthy ways. At some points I’ve tried to eradicate the whole relationship from my mind, however truly moving on means giving yourself the grace to look back and reflect. The healing process takes time. And as you heal, the pain lessens. Healing will look different for everyone. Explore what you need to recover once a toxic relationship has ended.
It takes a lot of work to rebuild yourself and a tremendous amount of strength and self-care to find you again, but it’s worth every step. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank myself for having the courage to walk away. You can regain control after experiencing a toxic relationship. And moving on is an incredible journey of personal growth and insight in figuring out who you are, and what you want from life, and prioritizing your own wellbeing in every decision you make going forward.
Please Reach Out And Take Advantage Of Any Support Available
Emotional abuse can include verbal assault, dominance, control, isolation, ridicule, or the use of intimate knowledge for degradation. It targets the emotional and psychological well-being of the victim, and it is often a precursor to physical abuse. If you feel you are currently experiencing emotional and / or psychological abuse within your relationship, please reach out and take advantage of any support available.