I am loathed to call my last relationship ‘abusive’. She was not violent towards me, she never said demeaning things deliberately to hurt me, she never threatened me. However it was most definitely toxic. And only now, months after she decided it was over and I haven’t heard from her, do I realise that. It has taken me that anger, that heartbreak and that time, to see that. I do not say it was toxic because I am bitter or because she is an ex. I say that because it is the only word I have found to describe the manipulation, the discomfort and the use that took place.
It wasn’t all bad – we were together three years and happy for most of it. Our feelings were all mutual and there was a lot of love, friendship and – at times – trust. That’s another reason I feel it’s untruthful to call it abusive. Even emotionally, I don’t think it was abusive. I was happy a lot of the time. However, like I said, looking back I see a lot of things that weren’t right; that from a deeply in-love and young, naive, first-serious-relationship perspective, I did not notice.
I want to bring out some signs of a toxic relationship (which can of course also be signs of an abusive relationship), in the hopes it can help more people understand what is ‘normal’ and what is a warning sign and should be worked on.
They borrow or take a lot of money
This is a sign to watch out for. Obviously all partners borrow money from you at times, and sure they might forget to pay you back sometimes. But over the years the amount my ex borrowed from me accumulated to hundreds. In fact one of the last things I did, after she broke up with me, was give her a large amount of money. This is wrong for so many reasons – for one, I didn’t have a job. She did. For another, she spent a lot of this money on alcohol. Lastly, she had a job herself. If your partner is consistently borrowing money from you and not paying it back that is not right. Yes, maybe ‘what’s mine is yours’ applies but they should pay you back – even if it’s not in physical cash, if it’s just that next time they pay for the shopping etc. There needs to be a trust there and no chance that they’re using you. I am sure she was not using me. On some occasions she did pay me back. She was just incredibly forgetful. But that is not the point. Because I know for a fact she also owes money to a lot of other people.
They guilt-trip you and make you feel guilty for your feelings
If you are feeling worthless or guilty, then that is not good. Obviously. But if those feelings stem from them then that is a big warning sign. In a relationship you should feel happy, safe and loved. You should feel that they respect you, listen to you and appreciate you. Personally, I felt this way about 98% of the time. Only at certain times did I feel that I was being ignored. Even then I felt loved and respected. But if you are not feeling that, you need to bring this up with your partner.
A major issue is if you feel guilty a lot of the time. If without even trying they make you feel guilty or like you’re doing something wrong, then you need to talk about this with them. That is not how you should feel. Worse, if they deliberately make you feel guilty by guilt-tripping you then that is unacceptable. That kind of manipulation is not trustworthy, and we all know a relationship is based on trust. Guilt-tripping can be as simple as making you feel like you’re picking your friends over them or conversely that you are putting pressure on them for wanting to spend time with them. If you do everything for them, but when they do anything for you you feel like you’re asking too much or are being annoying, then it may be the way they’re handling it, and not your fault.
They play the victim
A lot of people, including myself, insist the person was not manipulative or (in extreme cases) abusive, because they apologised a lot. And yes, people can act badly then apologise and it can be fine. We’re not talking they yell at you and storm out, then apologise – that is normal. But if there are repeated situations where you suffer (in any way) and they cry, say it’s all their fault, beg for another chance etc. then you need to be cautious. All the self-pitying ‘I’ll do better’, ‘I’m worthless’ ways of thinking and talking to you can be warning signs. Of course people can genuinely feel this way without being deliberately manipulative, but if you notice patterns of them causing issues between you and then ‘fixing’ them just by wallowing in self-pity and getting you to forgive them because you feel guilty, then that’s not okay. Even if those feelings are genuine for them, you should still be talking about the issues beyond that.
This can be really hard, I know, because you love them and you don’t want them to feel bad. You think the world of them, and want them to think that too, so of course you just let go of all the problems. And in the moment that doesn’t matter, but over time it builds up. Even after my ex cheated on me and broke up with me in the most selfish of ways, she told me it was all her fault and she was ‘worthless’ because of it. Although now I am inclined to agree, at the time of course I told her no no it was fine, and she was perfect and shouldn’t feel bad. This then lifts the guilt from their shoulders and they get to escape the situation feeling like they were never in the wrong. When your partner repeatedly plays the victim in situations where they are not the victim, you need to be wary of how they are manipulating you.
They are consistently unfaithful
This one is obvious. A serial cheater cannot be trusted. Any kind of cheater cannot be trusted. You can read my in-depth thoughts/opinions on cheating here. I disagree with the general consensus that ‘if someone cheats on you they do not love you’. I believe someone who cheats can still love you, and even respect you, but they are unfaithful. They do not respect the relationship. And if they do it once, they can and will do it again. They have the capacity to do it again, and more importantly, they do not think it is wrong. Saying ‘I’m sorry, it was wrong to do that’ is not worth much in this situation. In the moment, they did not think it was wrong; if they had they would have remained faithful. So just because they now think (or just say) it was wrong, does not mean in the next moment they will still think it is wrong.
Cheating is never okay. If in a moment you so desperately want someone that you are considering cheating then for god’s sake, you can just call your partner and tell them. Even that is less painful than them finding out at a later date that you did it and then lied to them. If you are so weak that you give into an urge, knowing it will destroy someone you (claim to) care about, then that is repulsive and you should not be in a monogamous relationship. Whether you are drunk or not, cheating is unacceptable. Whether it is one drunken kiss or several months of lying, it is unacceptable. I also believe that just because they cheat one time, with one kiss or one night, that is not to be forgiven or forgotten quickly. For me, that just resulted in at a later date, them believing it was okay to have a full-blown affair. f your partner has cheated on you, then you need to seriously re-consider everything. Don’t just think ‘we’ll work it out’ and continue as normal; make them realise they were wrong and it was not okay. Disrupt the relationship, take a break, don’t talk to them for a while, talk it through with friends – you need to take that time just you and work out how you feel and what you want to do. It is possible to rebuild that trust over time, but they need to be open to you about everything. And that trust needs to be rebuilt gradually. Because it takes years to fully trust someone again, but just one minute for them to destroy it all.
Also a sidenote that polyamory is not cheating. It is all honest and consensual.
You feel you can’t do anything right
This is similar to the guilt-tripping point: you basically shouldn’t feel like this. At times of course everyone gets things wrong and feels like they’re a bit useless, but you shouldn’t feel like this constantly or because of them. If your partner consistently tells you or implies you’ve done something wrong, made the wrong decision, aren’t good enough etc. then that is not a healthy relationship. They should be encouraging you, supporting you no matter what and making you feel like you are 100% good enough. It is that simple. Remember, they don’t have to outrightly say ‘you’re useless you can’t get anything right’, it is how they act or how they word things.
That is the point of toxic relationships; you may have no evidence that this person is mistreating you, but that does not mean they aren’t. Trust your gut, your feelings. You should not be sad most of the time.
There is alcohol or drug abuse
This also links back to the playing the victim issue: they may say this is why they acted out, or why they cheated – they may apologise and say they hate their addiction and that they’re worthless etc. but that doesn’t mean it is okay. It is okay to have an addiction, to have problems, and I truly believe it is possible to be in a happy, functional relationship while struggling with problems. However I do not believe that those problems excuse poor behaviour. If in a three-year relationship they yell at you and are really mean one time when they’re drunk, then that is something you can get past. But if they get drunk or high constantly and always mistreat you when they are intoxicated, then that isn’t okay. They should be trying their hardest to get past this problem, and they should be trying their hardest to not let it impact the relationship. If they cannot try to fix it with all their effort, then they should not be in a relationship. It is okay to have problems and still be in a relationship, but it is not okay to have those problems take over the relationship. If they do, then they must be open about what is happening and accept your help to try and combat the problems together.
You spend all your time trying to make them happy
Like with most of these points, this is true of all relationships to some extent. In a relationship, when you’re in love, you want to make your partner happy constantly. You want to make them as happy as possible, and you often want to be the cause of that happiness. But if you are getting stressed out by trying to make them happy, if you feel like you cannot do it, if they are deliberately making it difficult or pointing out that you are failing, if that is all you are focussing on, then that is not normal. You need to want to make them happy, not feel like you have to. If it seems like all you ever do is give them everything and do all you can to make them happy, and that is all the relationship is or is being held together by… then that’s not okay. Again, I say that it also needs to be a healthy balance; they need to be doing the same for you. An unbalanced relationship with different amounts of effort in different places may work, but the overall effort you’re each putting in needs to even out equally. If you feel like you can’t make them happy and never do it right, then it may be the way they’re handling it, and not your fault.
You feel more like a parent than a partner
In every relationship there are slightly freaky when you think about them aspects: you tuck them into bed, you cook for them, you look after them when they’re ill… all typically parental things. But they’re normal. What isn’t normal and isn’t okay if you feel more like a parent than a partner. This is complicated and a bit difficult to describe, but basically if you feel that you spend more time looking after them and doing things for them (than they do you) then that is perhaps something you should talk about. Of course all relationships are different, plus sometimes certain people just need more looking after, but if you personally feel like the dynamic is off, then chances are something’s not right. Trust that gut instinct.
They try to win you back if you leave/ they want you back when they leave
Toxic relationships are not always all bad. That is a big part of what they are; they develop because of circumstance or personality. The person does not go into a relationship thinking ‘this is how I will treat them’, but that does not mean that when they mistreat you it is okay. The person probably genuinely cares about you, and may not even realise they are behaving badly. So if you get up the courage to leave then they may chase you and try to win you back, but worse; if they end it they may then decide they do in fact still want you. This kind of pattern can develop even after just one break-up, or repeat itself many times. It is damaging and unfair on you, because each time you believe they’ve changed or will change, you believe it will be better and more ‘normal’. Often it will be, but only for a while. Yes, people can change, but sadly it can take years for that to happen. So chances are, after your couple month break, they haven’t changed and it’s no more likely to end with that happy ever after than it was before. All the same issues remain, they just may be hidden. In my personal experience, they genuinely may try harder and have realised the problems they caused, but then over time they can develop all over again. Whether you want to say this is fate saying you ‘just aren’t meant to be’, or whether it is just the wrong time and place, it is not going to work right now. If they want you back now and truly care about you, then they will be willing to take it slowly and work on the issues over time and rebuild that trust, and they will want you back in the future too.
The most important thing is to always focus on yourself. Even if you’re with someone, you are equally important. Do not stop looking after and looking out for yourself, just because someone else started to as well. Sadly, in the end, the only person truly on your side… is you. You got your back, and that can be all you need.
Stay safe and happy,
Side note: In this post I am primarily talking about romantic relationships, however almost all of this can be applied to friendships and family relationships as well.