Every marriage has its flaws because of course it does. But if the core values of trust, commitment, friendship, and mutual respect are there, couples can rise above them and come together to find happiness and love. That’s how it works. However, if a partner regularly feels misunderstood, disrespected, or — much worse — afraid, those are signs of toxic relationship. If safety is concern, it’s time to leave. In all cases, spouses must work to solve their issues — or go their separate ways. . Even if you find yourself asking, “Is my marriage toxic?”, well, that’s a sign that adjustments are necessary.
Toxic relationships can take many forms. Often what happens is the early years of a relationship can obscure the signs. Everyone gets caught in the whirlwinds when they’re courting. Love is exciting, everything feels new and the future looks bright. Because of the bright glow that this casts, it’s easy to ignore, say, subtle emotional manipulation or other such warning signs of what may become a toxic relationship. But, sooner or later the glow can fade. And it’s in that light that a marriage’s flaws can be cast into sharp relief.
Understanding what makes an unhealthy relationship is as important as what makes a healthy one. While some signs of a toxic relationship, like feeling unsafe in any way, are immediate red flags that must be reckoned with. Others, however, are issues that can be rooted out early before true rot sets in.
“It is important to pay attention to these indicators,” notes Kandee Lewis, executive director of the Positive Results Corporation, an organization that works to help identify and fight cycles of abuse in relationships. “The longer they are endured, the harder it is to leave or reconfigure a relationship dynamic.”
Without knowing the signs of a toxic marriage, couples can’t seek solutions — or decide when it might be time to leave. If not, they start to be accepted as a norm. Here, in no particular order according to therapists and counsellors, are 10 signs of a toxic relationship that everyone should know.
1. There Is Constant Dismissiveness or Belittling
Demeaning language. Harsh words. Insults. Screaming. Such behaviors are a tell-tale sign of a toxic relationship or marriage. They have no place in a healthy relationship and should not happen at all, let alone done in front of other people. If a person constantly humiliates their partner in front of other people, especially other family members, it will target them as an object of derision and someone who isn’t to be respected. That image will wreak havoc on their confidence and security. “Take note if your partner always says things like ‘no one wants you,’ or ‘you ought to be glad I’m with you, because no one else wants you,’ or ‘you are so stupid,’” says. Lewis. “You may eventually come to believe them, making it hard to leave this toxic relationship.”
2. Silence Is Frequently Used as a Weapon
After an argument, taking a “cooling off” period is often a very smart move. A post-fight walk (separately), or an agreement to not speak until they’ve both gotten their emotions under control is helpful for rewiring the fight-or-flight instincts that arise during a spat. But the fabled “silent treatment” is a different animal and needs to be avoided at all costs. When one partner uses this tactic frequently, they are attempting to assert control over the other. If someone frequently falls into the habit of refusing to speak to their partner for hours or even days, they are dictating the terms of the argument and conversation in general. It’s no more than an assertion of control. “It is normal to occasionally be upset, disappointed, even angry with your partner,” says Lewis. “However when you ignore your partner and refuse to speak to them for more than an hour or two, it’s abusive.”
3. Manipulation and Isolation Are Common
For reasons related to insecurity or control, a person may try and separate their partner from other people and other activities in an effort to keep them close by and contained. Unchecked, this behavior is toxic bordering on abusive. It can often take the form of love and care, with the guilty party saying, “I just love you so much that I want you all to myself.” Done frequently, however, this is a means of control intended to keep someone isolated from life outside of the relationship. Lewis says that this can also take on a more openly hostile form, with one person, “speaking badly of the partner’s family and friends, or intentionally telling lies to them, or saying things to make you jealous.”
4. One Person Asserts Total Dominance Over Finances
It’s not uncommon for one partner to have more control over financial affairs in a marriage, especially if the other partner isn’t as good with money. However, this can take on a much more unhealthy sheen when one partner openly refuses the other to be involved in financial matters or goes so far as to control what they spend or how much they can have at any given time. “In a healthy relationship, partners are aware of spending and have a measure of financial freedom,” Lewis says. “Financial toxicity in a relationship is often one partner assigning the other an allowance solely to control the money. They may say something like, ‘You aren’t responsible enough to take care of money, or you are too stupid.’”
5. One Partner Feels Unsafe — Physically or Emotionally
If a partner feels physically unsafe because of their partner, escape plans need to be made. No healthy relationship should make you feel this way. Emotional safety and commitment safety are also important to have. If one partner is made to feel like they can’t share their emotions or that their relationship is so fragile that even the slightest disagreement will cause a major problem, that’s a bad sign. “If you don’t feel safe expressing your thoughts and feelings to your spouse, your relationship lacks emotional safety,” says Genesis Games, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. “If you’re worried that your partner might feel lukewarm about the longevity of the relationship, your marriage lacks commitment safety. These two safeties are the foundation of a healthy marriage, without these, the relationship can feel unstable and resemble a rollercoaster.”
6. One Person Always Shifts Blame to the Other
Does person A often blame person B for things? Even things that aren’t person B’s fault? Or does person A accept a modicum of responsibility, but then somehow turn it back on person B? (“You can understand why I flew off the handle, because you’ve done it, too”)? If so, the problem isn’t person B. At least not all the time. In a positive and healthy relationship, both parties will take their share of the blame when it is deserved. “One of the themes of a toxic relationship is that one person feels constantly blamed and at fault in the relationship, even for things that are not theirs to own,” says Jessica Small, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. “This may even come down to feeling responsible for your partner’s mood and walking on eggshells out of fear of upsetting the other person.
7. Friends and Family Keep Saying it’s Problematic
If family and friends often say a relationship is toxic, they may be worth listening to. “One of the things that I have observed over and over again in my time as a therapist is that people’s friends and family most often want to support their relationship — even if they don’t particularly care for the partner — if they think the relationship is healthy and supportive,” Small says. “One of the consistent themes of a toxic relationship is that friends and family voice reservations or explicit lack of support for the relationship. This is often an indicator that something is not right.”
8. The Relationship Never Takes Priority
Very often in a marriage, someone will say one thing, but then do something else entirely. They will say that the other person is a priority, or that the family is important, but then consistently put other things first — whether it’s work, outside interests, other friendships. “Due to the lack of congruity between the statements and the actions, resentment tends to grow,” says clinical psychologist, relationship expert Dr. Carla Manly, “around the lack of congruity between words and actions and the lack of making the partner/family a key priority.”
9. Sarcasm Has Become the Main Language
This is not about couples who are lovingly sarcastic with one another and wield it from time to time. This is about one partner using sarcasm as their main language. On the surface, this seems harmless. It’s just a little jab, and can be brushed off as teasing. However, sarcasm is a passive-aggressive means of one partner communicating a toxic message to another. And if it’s constant, that’s a big problem. “You’re such an idiot!” said with a laugh, may sound like a joke, but when the joke is constant, it’s not okay. “Sarcasm — which is often disguised hostility — tends to erode connection and intimacy in a relationship,” says Manly. “And, over time, resentments can build up leaving the recipient of the sarcasm feeling deeply angry and embittered due to the toxic commentary disguised as jokes.”
10. There’s Constant Gaslighting
When someone continually tells their partner that they are in the wrong and provides examples that the other knows aren’t true — a technique known as gaslighting — that’s a sign of serious toxicity. White lies, manipulation, and denial even when presented with evidence are all signs of gaslighting and need to be addressed right away. “Making a partner feel diminished or ‘crazy’ is never a wise idea,” says Manly. “Gaslighting behavior degrades connection in the short term and also contaminates the relationship in the long term.”