Love is not supposed to be easy, but sometimes it’s just too hard.
Sociological experts use the term toxic to mean harmful, manipulative, and borderline abusive, though not every unhealthy relationship looks the same. If you find yourself in one of those situations, you should look to fix it quickly — or end it.
Inverse has gathered some clear signs that your relationship could be doomed. These include the obvious — physical violence — as well as the subtle — walking on eggshells, silence from friends, the bad kind of sex games, how all of her exes are supposedly insane, how she might just not be a very good person, and more.
For help illustrating these examples, we’ve turned to the wonderfully messed up show that is Game of Thrones — in which Littlefinger psychologically manipulates Sansa, Dany ignores her lovers’ advice, and we won’t even get into the Lannisters’ incestual codependence.
They use physical force or are abusive
It is very difficult for men to successfully win cases against female partners in domestic abuse cases, perhaps both the police force and legal system remain prejudiced against male victims, but the Center for Disease Control estimates that one in four men will experience being the victim of domestic abuse during his lifetime. Because the system can sometimes ignore male victims of domestic abuse, there aren’t as many safe houses or clinics available for male victims.
Aside from a discussion of what’s criminal, any kind of physical force used in a romantic relationship is definitely toxic if there isn’t consent involved, and your partner does not have to be putting your life in danger in order to be abusive. In 2015, a male army ranger used footage of his wife verbally and physically assaulting him in front of their children to prosecute her for domestic abuse, and he won his case. It wasn’t necessarily a question of whether the woman had the ability to seriously injure him; apparently she just hadn’t developed conflict coping skills beyond trying to hurt him to get her way.
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence in a relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. It is open 24 hours a day.
Aside from physical abuse, other toxic relationship tactics include violating your privacy — reading your texts, demanding your iPhone passcode, hacking your email. In fact, if your partner is combing through your Twitter mentions or inquiring about whose Instagram posts you’ve liked and why, you may have cause to worry.
Any attempt to control or police your communication with the outside world, even if that means monitoring your conversation with people of the gender you find attractive, is unhealthy. The Department of Justice defines domestic abuse as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” If your girlfriend is trying to negotiate for a sign-off on what you do instead of trusting you not to hurt her, something is going wrong between you.
You avoid setting off your partner’s reactions
There’s a huge difference between acting in the best interest of your partner and what relationship experts call “walking on eggshells”. Toxic people have trouble internalizing their own behaviors, which means they blame their emotional outbursts on their environment or other people. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence warns potential victims of abuse that a romantic partner who blames you for their emotional outbursts, whether angry or panicked or tearful, isn’t coping with their emotions in a healthy way.
That isn’t to say, however, that avoiding flirting with someone in order not to hurt your partner’s feelings means they’re toxic. If you find yourself avoiding situations or giving up harmless behaviors — playing video games, listening to certain music, calling your mom — in order to keep your partner from flying off the handle, you may be in a troublesome spot.
Your friends are silent about them
Your friends don’t have to love hanging out with your girlfriend, but if they’re negative about her, or if they refrain from commenting when you bring her up in conversation, that may be a sign that you’re in a toxic situation.
Consider why your friends became close to you in the first place; you might have emotional intimacy and a safe space between you to talk about real shit, or they might just be dudes you like playing soccer with. Either way, if introducing them to your new partner was any sort of “event”, they probably know you pretty well and would rather you date someone who makes your life easier. Don’t take your friends’ lack of comment as a positive sign; telling your buddy that their partner seems like trouble isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
All their exes are apparently insane
Most people don’t want to discuss ex-partners with their new one, but if your girlfriend’s narrative about her past dalliances puts all the blame on all the people she’s been with, that’s a sign of latent toxicity. It’s one thing if she dated a couple jerks and has a few funny stories about her mistakes; if any mention of ex-partners causes eye-rolling, diatribes, or, frankly, strong extended shows of emotion of any kind, that’s not a good sign. A cliche often recited at women applies pretty well to dudes, too: listen carefully to how they describe other people because they’re likely to talk about you that way one day. They might even do it now.
If, however, your partner is compulsively still very close with all their exes, that’s a sign they may be a narcissist, and another problem entirely.
They withhold sex or affection
Sex within the confines of a monogamous relationship (or even a healthy open, poly one) is not a bargaining chip. Ideally, partners in a relationship desire sex with the other person equally, so if a woman (or man) refuses to engage sexually in order to punish you for something else, that’s a sign of a toxic relationship. In fact, if your partner is enacting punitive measures of any kind, that’s not a good sign either; you’re not your girlfriend’s project, and you’re not a raging bag of lust who has to be controlled with carefully doled out sex rations.
You’re constantly “working on it”
People in relationships are often advised to “put in work” and are reminded ad nauseum that “love requires effort”. Those sentiments aren’t false. The “working through this” mindset, however, keeps many people trapped in relationships that require way too much effort to keep on track. It’s easy to get chemically hooked on your toxic relationship’s rhythmic ups and downs — though the lows where you’re not talking feel shitty, there’s nothing like the high of make-up sex and the obsessive, breathless apologies that come afterward.
People in toxic relationships also tend to fall back on faulty economic logic; that is, they obsess over a “sunk cost,” telling themselves and their friends, “We’ve put so much time and emotion into this, it’s going to get better.” Chances are, it’s not going to get better, and if your romantic relationship is still free of extraneous constraints like shared finances, property, pets, or kids, there really isn’t much to work on together. Granted, most people have issues to sort out, but that’s between them, their doctors, and their therapists. If you find yourself in a partnership in which you are a caregiver, or your partner tells you that you need looking after, that’s a foul sign.
Their personal brand is “difficult”
Is your partner sarcastic and not one to mince words? Fine. Do they get off on speaking their minds, and post messages on social media that amount to “I call ‘em like I see ‘em!” Sounds gross. Is your partner habitually rude to other people, especially those working in hospitality or food service? Does she refuse to give anyone the benefit of the doubt? Do you find yourself apologizing for your partner’s aggressive rhetoric, or explaining to others that he’s actually a nice guy, but certain circumstances sets him off?
Standing up for oneself is admirable, and getting into philosophical or political debates isn’t necessarily a comment on one’s character, but if your partner seems to relish in correcting others (or you), or they gleefully enjoy other people’s disappointment, failure, or shortcomings, that’s evidence that their robust principles have bled into self-righteousness. A non-toxic person is predominantly empathetic, no matter the situation.
You feel drained after talking, rather than restored
Most of the behaviors on this list concern your partner, but it’s important to listen to your biological system and what it’s telling you. Love is essentially a strong cocktail of hormones and sought-after behaviors, and even a healthy relationship will (ideally) cause surges of dopamine and oxytocin, which can feel like a roller coaster. However, once you’ve ridden up and down the first hill, thrust forward by the kinetic energy of lust, you’re supposed to feel a continued, simmering high. Being with your partner after being apart should feel like a relief; it shouldn’t feel like you’re constantly auditioning to keep your place as “boyfriend”.
That’s not to say that a healthy relationship means you never need alone time; in fact, it’s the opposite and your partner should also desire some time to themselves or with friends who aren’t you. Toxic people, whether they’re romantic partners, friends, or colleagues, create the sensation that they’re zapping others of their energy. If you’ve ever heard someone call your partner “exhausting” or “a handful”, and those phrases are hard to argue with, that’s a sign that they’re not a positive presence in your life.