8 Common Toxic Behaviors in Relationships (and How To Cope)
8 Common Toxic Behaviors in Relationships (and How To Cope)

8 Common Toxic Behaviors in Relationships (and How To Cope)


July 16, 2023

Alcohol and Mental Health
8 Common Toxic Behaviors in Relationships (and How To Cope)
Reframe Content Team
Alcohol and Mental Health
27 min read
Author image
Reframe Content Team
July 16, 2023
27 min read

Relationships are an integral part of our lives, providing us with companionship, love, and a sense of belonging. They can be a source of joy, comfort, and personal growth. However, not all relationships are healthy — some are toxic and cause emotional distress and harm. These behaviors can range from subtle manipulations to overt forms of abuse, so recognizing this toxicity is the first step towards addressing them and seeking healthier dynamics. 

With all this in mind, here are eight common toxic behaviors in relationships and how to cope with them.

How Do Toxic Behaviors Affect Our Well-Being?

Toxic relationships are complex, dynamic entities, manifesting in different ways and constantly evolving. They can arise from a myriad of sources: romantic partners, friends, family members, or colleagues. While it's essential to recognize that no relationship is perfect, the key characteristic that distinguishes toxic relationships from healthy ones is the persistent negative impact they have on our overall health. These detrimental bonds thrive on a foundation of manipulation, deceit, and emotional abuse, creating an environment of fear, anxiety, and self-doubt that permeates every aspect of our lives.

Here are a few of the health consequences of toxic relationships.

Anxiety and Stress

One of the most immediate and tangible effects of a toxic relationship is the heightened sense of anxiety and stress it induces. Consider the story of Emily, who found herself in a romantic relationship with a partner who constantly belittled her and undermined her self-esteem. Over time, Emily's anxiety levels skyrocketed as she began to doubt her self-worth and internalize her partner's criticisms. The constant state of tension and apprehension she experienced was a direct result of the toxic nature of her relationship.


Toxic relationships can also be a significant contributor to the onset or exacerbation of depression. Take the case of Michael, who was in a friendship in which he felt pressured to conform to his friend's expectations, regardless of his own desires or beliefs. This suppression of his authentic self led to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and disconnection, all of which are hallmarks of depression. The unhealthy dynamic of his friendship was instrumental in driving Michael into a depressive state.

Low Self-Esteem and Confidence

The insidious nature of toxic relationships often involves a gradual erosion of self-esteem and confidence. This can be seen in Lisa, who worked under a supervisor who consistently undermined her efforts and questioned her abilities. Over time, Laura began to doubt her own capabilities and lost confidence in her skills. The sustained psychological warfare waged by her supervisor took a severe toll on her mental health, leaving her questioning her worth in both her personal and professional life.

Emotional Exhaustion

Toxic relationships can be emotionally draining, leaving us feeling depleted and empty. For instance, Sam’s sibling constantly demanded emotional support but never reciprocated. As a result, Sam was left feeling emotionally exhausted, as though he was pouring his energy into a bottomless pit. The one-sided nature of his relationship with his sibling led to a chronic state of emotional fatigue that affected his overall mental well-being.


Another common consequence of toxic relationships is the isolation they can create. For instance, Amanda had a partner who frequently made derogatory comments about her friends and family. Over time, Amanda began to distance herself from her loved ones to avoid conflict, leaving her feeling increasingly isolated and alone. The controlling behavior exhibited by her partner resulted in the gradual dismantling of her support network, leaving her vulnerable and without support.


One way that toxic relationships can impact our physical health is through increased stress levels. When we’re in a toxic relationship, we may constantly feel on edge or in danger, leading to heightened levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Over time, chronic stress can weaken our immune systems, making us more susceptible to illnesses like colds and the flu.

Stress can also contribute to more serious health problems, like heart disease and diabetes. In one study, researchers found that people in stressful marriages were more likely to have high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease. Similarly, chronic stress has been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.


But it's not just the stress of toxic relationships that can impact our physical health. Negative emotions like anger, resentment, and sadness can also take a toll on our bodies. For example, when we experience strong negative emotions, our bodies release stress hormones that can lead to inflammation. Over time, chronic inflammation can contribute to a range of health problems, from arthritis to cancer.

Sleep Deprivation

It's also important to note that toxic relationships can impact our sleep, which in turn can impact our physical health. When we are in a toxic relationship, we may find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep due to stress and anxiety. Over time, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to a range of health problems, including immune dysfunction, weight gain, and an increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Harmful Habits 

Furthermore, when we’re in a toxic relationship, we may engage in behaviors that are harmful to our health. For instance, we may turn to drugs, alcohol, or other vices as a way to cope with the stress and emotional pain of the relationship. These behaviors can have serious physical consequences, from liver damage to substance misuse.

1. Constant Criticism

Criticism is a prevalent and often detrimental aspect of many relationships, with the potential to gradually and profoundly affect a person's self-worth. It manifests as habitually pointing out flaws, shortcomings, or mistakes. This toxic behavior doesn't just stop at pointing out errors, but often delves into an excessive focus on the negative, overshadowing and minimizing any positive attributes or achievements. The effects aren't superficial; they deeply permeate the psyche of the person on the receiving end.

When someone is constantly exposed to criticism, the immediate response is often one of defensiveness or hurt. Over time, however, a dangerous internalization process begins. The person starts believing in these critiques, questioning their abilities, decisions, and self-worth. The once-clear distinction between constructive feedback and detrimental criticism blurs, leading them to view even well-intentioned advice through a lens of doubt and skepticism.

This incessant stream of negativity can also make people question their value in relationships, workplaces, and social circles. A natural decline in self-confidence follows, often extending to other areas of life where they might previously have felt competent or even excelled.

Coping Strategy: When dealing with constant criticism, it's crucial to communicate your feelings effectively. Use "I" statements to express how their criticism affects you without blaming or attacking them. Be honest about how your partner’s comments hurt you — it’s important to not downplay the significance of your feelings in this case (or any case!).

If your partner refuses to adjust their behavior despite your efforts, consider seeking professional help or re-evaluating the relationship.

2. Controlling Behavior

Control in relationships is a multifaceted issue that can present itself in diverse ways. It might be as overt as determining what a person wears or as subtle as influencing who they meet and interact with. The underlying reasons for such controlling behaviors often trace back to the controller's insecurities and deep-seated fears.

Understanding the root of these behaviors is vital. Insecurity in a relationship can arise from past traumas, experiences of betrayal, or a genuine fear of losing a loved one. Such insecurities can drive an individual to believe that by exercising control, they can prevent undesirable outcomes. However, these actions are counterproductive and, instead of fostering trust, they erode it.

The person on the receiving end of this control often feels stifled. The simple joys of expressing oneself through clothing become a point of contention. Social interactions, which are essential for emotional and psychological well-being, are curtailed or monitored, leading to feelings of isolation and confinement. Over time, this suppression can lead to a loss of self-identity as the controlled person starts molding their actions and choices to avoid conflict or to gain approval.

Restricting a person’s freedom in a relationship is more than just limiting their choices; it's an infringement on their individuality and personal growth. The richness of experiences, learning from diverse interactions, and the simple pleasure of autonomy are all compromised.

Coping Strategy: Establishing boundaries is key when dealing with controlling behavior. Assert your independence and make it clear what you will not tolerate. Remember: we teach others how we want to be treated. When we are clear on our boundaries and make it paramount that others follow them, we can avoid falling into patterns of control. 

Unfortunately, not all individuals are receptive to boundaries. In some cases, they may try to breach our boundaries or find ways for us to back off on them. If your partner continues to control you despite your efforts, it may be time to seek outside help.

3. Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulation is an insidious behavior that often lurks beneath the surface of relationships, making it challenging to identify but deeply damaging when endured. It's a covert tool used by manipulators to steer the feelings and responses of others to serve their ends. Central to this strategy are tactics like guilt, blame, and playing the victim.

When guilt is employed, the victim is often made to feel that they have wronged the manipulator in some way, even when this is far from the truth. This misplaced guilt can result in the victim taking on responsibilities or making amends for actions they didn't commit. The manipulator, wielding blame, deflects their shortcomings or mistakes onto the victim, leading them to question their own actions and beliefs. The victim card, another tactic, is played when the manipulator portrays themselves as the hurt party, eliciting sympathy or concessions from their target.

One of the most detrimental effects of emotional manipulation is the burden it places on the victim to uphold the happiness and well-being of the manipulator. They might find themselves walking on eggshells, always trying to keep the peace or prevent imagined slights, leading to an imbalanced relationship dynamic.

Coping Strategy: Learning to recognize manipulation tactics is the first step in coping with this behavior. Stand your ground and don't allow yourself to be swayed by guilt or blame. It can be challenging to break free from manipulative patterns, but doing so is the first step in reclaiming our power. 

This issue can certainly be challenging and it’s essential to remember that we don’t have to navigate it on our own. Seek support from trusted friends or a counselor if needed.

4. Jealousy and Possessiveness

Jealousy, in moderation, can be a natural emotion experienced within relationships, often stemming from deeply ingrained instincts or past experiences. However, when it crosses the threshold from occasional insecurity to persistent and excessive doubt, it metamorphoses into a destructive force, threatening the very foundation of trust and mutual respect.

Excessive jealousy frequently breeds possessiveness. One partner, consumed by such jealousy, may feel an overwhelming need to constantly monitor the other's actions, interactions, and even thoughts. This urge to possess and oversee can be suffocating, pushing them to impose limits on who their partner can see, where they can go, and what they can do.

Coupled with possessiveness, this heightened jealousy often ushers in controlling behaviors. It may start subtly, with seemingly innocuous questions about daily activities or requests to check in frequently. Over time, these behaviors can escalate, leading to demands for access to personal messages, social media monitoring, and even tracking one's physical location.

Mistrust is the sinister shadow that accompanies excessive jealousy. No matter how transparent one tries to be, the jealous partner remains skeptical, reading hidden meanings into innocent actions or words. This perpetual state of suspicion can make the environment oppressive. The person on the receiving end might feel like they're perpetually under surveillance, causing emotional exhaustion and a constant fear of inadvertently triggering a jealous episode.

Coping Strategy: Open communication about insecurities can help alleviate these feelings. Discuss each other's insecurities openly and honestly, working together to build trust and security within the relationship. The more we are vulnerable and transparent about how we feel, the more space we open up for authentic connection and deeper understanding. 

In some instances, jealousy can be deep-seated and hard to address individually. If issues with jealousy persist despite these efforts, professional help may be necessary.

5. Lack of Respect for Boundaries

Respect for personal boundaries forms the bedrock of any healthy relationship. These boundaries, whether they're emotional, physical, or intellectual, define our comfort zones and signify our personal values, needs, and limits. Upholding them ensures mutual respect, understanding, and trust between partners. Conversely, when boundaries are consistently violated, the balance and harmony of the relationship are at risk.

A partner's continuous overstepping or ignorance of these boundaries isn't merely an oversight. It's a glaring indication of disrespect. Such actions imply that the violator's desires or impulses take precedence over the other's comfort and well-being. This lack of consideration often makes the other partner feel undervalued or even invisible.

Over time, these violations accumulate, leading to resentment. This emotion, if left unchecked, can fester and transform into deep-seated anger, mistrust, and disillusionment, jeopardizing the relationship's future.

Coping Strategy: Address this issue directly and assertively; explain why these boundaries are important to you and how it feels when they're violated. Discuss what your expectations are regarding boundaries and how you would like for them to be upheld. 

If the other person continues to disrespect your boundaries despite these discussions, it might be time to reconsider the relationship. 

6. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is one of the most sinister and covert forms of psychological manipulation, often used to wield power and control within relationships.

The techniques of gaslighting are varied but are uniformly designed to destabilize the victim. These might include flat-out denial of events that occurred, trivializing the victim's feelings, shifting blame, or even presenting false information. Over time, the consistent application of these tactics erodes the victim's trust in their own memory, perceptions, and emotions. This internal chaos often leads to feelings of confusion, anxiety, and helplessness, as the victim grapples with what they know to be true versus what they're being told.

One of the most debilitating impacts of gaslighting is the isolation it can create. Victims, unsure of their own reality and wary of external judgment, may withdraw from friends and family, further empowering the gaslighter.

Coping Strategy: Conversing with trusted friends or professionals can provide much-needed validation and clarity, helping us discern manipulation from truth. Maintaining a record, whether it's a diary or another form of documentation, can also be useful. It acts as a tangible, unalterable record of events that can counteract the gaslighter's narrative, reinforcing our understanding of reality and assuring us that our experiences and feelings are both real and valid.

If gaslighting is significantly impacting your well-being, please seek help from a professional. They can provide a safe space in which you can reconsider your relationship and take the next healthier step forward. 

7. Neglect or Indifference

Neglect and indifference, while less overt than some forms of relationship toxicity, can be just as damaging and insidious. At the heart of every meaningful relationship lies a foundation of mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation. When one partner consistently displays neglect or indifference towards the other's feelings or needs, it can erode this foundation, leading to feelings of isolation and emotional starvation.

Consistent neglect creates a void. Every time a partner dismisses or undervalues the other's feelings, it sends a message that their emotional needs and experiences are inconsequential. Over time, the one on the receiving end may internalize this treatment, leading to self-doubt, diminished self-worth, and a feeling that they are not deserving of attention or care. The result is a suffocating environment where one feels constantly sidelined, their needs perpetually on the back burner.

Such a dynamic is unsustainable and emotionally draining. It goes against the fundamental tenets of what a loving relationship should offer: a space of understanding, mutual appreciation, and shared growth.

Coping Strategy: Open communication is key. Expressing how the indifference impacts your emotional well-being might provide the neglectful partner with needed insight into their behavior. Sometimes, people may be unaware of how their actions, or lack thereof, are affecting the relationship, and shedding light on it can prompt introspection and change.

However, if neglect continues despite expressing your feelings, it might be best to distance yourself from the relationship for self-preservation.

8. Verbal or Physical Abuse

Verbal and physical abuse are grave manifestations of toxicity within relationships, representing a significant breach of trust, respect, and personal safety. Both forms of abuse are wielded as tools of power and control, seeking to diminish our sense of self-worth and autonomy.

Verbal abuse, though devoid of physical harm, can leave deep emotional scars. It encompasses actions like shouting, belittling, name-calling, or constantly criticizing, all aimed at eroding our self-esteem and confidence. Over time, consistent exposure to verbal abuse can lead to anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness.

Physical abuse, on the other hand, involves acts of violence such as hitting, slapping, pushing, or any other form of intentional harm. The ramifications are immediate and can lead to both physical injuries and lasting psychological trauma.

Both forms of abuse are manipulative strategies to establish dominance within a relationship, making us feel trapped, powerless, and often fearful for our safety. It's crucial to understand that no one deserves to be treated this way, and no reason justifies such behavior. Recognizing the signs and seeking help early can be life-saving, whether it's through trusted individuals, counselors, or dedicated helplines and organizations.

Coping Strategy: If you're experiencing abuse, seek help immediately from your local authorities or organizations specializing in domestic violence, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also text “START” to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 88788 or chat online to get help with them here. Absolutely no one deserves to be abused — it's not your fault, and there are resources available to help you escape such situations safely.

The Key Takeaways

Recognizing toxic behaviors is the first step towards healthier relationships. By understanding these patterns, we can take action either by addressing the issues directly with our partners or seeking professional help when necessary. It’s essential to bear in mind that these unhealthy relationships can have significant and long-lasting effects on our overall well-being. Therefore, addressing issues is a necessary component of our own self-care. 

Remember: You deserve love that uplifts you, respects you, and cherishes you for who you are — never settle for less!

Summary FAQs:

1. What characterizes a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is characterized by consistent negative impacts on our health, stemming from manipulation, deceit, and emotional abuse.

2. How can toxic relationships lead to anxiety?

Toxic relationships create an environment of fear, doubt, and tension, which directly heightens anxiety and stress levels.

3. Can a toxic relationship affect physical health?

Yes, increased stress levels from toxic relationships can weaken our immune systems and lead to various illnesses, including heart disease and diabetes. Chronic inflammation and sleep deprivation, both resulting from toxic relationships, further escalate health risks.

4. What's the impact of constant criticism?

Persistent criticism can erode our self-confidence, making us doubt our abilities and value, affecting both personal and professional aspects of our life.

5. How can I cope with controlling behavior in a relationship?

Establishing clear boundaries and communicating your feelings and needs are essential. If control persists, seeking external help might be necessary.

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