Toxic relationship: what it is, how to recognize it and how to get out of it

Toxic relationships: when living in love can hurt

Although the definition of toxicity belongs to the field of medicine, this term is also widely used in the psychological field, as in the case of toxic masculinity. Compared to relationships, however, this term is used to refer to when living in a relationship can hurt.

More and more often, in fact, we hear about a toxic relationship , one in which you find yourself thinking that you are unsupported, misunderstood, humiliated or attacked. But what is the meaning of a toxic relationship and how to recognize it? In this guide we see how to understand if a relationship is toxic starting from the meaning of toxic love.

What are toxic relationships: definition and meaning

Relationships evolve . They change and grow. Sometimes they wear out and wear out. A relationship is “toxic” when it becomes an element of one’s life that one is “intoxicated ” with and from which it is deemed necessary to detoxify.

Wanting to define a toxic relationship , we can say that it is toxic: ” any relationship between people who do not support each other, where there is conflict and one tries to undermine the other, where there is competition, where there is lack of respect and cohesion “.

While every relationship goes through ups and downs, sometimes resulting in a couple crisis, a toxic relationship is constantly unpleasant and draining for the people involved, to the point that the negative moments outweigh the positive ones . Toxic relationships are mentally, emotionally, and possibly even physically harmful to one or both partners.

Types of toxic relationships

Toxic relationships aren’t the only ones where there is couple violence and are therefore not necessarily romantic. They can exist in any setting, from the playground to the meeting room to the bedroom. You may also be dealing with toxic relationships in family and friends .

Example: toxic relationship with a narcissist

Some people suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The narcissist tends to feed on the attention and admiration of others . Narcissists feel the need to embarrass people and make them feel “inferior” in a search for superiority. This is true for the partner, but also for the children: just think of the narcissistic parents, who bring their children to experience the so-called mommy or daddy issues . And then there is the covert narcissist in pairs: vulnerable, he feels shame and a sense of inferiority, he seeks approval and is hypersensitive to any criticism.

When dealing with people suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it is not always certain if they are aware of what they are doing. But if their behavior constantly makes you feel bad about yourself, you will need to consider distancing yourself from this person , or at least, if the person is present in your life, to learn to communicate with them with assertive behavior.

How to recognize a toxic relationship

When is a relationship toxic? Toxicity begins to form when the relationship becomes dysfunctional and can manifest itself in many different ways. We explore the ways relationships become toxic and how to overcome them.

Toxic relationship: the warning signs

Symptoms of a toxic relationship include any form of violence, abuse or harassment, which should be addressed immediately. But in many cases, the cues that help us tell if a relationship is toxic are much more subtle.

The first, and simplest, is persistent unhappiness with the risk of becoming a depressed partner. If a relationship stops bringing joy and instead makes us feel constantly sad, angry, anxious or “resigned, as if we feel exhausted”, it could be a toxic relationship. We may also feel envious of happy couples. Negative changes in our mental health are all red flags. Other signs of a toxic relationship are:

Lack of support

Healthy relationships are based on a mutual desire to see each other succeed in all areas of life. But when a relationship is toxic, every result becomes a competition. The partner is often absent or unreachable and one has the impression of being satisfied with the crumbs.

Toxic communication

Instead of treating yourself with kindness, most of your conversations are filled with sarcasm, criticism, or open hostility. One of the two could also avoid raising problems so as not to provoke tension, keeping all the problems to himself. In other cases the communication becomes ambiguous, hesitating in gasligthing , a real psychological manipulation.

Control behaviors

While it’s normal to feel jealous from time to time, it can become a problem. Always asking where your partner is and getting excessively angry when not responding to messages immediately are both signs of a control craze, which can contribute to the toxicity of a relationship. Control can also be expressed through affective manipulation, when one of the two partners controls (more or less consciously) the other to achieve their goals. ” If you love me, you must do it” is one of the phrases used by affective manipulators to engage in emotional blackmail.


Resentment consists of holding on to grudges and letting them deteriorate intimacy, not fully understanding what anger hides. Over time, frustration or bitterness can build up and make a small chasm much larger.


A relationship is toxic when you find yourself constantly making up lies about where you are or who you meet to avoid spending time with your partner. And this is also true in long-distance relationships.

Constant stress

Every relationship goes through moments of tension, but constantly finding yourself on the edge is an indicator that something is wrong. This constant stress can put a strain on your physical and emotional health. In abusive relationships it is possible to experience real post traumatic stress.

Ignore your needs

One thing is the synchronicity between two people, another is to indulge whatever your partner wants to do, even when it goes against your wishes or your comfort level. This is another sign of toxicity. For example, you might accept a vacation that your partner has planned on dates that aren’t convenient for you.

You have stopped spending time with friends and family, both to avoid conflicts with your partner, and to go around having to explain what is going on in your relationship. You may soon find that your free time is focused solely on your partner.

The metaphor of toxic relationships

The metaphor of “toxic relationships” is socially used to represent a way of living with the partner: being together with a person despite recognizing how this can hurt . When trying to define the “toxicity” of one’s relationship, it is possible to find expressions that bring out this way of conceiving and living relationships:

  • “I feel I am living in a toxic love”
  • “I’m addicted to the relationship”
  • “I no longer tolerate this situation”.

Relationship or illness?

In a relationship between partners based on concepts such as:

  • Dependence
  • Disease
  • Tolerance
  • Toxicity

the conviction develops of not being able to abandon either the relationship or the way of being in it in the role that one feels forced to have and suffer, both in the present and looking to the future. This way of living the relationship is in fact considered as the effect of a “disease” attributed to one or both partners.

The mirror, the window and the tower: new metaphors for new meanings

As the American sociologist WI Thomas recalls, defining a certain situation as “toxic” makes it become real in the consequences it produces. To better understand this concept we can help ourselves with new metaphors for new meanings .

Conceiving the relationship in terms of an illness can become:

  • the mirror through which to judge oneself
  • the window from which to observe your partner
  • the ” tower ” from which to look at the world.

In considering the relationship as a “toxic disease”, self-judging mechanisms can be triggered in each of the partners: one feels the weight of a responsibility towards the “cure” and thoughts emerge such as:

  • “I’m not doing enough”
  • “I know what I should do but I don’t have the strength”
  • “I have to be close to him if I don’t want him to get worse.”

The relationship can become a “window” from which to consider one’s partner as “sick” and, precisely by virtue of this, not only to “cure” and support, but also to justify:

  • “I know it hurts, but it’s not his fault”
  • “He told me that from now on it will change”.

In experiencing a relationship in this way, it is as if the couple were in a tower from which they observe the rest of the world. Often, those who live a toxic relationship, move away from others considering this action even necessary, because it is based on thoughts such as:

  • “Others cannot understand”
  • “I tried to get help but they tell me things I already know”.

All these ideas about oneself and the partner become real, cause isolation, suffering and intolerance, as well as limiting life choices.

Feelings of suffering: side effect or opportunity for dialogue?

In a toxic relationship, the experiences of suffering, intolerance or disappointment are considered “symptoms” of this “disease”

  • where “you know that something is wrong”
  • from which one “hopes to be able to heal”
  • with respect to which “you are convinced you can heal” the other person.

How to get out of a toxic relationship

Listening to your own answers puts you in a position to have another perspective in which the relationship can free itself from this immobility that influences so much present and future. Asking these questions allows us to move from a “static photograph” of the relationship, where the only possibilities for action are to “detoxify”, to a “dynamic video” in which it becomes possible to recognize the role and responsibilities of all the people involved.

In imagining another story, the conditions are created to expand one’s possibilities of choice considered as crystallized by the “toxicity” of the relationship. “Shooting the video” of one’s own story makes it possible to create a “generative” story of possibilities , where even becoming an active actor in one’s life can become a hypothesis that is not only desirable but also to be pursued.

How to end a toxic relationship

Can a toxic relationship become healthy? While it is not possible to avoid all toxic relationships, especially between co-workers or a family member, they can be managed with healthy boundaries, self-care and awareness.

In short, you will have to understand if it is possible to solve the problem. If the triggers of the toxic relationship are affecting the behaviors of one or both individuals, going to the psychologist can help, perhaps by turning to an online psychologist.

Getting to the root of the problem is important, but sometimes the only answer may be to get out of a toxic relationship. Sometimes it is better to finish something and try to start something new , rather than imprison yourself in the hope of the impossible.

How to get over the end of a toxic relationship

It can seem very difficult to break free from a toxic relationship. Toxic relationships can be addictive, destructive and incredibly painful and can generate a real cycle of violence in the couple. What’s worse is that, once inside, it seems impossible to break away.

If, however, you have found the strength to put an end to your toxic story, in addition to asking for help from a specialist, it is essential to implement a series of behaviors that do not make you relapse into the relationship. Let’s see them together

Zero contact

The first thing to do is to consider stopping all communication. It is the so-called zero contact method . To do this, it is necessary to stop all kinds of communication with the other person, first of all you don’t have to meet and see each other anymore. But also stop the exchange of phone calls, messages, emails and interactions on social networks.

Surround yourself with positivity

Learning to self-gratify is essential, surround yourself with the right people too. Spend time with those who make you feel good, indulging in your favorite meal or doing whatever makes you happy. Going through a difficult time in a relationship can cause untold stress, it is important to remember that all emotions are useful and we cannot eliminate them.

Staying firm in the decision

Forgetting a toxic love is exhausting. Often after leaving someone, you start to miss them. This is normal. It’s easy for our brains to remember the good times and forget the bad parts of a relationship. It may seem tempting for the person to come back into your life, but remember that you came to this decision after a long and thoughtful process. Keep your decision and remember that it was made to improve you and your life.

Forgive yourself after a toxic relationship

Healing from a toxic relationship also means forgiving yourself. Be kind to yourself but don’t become a victim of what happened to you.

You are allowed to be angry. You are allowed to have mixed emotions about the end of this relationship. But you need to recognize which emotions are serving you and which are keeping you stuck. So many people have had toxic relationships in love, just like you, and have learned to forgive each other and come back stronger than ever.

Your self-esteem has likely taken a hit and being reborn after a toxic relationship will take some time, so surround yourself with people you trust. There will be many good days and some bad days, but that’s okay.

Conclusions: movies and books about toxic relationships  

There are a number of reasons you might end up in a toxic relationship. Sometimes the toxicity builds and blinds you and when you realize it, it’s too late. Experiencing toxic love can negatively affect your psychology . You can doubt yourself, convince yourself that you deserve it, and feel guilty towards your partner or towards you. Engaging in this inner dialogue can be a slippery slope that continues to negatively impact your mental health.

Literature, the small and the big screen, are full of examples of toxic relationships that can help us better understand if the one we are experiencing can also be defined as such. Let’s think of some famous TV series: we meet Ryan Atwood and Marissa Cooper in the series The OC or Carrie and Big from Sex and the City , or the more recent Maja Norberg and Sebastian Fagerman from the telefilm Quicksand .

There are also many films about toxic relationships , the most famous are:

  • Revolutionary Road : Based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel of the same name, it’s about a mid-1950s couple struggling to cope with their personal problems and the resulting breakup of their marriage
  • Gone Girl : Set in the Midwest of the United States, the film’s story begins as a mystery about a man, Nick Dunne, whose wife, Amy, has gone missing, and describes the ensuing events.
  • Blue Valentin: is the story of lost love and rediscovered love, told in two parallel moments in time. Flooded with romantic memories of their courtship, Dean and Cindy use a night to try and save their failed marriage.
  • A Star is Born: Lead Ally continues to make excuses for Jackson because she feels indebted to him for his success. No matter how lightly you step on those eggshells, she can’t save him from her demons.