August 31, 2020

Warning Signs of Toxicity in a Relationship


An intimate, loving and committed relationship can be one of the most life-giving parts of being alive. Similarly, a deep and loving friendship can also be one the most life-giving sources of strength in a person’s life. Each partner or friend feels valued, empowered, celebrated, and deeply known. Each person can express their needs and experience those needs being met in a way that is deeply satisfying. There is open communication, trust, joy, faithfulness, and encouragement of each person’s vision for the future. At the core of this kind of relationship is freedom – freedom for each person to fully be who they truly are, and to feel fully loved and valued within that identity.

This is a beautiful picture, but many of us don’t experience relationships this way. We’re not always sure why it feels off, but just know that it does. If we can’t put language to the “off” feeling we are experiencing, it can be hard to know how to fix it. Toxicity in a relationship can sometimes be obvious, but more often than not, it is subtle and right outside conscious awareness.

The following are examples that I have encountered inside and outside the counseling room with others throughout my life, that I feel compelled to share openly. There are a variety of examples, but realize it is certainly not an exhaustive list.

How do I know if my relationship is toxic or showing warning signs of becoming abusive?


One friend or partner is often or always resistant to interacting with others outside the relationship. One becomes easily jealous when the other interacts with people outside of the relationship. One pressures the other to keep things secret or hidden from anyone outside the relationship. The two are not connected to others that can speak into their relationship or express thoughts or concerns.


One friend or partner is often made to feel like they are not enough; they don’t know enough, they aren’t healed enough, will never be able to fully right their past wrongs in the relationship, etc. This can be spun a number of different ways. One example I have seen is racial or cultural shame – someone is subtly made to feel invalidated or that due to their race, their perspective is not as significant as the other person’s. Another I have seen is spiritual shame – due to one’s background or lack of a certain kind of experience in faith or ministry, that one person’s perspective is not as important. This could also look like one partner or friend attempting to confess a fault openly and instead of being embraced and forgiven, they are shamed and emotionally pushed away. Lastly, this can often look like one partner or friend habitually digging up past wrongs the other has committed to provide leverage for their point of view.

Power Differential

One friend or partner takes on the role of providing frequent and subtle criticism, feedback, or instructing the other in a better way they “could have” done something. This is often framed as “just trying to help you”. One friend or partner is the expert and the other is left to feel they always must learn more, be more or do more. Another spin on this one is where one partner often treats the other like they must “fix” them, or is always trying to help them reach the same emotional, spiritual, or intellectual level.

Spiritual Manipulation

This operating in a relationship can be incredibly damaging and confusing. This can look like a partner or friend establishing themselves as spiritually more insightful, and then communicating subtle pressure for the other person to strive for the same level of insight. This can be disguised as a gift of prophecy, when it is really manipulation. It might look like, “God showed me ____ about you that you need to work on” or “God showed me this timeline for our future” or “God gave me a dream that you would be my husband/wife”. “I’m praying that God will show _____ to you too”. “You should fast and pray more to hear from God about it too”. Ask yourself: does it edify, generate peace and joy, and empower you, or create pressure, control, and fear? If it is the latter, it is not God; it’s spiritual manipulation.

Emotionally Out of Balance

This can be very subtle. It might look like a friend or partner emotionally demands more time and space in the relationship, while the other is primarily the sounding board to support them. The content of conversations is frequently lopsided towards one partner or friend, while the other is not equally given room to exist and share. If the quieter partner attempts to share more and fill more space more equally in the relationship, the more demanding partner won’t be able to tolerate this, and confusingly respond that they are not feeling heard enough. What’s happening? The more emotionally demanding partner is used to taking up most of the relationship space, and when that is encroached upon, it will feel problematic to them and the quieter partner will be made to feel guilty.

Sexual Manipulation/Control

This is not always obvious, but often can be subtle as well. One partner may feel slightly pressured to do something physically that they are not comfortable with. It can also show up through a violation about mutual agreements about sexual intimacy that are then minimized as not that big of a deal. For example, “we agreed to always use condoms and then he took it off without telling me/made me feel guilty for making him use it” or “we agreed to use birth control, but she stopped without telling me”. If a pregnancy happens, one partner threatens to leave, harm themselves, withdraw support, etc. if she doesn’t choose a certain option with the pregnancy.

Acknowledging there is toxicity in a relationship can be very difficult. You might feel embarrassed that you should have recognized it, or done something to prevent getting into the situation. I want to encourage you that there is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. As humans, we all have blind spots and don’t always recognize dysfunction when it is right in front of us. I am guilty of it, as well as many people I admire and look up to. If you’re facing challenges in regards to a relationship, we are here for you. Give us a call; let’s journey through it together.

Written by therapist Jessica York

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