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What Makes a Relationship Toxic

shutterstock_47120221You might be wondering: Am I in a toxic relationship? To be honest, the fact that you’re even asking the question (or reading this post) strongly suggests that you are. Deep down, we all know what’s good for us, what makes us stronger, and what does the opposite.

This post is about eliminating uncertainty, and confronting denial. Toxic relationships weaken us. Read on to see if your relationship fits the profile.Here are five characteristics of toxic relationships:

1)  You don’t know where you stand, and you expend a lot of energy trying to figure it out.

Sure, we all have moments of insecurity in our relationships. But if you’re perpetually on shaky ground, then something’s wrong. A secure emotional bond–“I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine, no matter what”–should provide strength and sustenance. Is yours doing that?

2) The other person in the relationship seems to hold a disproportionate amount of power, and to like it that way.

In fact, #1 might arise from that person needing to hold onto the power. The more insecure you are, the less comfortable, the easier it is to maintain the upper hand.

The way you can tell if this is true is if you find yourself needing reassurance often, and either feeling too afraid to ask for it or when you do ask, the other person either withholds it or seems to relish being your comforter.

3) The other person casts himself or herself in a role of protector–they’re the ones saving you from a cruel world, when actually, they are the ones keeping you down.

In a toxic relationship, you only have each other. That’s by design. Your partner wants to isolate you so that others can’t name the relationship for what it is. He/she wants to keep you dependent, possibly for fear that you’ll find someone better.  A toxic relationship tends to feature low self-esteem and insecurity on both parts.

Which leads me to…

4) Instead of supporting your accomplishments and being proud of your capabilities and self-sufficiency, your partner undermines.

Your strength is a threat to his/her supremacy. Or it might bring up feelings of unworthiness. In either case, the response will be to level the playing field by bulldozing your successes.

5) You find yourself behaving in more manipulative ways.

You might not know how to get your needs met in a straightforward fashion in this relationship, so you act in ways that later make you feel ashamed of yourself.

A healthy partnership brings out your best aspects; a toxic one brings out your worst. So don’t only examine the other person’s behavior, but your own.  The answers are all there, if you’re willing to see them.

Couple image available from Shutterstock.

What Makes a Relationship Toxic

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2017). What Makes a Relationship Toxic. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 13, 2018, from


Last updated: 30 Nov 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Nov 2017
Published on All rights reserved.