It’s in the nature of things that relationships change over time; the people within them change and so does the dynamic. Sometimes, that’s a good thing—an acquaintance becomes a friend, a friend becomes a confidant, or love becomes more nuanced through mutual experience.

Sometimes, however, change is not a good thing.zjm3x0h1bqg-john-canelis It’s counter-intuitive but we may have trouble recognizing how bad things have gotten, especially if our internal working models of connection, learned in childhood, don’t include an understanding of what healthy, secure-based relationships look like.

Unloved daughters are much more likely than other people to accept the downshift in behavior as normal. Still, it can happen to anyone. The downward slide may be slow, and we may overlook it at first and ultimately become blind to it—the way you get so used to seeing the pile of shoes and boots by the door that you no longer recognize it as messy clutter, or how the temporary place you put a piece of furniture becomes its final destination. Unhappiness can become an everyday companion.

If any of these patterns—or all of them—are showing up with regularity in any of your relationships, it’s time to pay attention.

1.It’s always the same-old

The relationship is mired and stuck in the same repetitive arguments and disagreements, covering the same ground over and over. The fulcrum could be a low point in the relationship—a betrayal, infidelity, or something else major—or a hot-button issue such as spending, who makes the decisions, disciplining of children, or anything else. In a friendship, it might be the need to always be center-stage or the one in charge. In family settings, you might be replaying 20-year-old arguments. No matter where the two of you start, you always come back to it. There’s a depressing inevitability to your efforts at discussions.

2. Personal criticism abounds

When things go wrong, stuff gets broken, or life doesn’t go according to plan, your partner always needs to have someone be responsible and, much of the time, that someone is you, no matter how twisted the logic and the narrative get to make it fit. If the person you’re connected to—whether it’s a relative, a friend, a lover, or spouse—is in the habit of making your supposed character flaws the focus of attention every time there’s a bit of unpleasantness or disagreement, listen up. Especially if it’s mixed with contempt

3. It’s always divide and conquer

The person you’re involved with isn’t content just to rail at you, but feels compelled to use other people as messengers—and gossip and bad-mouth you in the process. He or she likes to have an audience when airing grievances and thinks ganging up is more of a team sport than going one-on-one. The fancy name for this is triangulation and it’s very manipulative behavior, whether it’s coming from a family member, your spouse, or someone in your circle of friends. It could be your husband using his sister as a carrier pigeon or your mother sending your brother to deliver her message. Needless to say, this behavior creates lots of drama, especially when your supposed friend or partner is busy getting a chorus of people to cut you down to size, or when he or she refuses direct communication, opting for the messenger instead.

4. Your insecurities are being played

The people who know us best—friends and intimates—also know our soft spots and where we’re most vulnerable and needy. One sign of a really toxic relationship is someone close using that knowledge as a power chip or a bludgeon. Being made to feel as if everything is your fault (see #2) is part of this, but someone may do it just to control you and the progress of the relationship, knowing that people who feel unsure about themselves aren’t likely to leave. Dismissing your feelings, saying you’re too sensitive or thin-skinned, or marginalizing your words and actions are all red flags that you’re being played in this way. Opt out of the game instead.

5. The connection diminishes you

Again, it seems counter-intuitive but you might not actually realize the degree to which you are being diminished, especially if the relationship has been going on for years. Sometimes, the toxic connection echoes our most negative thoughts about ourselves—that we are nothing special, that we’re not lovable or worthy of love—so much that we’re not really conscious of the fact that someone close is reinforcing those thoughts. We can easily become inured to the repetitive nature of minor put-downs and even major ones. But once we begin to look, we actually begin to see. Start looking now.

6. Inertia (and angst) keep you in place

Way too often, we don’t ask ourselves why we are still in the relationship; it’s letting go, alas, that scares us much more than the cost of hanging in. We can thank evolution for the way our hopefulness is fed by the odd moment of relative joy (it’s called intermittent reinforcement) and for the human propensity to worry more about possible losses than possible gains. But once you’ve asked yourself the very question you’ve been avoiding—Why am I here? —the chances are good that you’ll begin to see the outlines of the writing on the wall.

Recognizing the ways in which the familiar can hold you and your happiness hostage is an important first step.

Photograph by  John Canelis. Copyright free.