A healthy relationship is a partnership, with both of you co-creating your fulfilment. If you feel like you’re suddenly doing all the heavy lifting—especially if your partner doesn’t seem to notice—the balance has become toxic!

Toxic relationships will cause monumental breakage to people, families and workplaces, but they aren’t necessarily the territory of the weak, downtrodden or insecure. Strong, healthy, independent people can find themselves in the grip of a toxic relationship.

Relationships evolve, they change and they grow. Sometimes they even crash and they burn. We never know how things will look when each other’s less adorable and awful habits start to show themselves more often or publicly, or under the influence of alcohol or in-laws.

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship contaminates your self-esteem, happiness and the way you see yourself and the world!  A toxic person will float through life with a trail of broken hearts, broken relationships and broken people behind them, but toxic relationships don’t necessarily end up that way because the person you fell for turned out to be a toxic one. Relationships can start healthy, but bad feelings, bad history, or long-term unmet needs can fester, polluting the relationship and changing the people in it. It can happen easily and quickly, and it can happen to even the strongest people.

Can it be fixed?

All relationships are worth the fight, until they’re not. In a toxic relationship there will always be fallout:

  • moodiness, anger, unhappiness become the norm;
  • you avoid each other more and more;
  • work and relationships outside the toxic relationship start to suffer.

If the relationship is toxic, it is highly likely that all the fight in the world won’t change anything because one or both people have emotionally moved on. Perhaps they were never really there in the first place, or not in the way you needed them to be anyway. Even worse, if your relationship is toxic, you will be more and more damaged by staying in it.

Fighting to hold on to something that is not fighting to hold on to you will ruin you. Sometimes the only thing left to do is to let go with grace and love and move on. 

The person who doesn’t value you is blocking you from the one who will!

What are the signs that you are in a toxic relationship?

It only feels bad all the time. You fall asleep hollow and you wake up just as bad. You look at other couples doing their happy couple thing and you feel the sting. Why couldn’t that sort of love happen for you? It can, but first you have to clear the path for it to find you. Leaving a relationship is never easy, but staying for too long in a toxic relationship will make sure any strength, courage and confidence in you is eroded down to nothing. Once that happens, you’re stuck!

You’re constantly braced for the ‘got you’.

Sometimes you can see it coming. Sometimes you wouldn’t see it if it was lit with stadium floodlights. Questions become traps. Statements become traps. When the ‘got you’ comes, there’s no forgiveness, just the glory of catching you out! It’s impossible to move forward from this. Everyone makes mistakes, but yours are used as proof that you’re not invested, wrong and stupid. The only thing you really are is too good to be treated like this.

You avoid saying what you need to address because there’s just no point.

We all have important needs in relationships. Some of the big ones are connection, validation, appreciation, love, sex and affection. When those needs are mocked or ignored, the emptiness of that unmet need will be clamoured! If your attempts to talk about what you need end up in a fight, yet another empty promise, accusations of neediness, insecurity and jealousy you’ll either bury the need or resent that it keeps being overlooked all thetime. Either way, it’s toxic!

All the work, love, compromise and compassion come from you solely.

Nobody can hold a relationship together when they are the only one doing the work. It’s lonely and it’s exhausting. If you’re not able to leave the relationship, give what you need to give but don’t give any more than that. Let go of the fantasy that you can make things better if you try hard enough and work hard enough. Just stop it. You’re enough. You always have been. 

When ‘no’ is a dirty and unacceptable word.

‘No’ is an important word in any relationship. Healthy relationships need compromise but they also respect the needs and wants of both people. Communicating what you want is as important for you. Find your ‘no’, give it a polish, and know where the release button is. A loving partner will respect that you’re not going to agree with everything they say or do. If you’re only accepted when you’re saying ‘yes’, it’s probably time to say ‘no’ to the relationship

The score card on how wrong you are. 

One of the glorious things about being human is that making mistakes is all part of what we do. It’s how we learn, how we grow, and how we find out the people who don’t deserve us. Even the most loving, committed partners will do hurtful, stupid things sometimes. When those things are brought up over and over, it will slowly kill even the healthiest relationship and keep the ‘guilty’ person small. At some point, there has to be a decision to move on or move out. Healthy relationships nurture your strengths. Toxic ones focus on your weaknesses.

Too much of passive-aggressive behaviour.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is an indirect attack and a cowardly move for control. The toxicity lies in stealing your capacity to respond and for issues to be dealt with directly. The attack is subtle and often disguised as something else, such as anger disguised as indifference ‘whatever’ or ‘I’m fine’; manipulation disguised as permission ‘I’ll just stay at home by myself while you go out and have fun,’ and the worst – a villain disguised as a hero, ‘You seem really tired baby. She’s been a mess since the cruise was postponed.’ You know the action or the behaviour was designed to manipulate you or hurt you, because you can feel the scrape, but it’s not obvious enough to respond to the real issue. If it’s worth getting upset about, it’s worth talking about, but passive-aggressive behaviour shuts down any possibility of this.

Privacy? What is that?

Everybody deserves some level of privacy and healthy relationships can trust that this won’t be misused. If your partner constantly goes through your receipts, phone bills, text messages this shows a toxic level of control. It’s demeaning. You’re an adult and don’t need constantly supervision. 

The lies. Yes, the lies!

Lying and cheating will dissolve trust as if it was never there to begin with. Once trust is so far gone, it’s hard to get it back. It might come back in moments or days, but it’s likely that it will always feel fragile – just waiting for the wrong move. The toxicity of this lies in the slow erosion of confidence. Sometimes all the fight in the world can’t repair trust when it’s badly broken.  It’s not your fault that the trust was broken, but it’s up to you to make sure that you’re not broken next. Know when enough is enough.

Big decisions are for important people and you’re clearly not one of them.

If you’re sharing your life with someone, it’s critical that you have a say in the decisions that will affect you. Your partner’s opinions and feelings will always be important, and so are yours. A loving partner in the context of a healthy relationship will value your thoughts and opinions, not pretend that they don’t exist or assume theirs are more important.

So if you are in a toxic relationship. What now?

There are plenty of reasons you might end up in a toxic relationship, none of which have anything to do with strength of character or courage. Sometimes the toxicity grows and blindsides you and by the time you realise, it’s too late – the cost of leaving might feel too high or there may be limited options.  

If it’s toxic, it’s changing you and it’s time to leave or put up a very big wall.  Be clear about where the relationship starts and where you begin. Keep your distance emotionally and think of it as something to be managed, rather than something to be beaten or understood. Look for the patterns and look for the triggers. Then, be mindful about what is okay and what isn’t. Above all else, know that you are strong, complete and vital. Don’t buy into any tiny-hearted, close-minded push that would have you believe otherwise. You’re indeed amazing.

'If you are brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello'- Paulo Coelho

(Trishna Patnaik is a full-time professional painter based in Mumbai. She is also an art therapist)