How can you tell if you're in a toxic relationship? Here are the signs

It’s easy to hear stories of abusive, controlling relationships and think: ‘that would never happen to me’.

But that’s the thing about toxic situations – sometimes you don’t realise what’s going on until it’s too late.

And once the reality sets in, leaving isn’t as simple as people assume.

So, how can you spot when a relationship is becoming toxic? And what can you do about it?

We spoke with Cathy Press, a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor who specialises in abuse related issues, for the answers.

Signs you’re trapped in an abusive relationship

‘Viewed from the outside, many people assume it must be easy to leave an abusive relationship,’ Cathy tells ‘For most people, being caught in an abusive relationship is outside of their experience so they can be forgiven for not understanding the complexities of the situation and that it is not simply a case of walking away.

‘There is a long list of reasons, any of which could be experienced simultaneously, making the thought of leaving too overwhelming to consider. This is how you can become trapped.

‘Just some of the reasons you might struggle to leave an abusive relationship:

  • You fear the consequences
  • You don’t want to be blamed
  • Your partner has made threats
  • You are afraid of being harmed
  • You are afraid of others being harmed
  • You are afraid of being killed
  • You physically can’t leave
  • Your partner is blackmailing you (e.g. saying that they will share private information and images)
  • You believe you deserve to be treated badly
  • You have lost your confidence
  • You are embarrassed
  • You feel like a failure
  • You feel like damaged goods
  • You believe you are in love
  • You go to the same school/college/workplace as your partner
  • You are being love bombed
  • Your partner is a family friend
  • The ‘kiss and make up’ sex feels worth it
  • Your partner is in the same friendship group
  • You think what’s happening to you is normal
  • You don’t see what is happening as abuse
  • Your family likes your partner
  • You fear being alone
  • Your friends like your partner
  • You believe no one else will want you
  • It’s against your cultural values to leave
  • Your partner promises they will change
  • You don’t want to be told ‘I told you so’
  • You believe you can change the way your partner behaves
  • You don’t want to face your parents
  • You believe your partner doesn’t mean it
  • You are pregnant
  • Your think your partner is a good dad or mum
  • Your partner has given you an STI/STD
  • You are too emotionally invested
  • You have become dependent on drugs supplied by your partner
  • You don’t want to upset your partner
  • You are in debt
  • You are worried your partner will hurt themselves
  • You have no family or friends to turn to for support
  • You feel sorry for your partner

‘Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy but it can be done.’

If you’re ticking off the reasons above for not ending the relationship, this signals that your pairing has become toxic – but you’re feeling trapped within it.

How to leave a toxic relationship

Be prepared for difficulty ending the relationship

‘If you want to end your difficult relationship they might work hard to prevent you from leaving,’ explains Cathy. ‘In their eyes, you are definitely not allowed to end the relationship; according to them it can only end when they decide and not before.

‘Till make every attempt to change your mind. They might try pursuing you constantly as a sign of how much they “love” you, but this behaviour is only about enabling them to regain control.’

Don’t trust promises to change

Remember, a sudden switch around with loads of affection and promises to be better isn’t genuine change – an abusive partner will say anything to keep you in their grip.

Cathy says: ‘They will almost certainly turn on the charm offensive, perhaps because you “fell for it” at the onset of the relationship. This return to the nice behaviours of the “charmer” can feel very confusing because it instills hope at the very point you want to leave the painful reality of your relationship.

‘They might apologise and make promises to behave differently. They might tell you more often that they love you and propose to you or ask you to get engaged.

‘They might suggest you get serious and have a baby together, so you can be a family. They might shower you with gifts and compliments, show you more of the cheeky grin you love so much or take you out somewhere you have always wanted to go.

‘Ultimately, you might start to believe that the person you first fell for at the beginning of the relationship is still there and that they really do care about you and want your relationship to continue.’

Brace yourself for sympathy-seeking

Cathy notes: ‘What happens if these more loving gestures don’t convince you and you still want to end the relationship? Your partner might step up their powers of persuasion with tactics like crying or telling you a “sob story” to demonstrate their vulnerability.

‘They might threaten or promise to hurt themselves by taking an overdose or doing other forms of self-harm. They may even go so far as to threaten to kill themselves.

‘If you have been coerced into feeling responsible for their wellbeing during your relationship or guilty for abandoning them, you might be tempted to give in at this point. They would make you believe it would be your fault if they hurt themselves and living with the feeling of guilt would be too much to bear.’

Watch out for the five toxic types

When you try to leave, an abusive partner will likely transform into one (or multiple) of the five toxic types: The Charmer, the Bully, the Mindmixer, the Taker, or the Keeper. Get to know each one and be prepared for their tactics.

Seek support

‘If you have decided to leave a controlling relationship it is not a decision to carry out alone,’ Cathy tells us. ‘It can’t be stressed enough how important it is to talk through ending an abusive relationship with someone supportive who you trust.

‘It is the safest way forward because you are not best placed to always know exactly what level of danger you may face.

‘This is not to suggest that you wouldn’t be able to recognise danger when faced with it, but you may not be aware of how far the controlling partner is prepared to go to prevent you from leaving them.’

Talk to friends and family to let them know you’re planning to leave, and ensure they’re ready to offer support where needed – whether that’s giving you a place to stay, a listening ear, or just knowing that if your ex tries to get in touch, they shouldn’t engage.

It’s also worth talking to a professional to help you safely leave the relationship. Try talking with Refuge or Women’s Aid for guidance and support.

Create a safety plan

Work with your sources of support to create a proper plan for safely leaving the relationship.

Cover off what you will do if things don’t go as expected. Where will you live? Are there any contracts or similar in both your and your partner’s name? What do you need from your support network to make sure you don’t get reeled back in?

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