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  • Jamie Cannon MS, LPC

5 Subtle Signs of a Toxic Romantic Relationship


- Toxic relationship dynamics often involve one-sided power and control.

- Other signs that a relationship is unhealthy are often more subtle and difficult to recognize.

- It's important to listen to gut instincts and pay attention to family and friends warnings.

Toxic Relationship

Many people are aware of the repercussions of unhealthy relationships, but often the signs that a relationship is toxic are recognized after it’s too late to withdraw easily. The consequences of toxic relationships can be immense—emotional damage, difficulties trusting in future relationships, depression, anxiety, and more—making it all the more important to be able to recognize the subtle signs of relationship toxicity early in the game.

It’s All About Power and Control

Toxic relationships tend to center on power and control, and the victim in these relationships is consistently at the losing end of these dynamics. As more research delves into why toxic relationships are so difficult to leave, it’s becoming increasingly evident that fear (of being alone, of others’ opinions, of starting over) plays a central role in why people choose to stay in unhealthy relationships.

For some individuals, these relationships can initially appear to check all the right boxes (depending on how sophisticated the toxic individual really is)—and, for those who have historically struggled to find fulfilling relationships, the idea that “this finally seems like the one” can be irresistible. This is an ideal setup for power and control dynamics to come into play: One person feels almost desperate for a relationship to work out, while the other senses a situation where power can be usurped for personal gain.

The Hidden Warning Signs

But toxic relationships aren’t always so simple and easy to characterize. Sometimes, the power and control dynamics happen largely behind the scenes, subtly choking the relationship until a devastating end is staring its victim in the face. These toxic relationships seem to cause even more pain when they end—the unseen, hidden nature of their poison is silent-but-deadly. Recognizing and understanding the more subtle signs of toxic relationships could be key to avoiding these setups altogether.

1. You feel a general sense of unease when thinking about the future. Your body is alive with instincts. It’s a goldmine of subconscious awareness that should be a primary clue to the undercurrents in any situation. When it comes to a toxic relationship, your body holds invaluable information that, if you take the time to slow down and listen, can save heartache on the other side.

If you feel a small voice of doubt when thinking about the future of your relationship or vague discomfort that’s easy to rationalize away, take the time to stop and explore those senses. They could be a red flag for something more sinister beneath the surface, or they could just be initial relationship jitters. Without fully examining those emotions, you may be ignoring a built-in warning system that’s trying to get your attention.

2. You’re having trouble eliciting serious emotions or conversations with your significant other. As relationships progress, so too should the level of trust and camaraderie. Conversations at the start of a relationship are understandably more superficial and lighthearted—but if you’ve been in a relationship for an extended period of time and still can’t seem to have a serious, heartfelt conversation, it may be a signal something’s off.

Healthy relationships are built on mutual respect, and the trust that accompanies that respect opens up both partners to vulnerability—it’s a necessary part of the process. If you find yourself consistently being more vulnerable in a romantic relationship than your counterpart, it needs to be explored and brought out into the open. Vulnerability is a major way toxic individuals gain power and control over another person. While it can be a beautiful part of a blossoming relationship, it can also be deadly if it’s one-sided.

3. You have an overwhelming sense of responsibility for the relationship’s outcome. Healthy relationships are characterized by an equal balance of power and investment, a concept that involves each partner taking responsibility for the quality of the relationship. If you find yourself more concerned and focused on preserving your relationship than your significant other is, you need to rethink the trajectory of your time together.

Mutual dependence can be an enjoyable experience if it’s built on a foundation of trust, empathy, and self-care. When relationships become unbalanced—depending on one person to keep the relationship afloat while the other has free reign to act as they desire—it’s a classic sign that toxicity is lurking behind the scenes.

4. Their family or friends imply there’s danger ahead. If you’ve been in a relationship long enough to meet your significant other’s family or friends, pay attention to the signals they give. Do they joke about your partner’s dating history or tease you about being able to “put up” with them? Those people who have been in long-term relationships with your significant other can be a valuable source of information on the validity of your relationship.

Recognizing subtle warning signs from family and friends can be one of the most challenging symptoms to see in a toxic relationship, as lighthearted banter and teasing are often just a normal part of healthy interactions. However, if your gut’s telling you there may be something behind the comments—or your partner’s loved ones give you more overt warning signals—it’s important to pause and reflect on what you may be hearing or sit down with them and clarify their intention.

5. Your arguments never seem to end in a comfortable resolution. “Good arguments” are a genuine part of a healthy relationship. Being able to discuss your thoughts, differences, and emotions openly and without fear of retribution is vital to developing a long-lasting foundation. When your arguments seem to go around and around without any definite solution and keep cropping back up in the same way, it could be a sign of trouble on the horizon.

Communication is a definitive cornerstone for healthy relationships, and learning how to disagree respectfully is vital. If you’re constantly feeling discomfort when you bring up a different opinion, or you get the sense you need to tread very carefully when it comes to disagreeing, it could be a sign of a toxic relationship. Learning how to “fight fair” is a process, but it should be one that moves forward—not one that gets stuck on a repeat cycle with no end in sight.

Listen to Your Gut

Every relationship is unique, and the most knowledgeable person about your relationship is you. Listen to your body, pay attention to your instincts, and take the time to really examine any potential red flags. It could save you a load of heartache in the long run.

Jamie Cannon, MS, LPC - website - books


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