5 Early Warning Signs Of The Most Toxic Relationships

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couple having argument

Science tells us it’s human nature to question why something happened after the fact; hindsight being 20/20. So often we hear our clients ask us in despair: "How come I didn’t see this?" The short answer is the ego. The ego has a vast arsenal of defense mechanisms, ready to jump in and override the best-intentioned gut. Most times, we don’t want to see the red flags or listen to naysayers.

We just want to push forward to make the square peg fit into the round hole. Our ego drives this behavior and gets us into messy interactions with our spouse, significant other, siblings, friends, and co-workers. From our research, we discovered 5 common themes that point to causes and signs of a toxic relationship, and it's not worth trying to fit that square peg into the round hole.

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Here are 5 early warning signs of a toxic relationship:

1. You're not well-suited

For example, some people — who’ve grown up in an environment where conflict is embraced — love to continue the drama and conflict in their interpersonal relationships. If they are with a conflict avoider, they are not too concerned, as they are adept at creating a conflict out of thin air. Their reward is a serotonin boost. One of the things we share with all of our clients with whom we consult is to first have them know themselves well. Then learn about the other. 

2. You have unresolved issues and/or mental health challenges

If relationships are like a house, people move their former "boxes" of life experiences — their stories (of abandonment, abuse, attachment, etc.) — and dump them into the new house. At first, the boxes of baggage may be unopened in the attic or basement, but eventually, that box will be opened and the contents will be revealed in the family room. Or even at the holiday dining room table.

3. There is a breakdown in communication

You both have allowed life to get in the way. You have allowed your relationship to become under-attended, under-nourished, and under-cherished. Fear and lack of knowing what to do hold you hostage to productively move forward.



4. One of you is a dominance manipulator while the other is vulnerable and blindly trusting

This results in the lack of emotional and mental objectivity to scrutinize the schmoozing, charismatic person. The schmoozer criticizes and blames the other, with no accountability on their part. The blamed party either retreats into feelings of shame and guilt or becomes an over-achieving cheerleader who ramps up their game to please their partner. Or both. Like shifting debris on a breezy mountain ledge, the criticized person’s identity slowly erodes.

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5. One of you has commitment phobia

When a person in the relationship is not willing to be all in. Trust and abandonment concerns usually drive this fear. People who have been burned in the past cannot embrace vulnerability and open-hearted exposure. Their thought is: "If I am not fully invested in this relationship when it ends, I won’t feel so badly."



The premise going in is that the relationship is short-lived. Once again, the ego will be protected ("I was right! I knew they’d break up with me") but the heart loses. The ego wants to be right; the heart wants to feel good. You can’t have it both ways. In other words, feeding the ego is fear-based; feeding the heart is courage-based. Courage is heart-centric, dating back to its root meaning ("our") in Latin and French.

Here are 5 signs that say that you need to be aware of your toxic relationship, and protect yourself:

1. Loneliness, change, and illness

Examine inner and outer thoughts, feelings, and behavior. People enter into a toxic relationship for a variety of reasons: fear of being alone is one of them. The longevity of the relationship influences and determines their decision-making; some are not willing to give up on their investment of time and energy. They hear horrific stories of current dating life and are terrified of being alone.

Being with someone, although unhealthy, is better than no one. To protect yourself, do a gut check: Is your fear of being alone greater than being in a [toxic] relationship? Second, are you a fixer? Many people entertain erroneous beliefs that the other person will grow, mature, change, evolve, and see the light. Rarely happens. Ask yourself, "Why do I want to change this person?" or "Why does this person want to change me?" To protect yourself from either being a fixer or the "fixee", get out of the emotions and into your head to sort out a logical rationale for both reality and expectations. Write. It. Down.

Lastly, you begin to notice that your once healthy self, is suddenly getting the flu, a cold, gastrointestinal issues, bronchitis, or muscle strain. The body notification is a wonderful gift to you to pay attention to what is going on with the other two parts of your mind-body-spirit life trifecta. If you feel sick or are in physical pain, the mind and spirit need an immediate trip to the figurative ER.

2. Isolation

You have a pit in your stomach, and you can’t get rid of it. Little by little your partner distances you from your tribe: your family members, your friends, and even co-workers. You can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but suddenly you no longer see your friends. Your partner has chiseled away at you to alienate them, maybe even criticizing your BFF — "Do you ever notice how annoying her laugh is? Your sister is not very nice to me."

Another sign to look for is if your partner wants you to be removed from civilization as you know it; tucked away in some remote location — "Let’s move to that teeny farmhouse in the country. I’ll set up a little office for you; you can work from home and avoid a rough commute." Is there a hidden motive? Check it out.

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3. Distractions prevail in your important relationships

Devices occupy 90 percent of your focus. You lose interest in talking to one another. You only want to go out if others will be there too because you need the emotional attachment and security to give you a sense of belonging and connection. Your conversations are superficial, riddled with a sarcastic drip. Intimacy, including making love, has declined or disappeared. And "gunnysacking" occurs. For example, imagine a burlap bag filled with all of the issues, challenges, conflicts, and grievances you have with this other person. Each time there is a new obstacle, one or both of you open the bag and dump out all of the past conflicts.

Gunnysacking ensures that there is no resolution — no moving forward productively. Use this communication tool to jumpstart a heart-healthy conversation daily — even for you — if your partner is not willing — to support and educate yourself in all of your relationships.

4. You find control freaks and narcissistic behavior attracted to you

You are immediately drawn to this charismatic person who lavishes you with attention, gifts, and pleasurable experiences. They ask you to share everything about yourself. You are happy to spill your life story and pour your heart out. Your partner listens attentively and slowly starts to reel you in. When they do tell you about themselves, some of what they say (if not all) is riddled with half-truths and lies. People who dominate usually prey on people who are gullible, vulnerable, and very trusting. If you have this tendency to openly trust, know it, own it, and most importantly, master the art of discernment. Heed family and friends’ concerns when they say, "I don’t know…there’s just something about them that isn’t right."

5. A lack of "All in-ness"

Small "r", gift-giving, imagination, pets, tiptoed friends, and sparkle — all of these six signs point to a lack of "All in-ness" and commitment. You have a growing resentment, with a lowercase "r" — not too big that you see the red in the flag but just enough that you recognize it as a flag. A second sign that you need to be aware of to protect yourself is if gift-giving makes you groan. You wait until the last minute to get them a gift, and you most certainly buy a Hallmark card with gooey sentiments, because you can’t come up with anything on your own. Or you are a recipient of such a gift or card.

The third sign you need to recognize is if you cannot imagine a future with this person. You plan no trips; excuses are made — "We can’t afford it. Who will watch the kids or pets? I want to go to the beach, and you want to ski. I can’t take off work." Almost all things are possible in a committed relationship with two willing people to make it work. A fourth indicator that you need to spot is if you or your partner have to have two large Labradors sleep between you because they bring you more peace and comfort. Get dog beds.

A fifth signal that you need to pay attention to is if family and friends begin to walk on eggshells around you. Some make trite conversation with you. You and your college roommate no longer share deep conversational sessions. Bold ones may ask: "Is everything okay with you?" Embrace their tiptoed behavior and even direct questions with the opportunity to look at your relationship.

Lastly, you’ve lost your sparkle. Pull out old happy photos of you and compare them to ones on social media. Have your glistening eyes been replaced with zombie eyes? The solution to all of these is to reach out to a friend, a consultant, or even a journal to get confirmation. "Am I not seeing what I am supposed to see? Am I all in? Are they all in?" The signs are always there. Pause to allow your mind, heart, and body to work together to inform you in all of your interpersonal relationships because we believe a heart-healthy relationship doesn't need protection.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of ongoing emotional abuse, you are not alone. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and is not a reflection of who you are or anything you've done wrong. If you feel as though you may be in danger, there is support available 24/7/365 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233. If you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474.

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Poppy and Geoff Spencer, M.S., CPC, are certified counselors, nationally syndicated writers, and relationship and parenting experts, certified in Myers Briggs (personality). Poppy and Geoff are a highly-credentialed husband and wife team who have made it their life’s passion to help people immediately identify and address communication barriers.