Understanding Toxic Relationships: What Makes a Relationship Toxic?

Being in a toxic relationship can negatively impact your psyche, self-confidence, and personal life, which is why it’s important to recognize if any of your relationships - romantic or otherwise - are toxic.

By Jamye Waxman
Updated: September 09, 2015

There are many types of bad relationships that don’t have clear labels, but the actual definition of a toxic relationship is a relationship between two or more people that is unsafe and dysfunctional. This is different from a dysfunctional relationship, or any other relationship that simply isn’t working, in that it is physically or emotionally unsafe to stay in it.

A toxic relationship takes negative emotions to the extreme, but both toxic and dysfunctional relationships are characterized by negative behaviors that are constant or normalized in the relationship. These behaviors include (but are not limited to) acting jealous, insulting, demeaning, and yelling. They involve control, domination, narcissism, and insecurity that can be emotionally, and possibly physically, damaging. In these relationships, there is generally inequality in the expectations of the roles played by each person – for example, one person gives while the other takes.

Toxic relationships affect us on a myriad of levels. They can affect our psyche, making us continuously question what we’re doing and who we are. They can make us question ourselves, because our intuition is telling us one thing and our brain is telling us another (Hint: always go with your gut). Our self-confidence can be affected when we’re told we are crazy, wrong, or can’t survive on our own. And because we’re stressed out about the relationship, we can see tangible manifestations of the toxicity, too. We may become physically ill with fever or depression. We may not want to get out of bed some days because the relationship affects our thinking, work, and personal life. We can even start to hate ourselves because we aren’t being true to ourselves, especially if we think that we’re compromising our values and beliefs. 

Warning Ahead: Identifying a Toxic Relationship 

If you’re wondering what a toxic relationship looks like, here are some examples:

  • A business partner who devalues your input, claiming your ideas are “worthless.”
  • A friend who is extremely jealous of you and hurts your reputation by gossiping about you.
  • A relationship that makes you feel bad most, or all, of the time.
  • A family member who uses lying and manipulation to isolate you from your friends or other family.
  • A friend or family member who harshly criticizes you. They may say things like, “You’re so unmotivated; you’ll never accomplish anything in life.”
  • A relationship with a family member where you are not allowed to be or act in a way that feels true to yourself.
  • A friend who always has to be right and discounts everything you say as wrong.
  • A relationship where all your energy goes toward said relationship, and you feel drained.

This article has been excerpted from How to Break Up with Anyone: Letting Go of Friends, Family, and Everyone In-Between (September 2015) by Jamye Waxman, with permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. © 2015 


Jamye Waxman, M.Ed is a sex educator, speaker, and media consultant who has been interviewed by top media outlets on human sexuality and relationships. The author of Getting Off: A Woman’s Guide to Masturbation and co-author of Hot Sex: Over 200 Things You Can Try Tonight, Jamye is pursuing an MA in counseling psychology and a PhD in human sexuality education.

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September 04, 2015

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