In my own life I’ve gone through hard times with my parents, brothers, and spouse, and thankfully these difficulties don’t have to mean the end of a relationship. When a relationship is fundamentally sound, working through a conflict together—even if it’s messy—can actually make the relationship stronger.
But if the relationship isn’t just going through a rough patch – if it’s truly toxic – there’s little to gain and much to lose by staying in it. So how do you tell the difference between a relationship with normal ups and downs and one that’s toxic?
One of the big distinctions between a difficult period and a toxic relationship is the presence of emotional abuse. People who love each other might say things in the heat of an argument that are hurtful—even cruel—but these episodes aren’t the norm. They’re isolated incidents of lashing out in anger or defensiveness, rather than part of a larger pattern.
In contrast, emotional abuse is a common theme in toxic relationships. Maybe the person ridicules or belittles you, or constantly criticizes you. You might even blame yourself for the attacks and think you deserve them, since emotional abuse erodes your sense of worth.
Do you find that you’re constantly second-guessing yourself in a relationship? Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that makes you question your own reality. For example, you might tell a co-worker that they’re not pulling their weight on a project, but they manage to convince you that you’re the one who’s not doing enough.
In one way or another, they'll "make you doubt your own inner knowing," said Renee Linnell, who described her escape from a manipulative and gaslighting cult in her memoir, The Burn Zone. "It's what most toxic relationships do—you have the intuition that your partner's cheating, and then the partner says, 'No, no, I would never do that—you're just crazy.' And suddenly you're on the defensive, having to explain why you're being 'paranoid.'" Gaslighters are skilled at masking their manipulation, making it hard to recognize and escape it.
Gaslighters and other manipulative people often keep you locked in a push-pull cycle by treating you nicely from time to time, and badly the rest of the time. You might find that your partner often ignores you, causing you to question the relationship and even your self-worth; and then just when you’re about to give up on the relationship, they suddenly show you positive attention, and it feels soooo good. You might tell yourself that things are going to be different now, and make excuses for their past behavior—but then they go back to acting like you don’t exist.
Decades of research on how we learn have shown that this pattern—what scientists call “intermittent reinforcement”—is a powerful way to make us keep working for a reward, like our partner’s attention. It’s the same dynamic that makes a starved rat press a lever over and over until it gets a pellet of food. We never know when the next reward will come, so we keep trying. It's exhausting and bewildering.
Beware of people who try to isolate you socially—criticizing your family, trying to distance you from your friends, even trying to isolate you from a past that doesn’t include them. Limiting your contact with the outside world is one way they can control you and your experience, and define your reality.
"It's an important part of mind control," said Linnell, reflecting on the isolation tactic used in the cult she escaped. The group leaders required that members cut themselves off from their family, their friends, and even from activities they loved.
"Without realizing it, I was letting go of my entire support structure," she said, which meant losing the grounding we find when we're with people we've known since childhood. Without these connections, "your relationship with the manipulator becomes the new norm, and so they really have control."
Discouraging You From Being Yourself
When you're in a healthy relationship, the other person loves you for who you are. They encourage you to be yourself—maybe a "better version" of yourself, but still fundamentally you. We might even say that’s what love is: helping someone grow more fully into the person they truly are.
In contrast, toxic manipulative relationships tell you that you're never good enough and that you need to be someone else. Linnell described being told that she needed to be "a stripped-down, sterile version" of herself, and leave behind everything that made her unique. Thankfully she realized that "the enlightened version of ourselves is the loudest, brightest, truest version of each one of us."
If you recognize your own relationship in any of these descriptions, consider whether you may need to end it. It won’t necessarily be easy—toxic relationships can have toxic endings—so take any necessary precautions to ensure a safe exit. Even if it’s hard at the time, your mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being are worth it.
BY SETH J. GILLIHAN, PHD