True confession: even though I’m a psychologist I’ve found myself stuck in a few toxic relationships over the years. Each time I’d wake up in a cold sweat in the the middle of the night wondering how I’d let it get to such a dangerous point. Sound familiar?
We can get blindsided when our partners are passive-aggressive and deceive and manipulate us. But even when our lovers blatantly mistreat us, we often stay in hopes that things will change.
Trust me. They won’t. I bravely fought my way out of my last toxic relationship years ago and know I’ll never be in another one again because I can now see the warning signs from miles away. If you’re in a toxic relationship, here are 16 deal breakers to help you find the courage to finally break free.
1. They push you around (literally).
These partners hit you, shove you, or hold your arm so tightly that it leaves a bruise. Once my six feet tall boyfriend leaned down and yelled two inches away from my face (I’m petite). It scared the hell out of me. I left the room before it could escalate and never came back. Give no second chances on physical abuse, even if your partner apologizes afterwards. Actions speak louder than words. If you put up with it, you’re telling him or her that it’s OK to treat you this way. It isn’t. Accept your losses and move on. Quickly.
2. They criticize and shame you.
They cut you down with no consideration for your feelings and make you feel inadequate. A man I was involved with relentlessly criticized my looks, my outfits, the songs I wrote, pretty much everything about me. After our break up I jotted down all his verbal attacks and the list filled four single-spaced pages, two columns per page. Verbal abusers make you feel bad about yourself so that they’ll have power over you. Know your worth and get out.
3. They repeatedly cheat on you.
And you’re not in an open relationship. Slipping up once or twice may signal the need for the two of you to work through your issues with a therapist. What we’re talking about here is frequent infidelity. According to Dr. Phil, “The best predictor of future behavior is relevant past behavior.” I lived with a serial cheater for years. He never changed; he just got sneakier. You (and your children) deserve better.
4. They’re careless with those who depend on you.
If your partner belittles your children, kicks your dog, or continually “forgets” to give your sickly live-in mother her medication, it’s time to reconsider. Anyone who takes advantage of those who seem “weaker” than themselves is a bully. Don’t settle for this, even if he or she is nice to YOU.
5. They lie.
I once overheard my boyfriend lying to a colleague on the phone about a work assignment he didn’t do. He made up stuff on his resume and stole wine from his friends. I knew that if he lied to them he would lie to me. Sure enough I caught him cheating with my best friend. Relationships are built on trust. You can’t have a successful union if your partner regularly lies.
6. They guilt-trip you.
These partners use your desire to be a good person to manipulate you into doing their bidding. I once cohabitated with a financially-troubled man who tried to coerce me into co-signing a loan for a big-ticket item. After giving me the cold shoulder for days, he lost his temper over it in front of our therapist (who he’d fooled into thinking he was a straight arrow). I was so relieved to watch him blow his cover and show himself for the covert aggressor he was. Life is too short to put up with guilt-manipulators.
7. You don’t like yourself when you’re with them.
If you feel worse about yourself when you’re around your partner, it’s time to get out. I once dated a guy who badgered me into doing karaoke with him knowing I felt demeaned by it (I’m a singer-songwriter with radio hits in addition to being a psychologist). He also guilted me into practicing with his makeshift band and then belittled my performance. I felt terrible about myself. He did the opposite of bring out the best in me. If this sounds like your situation, make a break for it while your self-esteem is still intact.
8. They make you doubt yourself.
When I tried to address the issue with my partner in the above point, he refused to admit that he’d put me down in front of his bandmates. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It wasn’t that bad, you’re too sensitive.” It confused me. Years later I realized that he must have felt threatened by my musical proficiency and was trying to bring me down to size. Toxic partners can make us second guess ourselves and even feel crazy when they play dumb or feign ignorance. If you think you’re being gaslighted, educate yourself about it and you’ll escape unscathed.
9. They force you to give up what you love.
I have a friend who played electronic keyboards in one of my first bands. When I met up with him again years later I was shocked to learn that his ex-wife had forbidden him from playing their piano at home even though their kids loved his music. She wouldn’t even let him touch the keys (for fear he’d break it). She also forced him to sell his Roland so he had to stop performing altogether. If you’re with someone who makes you give up the things or people you love, it’s time to give THEM up.
10. They isolate you.
Related to the point above, if you’re with someone who puts your friends and family down or acts hostile towards them so that no one wants to be around the two of you, it’s a trap. Being isolated from your loved ones makes you totally dependent on your partner. I once had a “very nice” boyfriend try to do this but I saw through it and ended the relationship while my connections were still strong. Make it a point to stay in touch with your loved ones and use the power of their support to ditch this type of emotional abuser.
11. Your friends question the way you’re treated.
If your friends or family think you’re being taken advantage or harmed in some way, listen. Like a frog in a pot of boiling water, sometimes we don’t register that we’re being mistreated because the heat’s been rising slowly over time. Recently I had a friend tell me that he’d thought I was being abused by a boyfriend years back but didn’t say anything at the time. I sure wish he had spoken up because I stayed in that terrible relationship for 10 years. Your friends know you best. Encourage them to tell you the truth.
12. You’re constantly walking on eggshells.
You’re trying hard to make the relationship work, but it’s not being reciprocated. You’re afraid to bring up your needs because it may set off your partner’s anger, criticism, or passive aggressive tendencies. Maybe your partner pursued you in the beginning, but if you’re doing all the work to keep the romance afloat now and you’re scared to be yourself, it’s not worth it.
13. It’s all about them.
I once went out on a date with a guy who talked about himself all night. I mistakingly took it as a sign of nervousness. Eight months later he was STILL always talking about himself. His eyes glazed over with boredom whenever I tried to tell him about my day. My therapist told me that my boyfriend had narcissistic personality disorder, which explained why he was arrogant, had a high need to be admired, and demanded to be treated special. She warned me that he would never change because he didn’t think there was anything wrong with him. Boy was she was right.
14. They’re never there for you.
A few weeks after the verdict from my therapist that same boyfriend was nowhere to be found when I had a car accident. Scared and shaking I left several messages but all I got was his voicemail. Hours later he waltzed into my house like nothing had happened. When I asked why he hadn’t come sooner, he explained that he’d received my messages but wanted to finish rollerblading first. He didn’t understand why there was a problem. If your partner can’t feel empathy for you he or she is probably a narcissist, or even worse, a sociopath (a narcissist to the extreme). If this sounds familiar, run as fast as you can. It will only get worse.
15. They’re over controlling.
There are two kinds of controlling partners. Covert aggressors manipulate you with charm and flattery, ignore your requests, or play the victim to get what they want. The other type is more overt. They openly choose your clothes, your friends, your hobbies, and even take credit for your ideas. Both types of controlling partners throw you off course repeatedly so that they can keep tightening the reins. The sooner you can slip the noose, the better.
16. You’re just not good for each other.
Even if you and your partner are good people, your relationship could become toxic if you try to force it to work when your values and needs are misaligned. Constant arguing is a bad sign. People should not have to change who they are to be in a couple. If, for example, one of you wants a child and the other doesn’t, make a decision and come to peace with it or find someone who feels the same way about having children as you do. If you continue to blame and hold your differences against each other the situation could turn into a cesspool.
The bottom line: if you are regularly lied to, belittled, cheated on, controlled, made to feel unsure of yourself, shamed, blamed for things that are beyond your control, or the victim of domestic violence, you’re in a dangerous romantic situation and you need to walk away.
If you dig deep you may find that you feel you don’t deserve better. You DO. Everyone does. I should know. Having a difficult childhood trained me to be a doormat. Why do you think I became a psychologist in the first place? To end this pattern. If I can do it, you can do it, too.
Surround yourself with positive people, start doing the things you love again, focus on developing your talents and self-worth, and give yourself some time to heal. When you’re ready to be in a relationship again, steer clear of these 16 telltale signs of toxicity and you’ll never have to endure this hardship again.