How to Identify a Toxic Relationship

July 31, 2017

"It's complicated" could sum up many relationships. Difficulties are inevitable, even in the strongest unions. But too often, a relationship can become precarious or even dangerous.

One in four women and one in nine men were victims of physical or sexual violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. That's according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey published this year.

It's not just adults. One in three U.S. adolescents suffers emotional, physical or sexual abuse from a dating partner. Sometimes, they just don't know better.

It's important to understand the difference between healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships. Look for these hallmarks.

Healthy Relationships contain: equality, respect, honesty, trust, kindness.

Unhealthy/Abusive relationships contain: control (one holds power), disrespect or contempt, dishonesty or baseless accusations, jealousy or paranoia, thoughtlessness or cruelty.

Toxic relationships rarely start out terrible, so it can be easy to miss when abusive behavior begins. Watch for these behaviors, from

  • Checking your cell phone or email without permission
  • Constantly putting you down
  • Extreme jealousy or insecurity
  • Explosive temper
  • Isolating you from family or friends
  • Making false accusations
  • Mood swings
  • Physically hurting you in any way
  • Possessiveness
  • Telling you what to do
  • Pressuring or forcing you to have sex

You have to recognize and acknowledge the abusive behavior to realize you need help. A good resource is the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

Teens in particular need guidance to navigate relationships. "Parents play a very important role in teenagers' lives by helping them create and foster positive, healthy relationships with dating partners," said Monica Arora, MD, CHI Health child/adolescent psychologist.

As tempting as it is to forbid a relationship, this approach can escalate the situation. What parents can do is be supportive and encouraging while staying aware of what's going on. "Be authoritative, not authoritarian or confrontational in your parenting style," Dr. Arora said. "Avoid ultimatums and negative statements about partners." Parents can:

  • Model healthy relationships
  • Share your values and traits of healthy relationships
  • Create a safe/secure environment for teens to discuss relationship issues
  • Help teens determine their own relationship expectations and values

"Engage your teen in conversations about dating strategies. Empower them to remove themselves from uncomfortable situations," Dr. Arora said. Teach your children to:

  • Recognize gut feelings about relationships
  • Develop problem-solving skills
  • Seek positive peer influences
  • Engage in extracurricular activities and positive social behaviors

"Strike the balance of being present but not invasive of your teen's privacy," Dr. Arora said. Parents can:

  • Set dating rules
  • Limit unsupervised contact
  • Restrict car use, phone use and access to money
  • Keep tabs on social media
  • Get to know teen's friends and friends' parents

How to know if a teen's relationship is becoming abusive? Watch for these signs:

  • Mood – irritable, withdrawn, isolative, anxious
  • Academic performance – declining grades, truancy, dropping extracurricular activities
  • Appearance – weight or appearance changes, unexplained scratches or bruises
  • Social circle – no longer hanging out with friends
  • Behaviors –  constantly checking phone, making excuses for partner's behavior, drugs or alcohol use, acting out sexually, extreme jealousy or insecurity

If you or a loved one is in immediate danger, call 911.

Monica Arora, MD

Psychiatry Child and Adolescent, Psychiatry, Psychiatry Child