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Recognising the signs of a toxic relationship

Peter* is a big, manly man who is successful at work as a project manager. On the outside, you would not know that there is nothing unusual going on in his life. He has been going out with Kirsty for 5 years. Initially, their relationship started out with a lot of fireworks and it was a whirlwind affair when they were spending all their time together and Kirsty was often checking on him and whether he still wanted to be with her. Kirsty never liked Peter’s friends and was always criticising their girlfriends. Gradually Kirsty has been more and more critical of Peter. She frequently blames him for her moods and upsetting her, but Peter is confused and doesn’t know what he has done specifically to upset Kirsty. Peter is trying to do everything to please Kirsty and keep her happy. He feels lucky to have met someone like her. She is very attractive and he feels that she’s out of his league. Peter has started to feel increasingly anxious at work in social situations and is wondering where that is coming from.

Lena* has been with Mark for over 10 years and they have two children. He often criticises her weight and if she doesn’t know something. He is jealous and suspicious often doubting Lena’s love for him and whether she is going behind his back. Lena has not been interested in other men since they got together. She felt that when Mark approached him he seemed so confident and she was felt lucky to have met someone like him: a confident man with a career and everything going for him. Over the years Lena’s self-esteem has hit the rock bottom and she’s debating whether to stay in the relationship for the sake of her children having two parents under the same roof.

Is there something that resonates you about these two descriptions?

This is a first of a three-part series on toxic intimate relationships focusing on identifying signs of a toxic relationship. The following parts will look at recovering after a toxic relationship and finally moving on after a toxic relationship.

I wanted to write this series as so many people suffer often in silence in toxic relationships but may not be able to see that their relationship is not a healthy one. Alternatively, they may feel that this is not how a relationship should be but being in the toxic relationship has chipped away confidence to leave and end the relationship.

What is a toxic relationship?

Have you felt in your relationship, for example:

  • You cannot be who you are as a person
  • You always have to justify your feelings and thoughts
  • Your feelings are often dismissed
  • Your behaviour is often criticised
  • You have started to walk on eggshells
  • Behaviour of the other triggered you to have certain feelings and you reacted to them in a similar way
  • You often felt defeated like there is no point
  • For the sake of having peace you focused on looking after the needs of the other whilst neglecting your own needs
  • You started to feel isolated because you had lost a lot of connections with family and friends for your relationship
  • You are stuck in a place of shame and despair
  • There has been physical and/or sexual violence towards you

Above are just some signs of a toxic relationship. As a rule of thumb, when in a relationship if you don’t feel accepted, loved, respected and cared for as a person you are with warts and all, it is unlikely to be a relationship worth investing in and in a long run it may be very damaging to you if it continues.

Different strategies of emotional abuse

Amy Lewis Bear wrote a book “From charm to harm: The guide to spotting, naming, and stopping emotional abuse in intimate relationships. She identified the ways in which your partner may be behaving towards you that is essentially undermining you are as a person and emotionally abusive. This post will outline the 11 categories of emotional abuse:

  1. Bait & switch: Ensnaring a lover – e.g. telling lies about their life to attract a person, saying all the right things potential may wish to hear without meaning it, camouflaging their true characteristics until they have a partner committed, no tolerance for another person’s vulnerabilities
  2. Deceptive devices: Creating confusion – e.g. blowing hot and cold, if partner suspects something then picking a fight to distract and making partner feel confused, double standards, collecting information against partner, distorting the truth so that partner starts to doubt themselves, giving gifts after the abuse has taken place
  3. Strengthening the hold – e.g. “love” is conditional on partner’s behaviour, doing disappearing acts, taking over partner’s responsibilities as an act of “love” but in fact, this is a way to control the partner and they lose a sense of purpose, demanding excessive portion of family’s income
  4. Targeting self-esteem – e.g. making false promises, being unreliable, using facial expressions to undermine partner, ridiculing partner, unwilling to admit that they are wrong, selective amnesia, stonewalling a partner, twisting the truth
  5. Using anger, intimidation, and violence – e.g. throwing objects during arguments, explosive verbal assaults, extreme mood swings, use hostility to get their own way and intimidate partner, critical comments, destroying objects to demonstrate power, threatening behaviour and accusations
  6. Inciting shame and self-doubt – e.g. publicly humiliating partner by disclosing personal information, if partner is in a good mood picking a fight to change partner’s mood, micromanaging partner and hovering over to ensure partner obeys rules,
  7. Blocking personal growth – e.g. believing that partner’s success will diminish their power over the partner, minimising partner’s talents and accomplishments, making demands to partner when they are trying to fulfil their own needs, objectifying others and appreciating other’s emotions, needs, talents or desires, patronising and treating partner like they are inferior, discouraging partner who wants to pursue their own goals
  8. Violating commitment – e.g. cheating, disputing the evidence of cheating when partner challenges, creating fictional friends or business trips to visit their lover, involved in sexual escapades outside a committed relationship without partner’s agreement
  9. Addiction, obsession and substance abuse – e.g. using recovery from one addiction to justify involved with another obsessive behaviour like gambling, emotionally detached from partner and family simultaneously engaging in risky activities, excusing reckless behaviour by saying that they were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs
  10. Battery and sexual humiliation – e.g. physical abuse, unwanted sexual statements about partner’s body or sexuality, coercing partner into sex acts that hurt or humiliate them, sexual shaming and humiliating partner by criticising their sexuality or sexual behaviours or talking about sexual conquests or preferences in relation to other people
  11. Using other people as tools for abuse – e.g. using lies or other tactics to cause conflicts or grudges between partner and his/her family and friends, finding allies against their partner, isolating partner from family and friends by forbidding them to have contact, acting in public in a way that humiliates partner, spreading malicious gossip about partner, alienating own children from their other parent, telling children cruel lies about the other parent and undermining the other parent

Emotional abuse is such a large topic that this post only covers a fraction of it. Hence I have focused on helping you to identify if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship.

If you are experiencing physical or sexual violence and emotional abuse in your relationship. These national organisations have a lot of information. Remember you don’t have to suffer alone.

Support for getting out of toxic relationships:

Women’s Aid

The Freedom Project

Men’s Advice Line


Hope you have found this post useful. The next part of the post series focuses on recovering after an emotionally abusive relationship and the final part looks at moving on and starting to date again after been in a toxic relationship. The next is available now, read it here “Healing your heart after a toxic relationship” and finally moving on & dating after a toxic relationship.

If you are looking for a therapist to support you whether you are in a toxic relationship or you are recovering after leaving a toxic relationship, you may wish to look at my services page “Individual therapy” or Relationships here.

*The case examples do not refer to any actual either past or present clients but are a collection of experiences I have heard over the years.


Amy Lewis Bear wrote a book “From charm to harm: The guide to spotting, naming, and stopping emotional abuse in intimate relationships.