Relationships are not always easy. Both partners have to be willing to compromise, and love is about give and take. And whilst every relationship has its turbulent phases, a healthy relationship is one in which there are more good times than bad, and where both people feel equally committed, content and respected by one another. But even healthy relationships can turn sour in which the bad times become predominant. When this happens, it may be time to re-assess things, and you can read this article on when it is time to walk away from your relationship.

However, there is a vast difference between a healthy relationship that has become problematic for both people concerned, versus one in which there were problems from the very beginning. If one person has constantly felt undermined, disempowered, invisible, manipulated or otherwise disrespected, the relationship could be a harmful one in which there is little hope for ‘normal functionality’. The problem is however, that people in a harmful relationship are not always consciously aware that they are in one. They may be aware that they are often feeling sad or unhappy, but they do not necessarily attribute this to the relationship. It's as if they are wearing blinders and cannot see that their own relationship is detrimental to their health. Do you often find yourself in unhappy relationships? If yes, you can learn more about why you are in another bad relationship at this link.

Love, or the need for love, does blind people from seeing the truth. In a harmful relationship, there is always hope that one can change some really bad habits of a partner, but most people know it is nearly impossible to change someone else’s behavior. This hope however, keeps a person in the toxic environment, because the familiar, however miserable or unsatisfactory it is, is always less scary than the unknown.

In order to realize that you are in a harmful relationship, you may first need to understand what a harmful relationship is. Not recognizing the signs, but experiencing the ongoing pain, does nothing but result in you suffering in silence, and perhaps questioning your ability to make someone else happy or make a relationship work. If you have never experienced a good relationship, then you may believe there is something fundamentally wrong with you, and so staying is better than leaving.

Harmful relationships are as toxic as drugs. They both can cause widespread, long-term damage to both mind and body. Harmful relationships can also cause damage to one's sense of self. And in fact, your lowered self-esteem is just one way your partner keeps you stuck in this unacceptable dynamic that is always geared towards selfishly meeting their own needs, and not acknowledging yours.

Everyone deserves the best that love and relationships have to offer. So if you have been feeling more unhappy than happy, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to this awful sadness and emptiness you are experiencing in your everyday life with your partner, you must stop looking towards yourself for blame. Here are some key signs to indicate that you are in a harmful relationship that is never going to go anywhere.   

1. Peristent need for your partner’s approval

In order to prove to yourself that you are worthy, you constantly strive for being perceived as ‘good’. However, no matter what you do, you feel like nothing you ever do is good enough in your partner's eyes. When they do praise you, you are on top of the world. This makes you try harder to elicit the approval again and again. And when it doesn't happen as frequently as you would like, you feel like you have failed as a partner, and you don’t feel confident enough within yourself to realize that you do not need your partner’s approval to be deemed worthy. This leads to a vicious cycle of constantly trying to please your partner, waiting for that approval, and relapsing very quickly into self-doubt soon after each expression of approval comes your way. Whilst this may sound like it is your problem and not your partner’s, if you genuinely felt that your partner accepted and loved you unconditionally, you wouldn’t be constantly hanging out for those words of praise from them. Read on to find out more about how else they could be treating you that is leading to your unhappiness.

2. Constant put downs

Every relationship goes through periods where each partner discovers each other’s quirks and flaws. If some of these flaws are difficult to accept or put up with, pointing them out with love and encouragement to change is admirable, and is the best way to deal with them. It is not always easy however, to avoid blurting out things that should never be said, and we are all human. But it is one thing to say something hurtful in a heated moment which is apologized for soon after, versus constantly hearing nasty words and put downs which are never apologized for. If you often feel like the ‘joke’ in your relationship, or the one with all the unacceptable flaws that keep being brought to your attention, then this a major sign that you are in a harmful relationship. Your partner may either act like it's no big deal and that they are just having a bit of fun at your expense, or they blatantly insult you, either directly or indirectly. In any case, they know exactly what they are doing. You may believe that you deserve this treatment, but no one deserves to be constantly put down.

3. No communication: No hope for change

Hopefully you did not enter this relationship with the aim to change your partner. Healthy relationships are more about self-growth with the goal to improve on managing your own weaknesses, and build upon your own strengths, rather than working towards a significant change or makeover of someone else’s personality. As the two of you grow with one another over time, communication is the primary way to deal with problems as they occur. If there is no communication about issues that are present in the relationship, avoidance will not lead to resolution and acceptance.

So when you discuss issues with your partner, do they pay attention to your concerns and acknowledge these? And do they try to help you deal with your problems and worries? Or are they more focused on their own problems and issues, and ignore everything you say? Or worse, are they unaware of any problems they may have, and remain closed to the issues you raise about aspects of their behavior?

If your partner cannot understand and respond productively to your feelings and needs, take this as a sign of a harmful relationship. You cannot survive long in an environment that is oblivious to your needs, wants and feelings. It may be the fact that your partner is with you based on their own desires of what you can bring to their life, rather than what they can contribute to yours in turn, and so you may want to read my article here to learn if your partner is with you based on want or need.

4. Negative thoughts and constant mood swings

Everyone experiences changes in mood throughout the course of time, and even in a single day, as we are all vulnerable to feeling sad, angry, or any other negative emotion that can influence changes in our behavior. However, if you feel like you are always walking on egg shells around your partner, not knowing when the next sudden mood swing is going to strike, then consider this another sign of living in a harmful relationship. There are of course some mental health problems that your partner may be dealing with which contribute to sudden mood swings, but you should not have to persistently fear that your partner's wrath may be heading through that door. Extreme and unexplainable mood shifts that your partner fails to assume any responsibility for should be seen as bright red warning flags.

5. Nasty fighting

All couples fight and argue at times, even over small and trivial issues. However, healthy fighting is typically driven by a desire of both people to solve the current issues and move forward amicably. On the other hand, toxic couples fight to specifically attack and hurt each other, without any conscious intention to bring things back to ‘normal’. Both people in a toxic fight are more concerned about defending their own self-image because of an underlying sense of shame and unworthiness. And the only way this can be achieved, is to dish out as much hurt and nastiness that can be generated. Each person is filled with so much contempt and hostility, that the sole purpose of fighting is to win and put the other down as much as possible. Verbal battles becomes commonplace at home, and the types of things that get said hang around like a permanent black cloud. The damage becomes irreparable, and this damage accumulates and adds to the fuel in the next fight.

6. Role playing

Do you find that you stop yourself before you say certain things to your partner? Are you afraid of their reactions if you bring up specific subjects? Do you feel that there are topics that you can never discuss, even if they are big issues for you?

If you find that you are often saying nothing just to avoid a fight, then you should understand that this is not a healthy relationship. You should never be afraid to speak your mind and let your partner know what you think is right or wrong in your life or in your relationship. You should never adapt to the desires and wishes of someone in order to keep them happy just to avoid an unpleasant confrontation. This puts you in a role playing environment that is toxic to your sense of self and independence.

7. No commemoration of the relationship

In a harmful relationship, you may be eager for your anniversary to come around, or another special occasion such as Valentine’s Day, just in hope of being made to feel special by your partner who you hope will give you a meaningful anniversary gift or romantic Valentine’s Day present. The problem is, your partner is typically so caught up in their own issues and selfish needs that the relationship is either never commemorated in the conventional way, or the gifts are given with little thought to you and what you want to mean to that person. A lack of proper commemoration of milestones in the relationship also indicate that your partner is not considering the future of the two of you. 

In conclusion

If you have been in the unfortunate position of constantly finding yourself in unhappy and harmful relationships, hopefully this article has helped you come to learn that it is not to do with you, but the types of people you settle for. Remember, that a harmful relationship is never acceptable, and a person who treats you with disrespect should never be excused for their behavior. If the signs that are described in this article keep cropping up in your relationship(s), then you need to acknowledge that these are relationships to walk away from. This is not to say that healthy relationships are perfect and stress-free either. If you read this article about the myths of a healthy relationship, then you may come to distinguish between the problems that are actually normal and acceptable in a relationship, versus those that are characteristic of a harmful relationship.  

I would love to hear your comments or answer any questions you might have about this post.

Yours sincerely,   


Dr. Carissa Coulston, Clinical Psychologist

BSc(Hons), MPsychol(Clinical), PhD, MAPS