No relationship is perfect, but what might seem like typical relationship issues can quickly become unhealthy. These days on social media and in conversation between friends, there’s often talk of toxicity: toxic people, toxic relationships, and toxic dating culture.
But when does love become toxic, and what dating and relationship habits should you watch out for?
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What Are Toxic Relationships?
Dating and romantic relationships can be stressful, and while this can be a normal part of becoming intimate with others, it can also be a sign that something much more unhealthy is forming.
Toxic relationships often go in cycles, where we may repeat the same negative experiences and trauma we’ve faced in the past. We may become deeply attached to the other person quickly while dating, but when conflict or doubt arises, our stress response goes into overdrive.
It’s at this point that toxic habits and damaging behaviors often play out. In a healthy relationship, we may be able to learn from our mistakes to avoid repeating such toxic patterns again in the future. But in dysfunctional relationships, relationship problems continue on again and again, without resolution.
When Do Toxic Relationships Start?
To avoid falling into a toxic relationship cycle, it’s helpful to identify the signs of a toxic relationship as soon as possible.
Some unhealthy relationship dynamics may begin in the early phase of dating, when there may be some subtle red flags to watch for. But sometimes, these red flags aren’t obvious and are easily missed by dating partners.
Think about it: when first getting to know each other, we tend to be on our best behavior, concealing our undesirable traits and toxic behaviors. This can make it hard to spot possible early signs of a toxic future.
For some, then, the toxicity is more obvious once the relationship becomes more intimate. During this time, people are often more likely to let their guards down and show their true selves. Similarly, increased intimacy and commitment can also increase feelings of insecurity and fear of abandonment, triggering toxic relationship habits.
Normal vs Toxic Relationships
Whether just getting to know each other or already settling down, there are some red flags to look for in a significant other and relationship. Some red flags may be surprising and seem normal, when they’re actually the building blocks of a toxic relationship.
Below are five worrisome behaviors to watch for while dating, as well as five to be aware of in an already-committed relationship.
5 Toxic Dating Habits
1. Playing Hard to Get
Making yourself unavailable while dating might seem like an obvious choice to appear more desirable and less needy. In reality, though, playing hard to get can be confusing at best and manipulative at worst.
It’s beneficial for your mental health and well-being to have other interests and plans in your schedule when dating new people. But be careful to not intentionally delay texting back or send confusing mixed signals.
Also be wary of a date who might be doing this to you. We often play hard to get to feel in control while dating and to try to make the other person want us more. In a healthy relationship, though, there’s no need for such control and subtle manipulation.
2. Focusing Only On Your Type
Many people have a preferred “type” in dating, often based on superficial qualities like clothing style, taste in music, or occupation. While having a type isn’t necessarily toxic in itself, pursuing only those who fit into a narrow type can become extremely toxic.
Part of why this is so toxic is because our types are often based on our own projections and fantasies. We might date people who we think fit squarely into our ideal type, without getting to know them as an actual, complex human being.
3. Rushing into Love
Love can be great, so why wouldn’t you want to rush into it? One key reason comes down to understanding infatuation.
Infatuation occurs in the beginning stages of dating, and it puts us in a state of high arousal, having a drug-like effect on the brain. During this period, it’s difficult to see flaws and red flags in a significant other.
Avoiding rushing the dating process can help us see information clearly, as well as to check in with our own emotions to gauge how we truly feel about the other person.
Another reason why rushing into love might be a bad idea is because this is a behavior typically associated with codependency. When we have codependent tendencies, we may look for someone else to complete us, rushing into a relationship to feel whole again.
In reality, this sets couples up for a toxic dynamic. Taking it slow in dating allows us to check in with ourselves, remember our needs, and hold on to some independence and personal identity without becoming enmeshed with another person.
4. Never Accepting Good Enough
While dating, settling for “good enough” might seem unhealthy, but the opposite can be true. For some, a toxic habit is to always look for the better option or the “perfect” person, never being able to fully accept the people they go out with.
This hyper-criticism of others can turn into a toxic spiral, where no one is ever good enough. At times, this behavior can be a result of having an avoidant attachment style and fearing getting too close.
Instead, accepting a “good enough” dating partner can set the foundation for a healthy relationship based on acceptance and shared values, not a lofty goal of finding the perfect person.
With online dating, ghosting has become more common than ever. But while ghosting may seem normal these days, it’s a toxic dating habit better to be avoided.
There are some understandable reasons why someone might ghost on an app or after going out on a first date: they don’t want to reject the other person, they don’t know what to say, or maybe they fear the other person’s response if they tell them their honest feelings.
When possible, opt for messaging the other person to let them know where you stand. If you don’t want to continue dating, send them a kind yet honest message explaining that you’re not available for future dates.
5 Toxic Relationship Habits
1. Withholding Affection
If you or your partner withhold affection as punishment, be aware that this can become a damaging habit in your relationship. It’s one thing to need space during an argument. It’s another to withhold affection or avoid a partner without giving any explanation.
Withholding affection can become a form of damaging emotional blackmail. In toxic relationships, partners may keep a relationship scorecard, withholding love and connection when they feel they’ve been wronged.
Some examples to watch for include using the silent treatment, acting coldly to try to hurt the other person, and refusing to apologize and reconnect after a disagreement.
2. Never Arguing
You may think it’s normal, and even ideal, to have a relationship where there are no arguments. However, purposely avoiding conflict can actually be a sign of a toxic relationship dynamic.
Think of it this way: conflict and disagreement are natural between people. It’s reasonable that we won’t always get along or agree with others. And it takes a safe space and healthy relationship to communicate those differences.
If you avoid arguing, it may be a sign that there’s a lack of trust and safety established in the relationship. It could also signal deeper people-pleasing tendencies.
In relationships, it’s important to understand the commitment you’re making to each other and set boundaries around what is acceptable. But there’s a fine line between feeling like you belong together and owning each other.
Jealousy and possessiveness may look romantic in the movies, but it can become toxic quickly because it sets the stage for a controlling and abusive relationship. It’s important to remember that, above all else, you belong to yourself first.
4. Being Each Other’s Everything
Similar to possessiveness, when you expect a partner to provide everything you need, and vice versa, you can lose sight of your sense of self.
A partner doesn’t have to be your friend, helper, stand-in therapist, lover, and every other role you might imagine. Expecting one person to meet all your needs can create an unhealthy enmeshment.
5. Ending the Relationship at the First Sign of Unhappiness
One common, yet toxic, belief we’re often taught about relationships is that a relationship should make us happy. When it doesn’t, we may wonder if we should break up and find someone else who makes us happier.
If a relationship is constantly making you feel drained, scared, and confused, it’s reasonable—and necessary for your well-being—to end the relationship. But it’s unreasonable to expect a relationship to always be fulfilling and joyful.
Rather than running at the first sign of any trouble, a healthier action is to communicate to the other person how you’re feeling and what’s bothering you. Working on the issue together, and recognizing that some compromise may be necessary at times, can help build trust and security.
Are Dating Trends Becoming More Toxic?
Perhaps the reason why the topic of toxic relationships is trending these days is because there are more opportunities to be toxic in today’s dating culture.
With technology and dating apps, dangerous dating trends seem to be on the rise. More people now date like they’re shopping. There are so many people to choose from, and with that comes a fear of not picking the best option.
It may also be easier in today’s dating culture to send confusing signals or ghost the other person because of the reliance on text and DMs, rather than meeting in-person.
However, arguing that dating and relationships today have become more toxic than in the past is debatable. In fact, using dating apps and having exposure to more people may only illuminate potential toxic partners and relationships more easily.
In other words, dating trends make it easier than ever to see the red flags before it’s too late. Then, you can respond accordingly and set the appropriate personal boundaries to avoid a potentially toxic partnership.
You have just as much power as anyone else to influence the kind of dating experiences and love life you want. And while some might have toxic habits in dating and relationships, there are also many people who use tools such as dating apps to make authentic, healthy connections.
What to Do if You’re in a Toxic Relationship
If your relationship feels unsafe, lacks trust, and has tons of unnecessary drama, here are a few tips to use and keep in mind:
- If you feel threatened or in danger, tell a trusted friend, family member, or therapist first. You don’t need to deal with this alone.
- Focus on growing and healing individually. Become aware of the boundaries you’d like to set, your personal needs, and how to manage difficult emotions. Do activities that help build your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
- Take responsibility for your past mistakes and work on choosing healthier actions in the future.
- Since conflict is a common trigger for toxic behaviors, go through arguments slowly and take a time-out to reflect by yourself when needed.
- Remember that you or your partner can’t fix a toxic relationship alone.
- If attempts at improving the situation fall short, and you’re still stuck in a toxic relationship cycle, seek help from a mental health or relationship professional.
You deserve a safe and healthy love life. Whether you’re starting to date and meet new people, or you’re already in a long-term relationship, be aware of the toxic habits and tendencies to avoid, and above all else, prioritize your safety, mental health, and well-being.
Brie Schmidt is a Tokyo-based relationship educator and coach helping womxn and couples around the world have secure, healthy relationships. She has been featured in The Japan Times, Channel News Asia, and on the Feminist Fridays podcast.
Brie’s background includes training in cognitive behavioral coaching, life coaching, as well as studies focused on sexuality and sociology. She combines this education, along with her own personal experiences and struggles, to create a practical, no shame, no sugarcoat approach to coaching and relationship education.
These days, you can often find her writing about relationship skills, updating her Instagram account with empowering relationship posts, and offering coaching both privately and in self-coaching products and resources.
You can also find her every week hosting Relationship Reminders, a podcast focusing on building healthy relationships, both with others and with ourselves.