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Love & Relationships
March 23, 2022

5 Subtle Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Post By:
Shahla Nikpour, LCSW-QS, LCAT
In-House Contributor
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Phoenix Thriving Therapy LLC
Guest Contributor:

I am a big proponent of trusting your gut, your inherent instincts. And for good reason. Your gut is directly connected to your central nervous system, so if something isn’t feeling right, you will usually sense it. Your body will literally detect that you don’t feel safe or that there is a potential for danger. Oftentimes, these detections are referred to as Red Flags- a warning to pause and reevaluate.

Red Flags are behaviors that present potential dangers or unhealthy patterns that affect wellbeing- mental or physical. These are behaviors or patterns that your intuition says are not okay. Take a moment and just think of a time when you felt this. How did you handle it? Did you ignore it? If so, what was the outcome? 

Red Flags can pop up in many aspects of our lives, particularly as we set about to create and foster our interpersonal relationships- with family, friends, colleagues, life partners, etc. Sometimes, the Red Flags are obvious, but more often than not, they are subtle, and over time, these negative behavioral patterns cause damage.  I always say, “You’ll know a red flag when you feel it.”

There are many different forms of negative behavioral patterns, but today I will share with you the 5 more subtle Red Flags to look out for.

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1. Control

Control shows up in many ways, such as financial or economic control, controlling how you spend your time with your friends or family, controlling what you eat or what you wear, or even exerting extreme pressure or influence over major life decisions including lifestyle, career, religion, etc.  If there is no space for you to exert your own thoughts and ideas, if you feel stifled, or if you feel like you are walking on eggshells to avoid some sort of consequence, this is a significant Red Flag.

2. Lack of Mutual Respect

Respect is simply the act of regard for someone’s boundaries, beliefs, ideas, feelings, body, and experiences. Mutual respect is something that should show up in all relationships so that both parties are able to safely share their feelings, opinions, and experiences while the other person listens fully.

Be mindful when you are expressing feelings or implementing a boundary with someone. Is the person able to listen without interrupting? Is the person fully present and free from distraction when you are discussing a serious topic? If you cannot have a dialogue about boundaries, this is a major Red Flag.

Mutual respect is also about respecting your partner’s needs, space or time to process something. One of my favorite questions to ask my clients is: “What is it that you need right now?” While we shouldn’t expect our partner to ALWAYS give us what we need when we need it, a sign of respect is simply the act of checking in with our partners. Does your partner check in regularly? Or does this person constantly focus on their needs and their feelings?

If your partner is not invested in this process, this is a major Red Flag. This can show up in the form of avoiding accountability for their behavior, pressuring you in any way, whether it is for money, sex, your time, or your space. A partner should want to grow and learn from you. If you try discussing your feelings and boundaries and find your partner becomes defensive and closed off, this is a Red Flag.

3. Inconsistency in Affection or Displays of Love

This is another Red Flag that may arise in a relationship at any point. Is your partner at times overly doting and affectionate, but other times cold and rigid with their affections? Do you find that when you address these concerns with your partner, they modify their behavior for short periods of time, but return to the pattern of inconsistent displays of affection? If you are feeling a sense of unpredictability around your partner’s emotions towards you, it is perhaps time to discuss it. Clarity is a key component of any healthy relationship. It is okay to feel confused at times, but if you are finding yourself in this state of confusion consistently, it’s time to have a real talk with your partner.  

4. Accelerating the Relationship Too Quickly

Don’t get me wrong. Meeting someone, dating someone or being in a committed relationship is exciting and we all want to be swept off our feet. When I work with clients who are healing from toxic relationships of any sort one of the most common Red Flags is that their partner accelerated the relationship quickly. So what can this look like?

They constantly call you, text you, spend all of their time with you. They shower you with excess love and affection- this can show up in the form of lavish gifts early on in the relationship. If you or your partner have children from other relationships, they may pressure meeting them, or other significant people, early on in your courtship. They discuss plans for significant milestones like marriage or moving in together early on. They may try to accelerate the relationship through pressuring major life decisions such as a big home purchase, going into business together, having a child together, etc.  I call these tactics “Future Faking.” 

Relationships happen organically. They should ebb and flow. If you feel pressure in any way, or are hesitant about the pace or direction of the relationship, trust your gut! This is the perfect time to slow down and reevaluate. And when you do, be sure to pay attention to how your partner responds to this.

Are they understanding? Do they want to listen to your needs and concerns? Do they meet this boundary with defensiveness and jealousy? Do they respond with ultimatums? Identify how your boundaries are being met by this person- I call this “Information Gathering.”

5. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a major one I find most people share when dealing with Red Flags in ANY relationship. Gaslighting is when a person does not take accountability for their actions or how they affected your feelings. The blame is instead placed back on you.

Comments like “I was only joking,” or, “You’re really sensitive about this,” or “I don’t remember saying that” are examples of strategies for deflection. There is no accountability on their end, and there is no respect for your perception of a situation. 

Gaslighting happens in romantic relationships, personal friendships, family relationships and even in work environments. You are entitled to your feelings and thoughts. When someone is gaslighting you they are trying to change your reality. 

A lot of times my clients will ask me, “Was I wrong to feel that way?” or “Am I really too sensitive?” I always tell them NO! There is no right or wrong when it comes to your feelings- they just are. If something triggered you or made you upset, you have every right to feel that way.  

Pay close attention to those who gaslight you. If they are not willing to take accountability or modify their behavior (for the long term), then this is a major Red Flag. 

These are some of the most prominent Red Flags I encounter with my clients. Remember these can happen in all forms of relationships. You may be single, but this may be happening with a family member, friend, or boss. 

A Red Flag is a signal to stop, take a step back, take inventory of your values and ethics, and question if this relationship is aligning with what you want.

I encourage you to sit and identify what a Red Flag means to you. Create a list of bottom lines or non-negotiables. Your list may not be the same as someone else’s and that’s fine. But, it’s always about checking in with your body and mind to observe if you feel unsettled or in a place of unease with someone. If so, it is up to you to manage how much of this person or these behaviors you will continue to allow. This is when we do the valuable work of setting and maintaining boundaries in order to protect our peace and happiness. And I am always here to support you on that journey.