It’s normal and healthy for people in relationships to have disagreements, misunderstandings, and other general life challenges.
In healthy relationships, a couple will be equally committed to working through problems by approaching each other with compassion and respect.
In toxic relationships, conflict can feel unsafe and leave one or both members of the couple feeling drained and unhappy.
In this article, we discuss toxic vs healthy relationships and behaviours that are common to each. To help make sense of it, we’re covering the following:
- What is a toxic relationship?
- Red flags of toxic relationships
- What does a healthy relationship look like?
- Green flags of healthy relationships
- A note on ‘love-bombing’
- What is the difference between toxic and healthy relationships?
- Q and A about toxic and healthy relationships
If reading this article brings up heavy emotions for you, call 1800 Respect to speak with a trained counsellor (1800 737 732).
What is a toxic relationship?
‘Toxic’ and ‘red flags’ are terms popularised by social media to refer to a relationship that isn’t healthy for at least one of the people involved. It typically involves destructive behaviour patterns, including excessive jealousy and possessiveness, manipulation, co-dependency, and a lack of empathy (Gilbert, 2020).
Toxic relationships are not a trend; they are dysfunctional relationships.
Red flags of toxic relationships
People in toxic relationships can experience the following:
- Volatility and unpredictability – not knowing how the other partner will react to everyday ‘normal’ situations
- Blame – the partner that is unable to apologise or admit to their own mistakes will blame the other partner
- Stonewalling – also known as the silent treatment, after fights and disagreements
- Dishonesty from the partner, including cheating
- Empty promises – the partner does not follow through on promises and commitments
- Pivoting – minor disagreements or differences turn into big fights about something else
- Co-dependency – an inability to spend time apart
- Walking on eggshells – you might be forced to hide seemingly harmless bits of information to avoid conflict
- Bullying – you may be persuaded into or forced to do or be something you are not comfortable with
- Jealousy and possessiveness – typically arising from insecurity from either partner
- Excessive negativity – the other partner constantly criticises you or other people
What does a healthy relationship look like?
A healthy relationship is built on mutual respect, trust, empathy, and honesty. Each partner can speak openly and honestly about their needs and boundaries and tries to understand the other person’s point of view. Partners acknowledge their mistakes and say sorry when they are wrong.
A healthy relationship increases your self-worth because you are accepted for who you are (Healthdirect, 2020).
Healthy relationship behaviours
People in healthy relationships will encounter signs of good behaviour that indicate the other person will be kind, mature and considerate in their approach to the relationship (Gonsalves, 2022).
Positive ‘green flags’ in relationships include:
- Shared and individual interests – both partners will support the other’s passion, hobbies and friendships whilst also having their own
- An open communication style – both partners will
- listen and understand
- share their feelings, needs and boundaries
- receive feedback without becoming defensive
- Mutual respect and empathy
- Equal engagement in the relationship – both partners will invest similar efforts in knowing what the other partner needs from the relationship and will want to enhance the other person’s happiness
- Feel safe and secure and be able to predict how they will treat each other and approach life
- Shared decision making
A note on love-bombing
Love-bombing is the act of smothering a new partner in excessive praise, gifts, promises, and romantic gestures, including affection, to make them feel special. Love-bombing is especially effective with new partners that have shared vulnerabilities and are beginning to build trust.
Love-bombing usually masks the damaging behaviours of a potentially abusive partner and distracts from the ‘red flags’ you would otherwise see in a toxic relationship. It is frequently the first stage in the abuse cycle and is sometimes referred to as ‘idealisation’.
For example, your partner may have overreacted in an argument and caused property damage to your house. The next day they come home with flowers and gifts. They may loosely apologise and use the gifts as a way to distract you and shift the accountability for their damaging behaviour.
Love-bombing occurs in waves and is used to distract from and ‘cover up’ moments when the relationship is at a low or going through a rough patch. It is frequently used in abusive relationships as a type of unacknowledged apology.
In contrast, healthy relationships display consistent behaviours that become dependable and predictable as the relationship grows (Pulge, 2021)
What is the difference between ‘toxic’ and ‘abusive’?
While the terms ‘toxic’ and ‘abusive’ are used interchangeably to describe unhealthy relationships, there are key differences. Although the behaviours are similar and equally damaging, not all toxic relationships are abusive.
In toxic relationships, the intent behind damaging behaviour is not to harm or control the other person. For example, when one partner has an emotional overreaction to a sensitive topic, it likely has more to do with something from their past rather than purposefully disrespecting or harming the other partner (Godel, 2018).
In abusive relationships, damaging behaviour is used to control the other person to gain something from them, be it pity, money, or compliance. The damaging behaviour is deliberate, often manipulative, and designed to destabilise the other person’s confidence and reality.
Sometimes, there is a fine line between what is considered toxic and abusive. For example, a person punching a wall in anger might not have the intention to scare their partner, but it would still likely be considered abusive behaviour.
If you are unsure whether your relationship is abusive, we recommend talking to a professional. Call 1800 Respect (1800 737 732).
Q and A:
Can a toxic relationship become healthy?
Yes, a toxic relationship can become healthy, but only if both partners are equally committed to changing the relationship dynamic. This involves self-reflection, open communication, honesty, and often professional help. If one partner is not (as) committed, no amount of help can turn the relationship around.
Will a toxic relationship turn into an abusive one?
It might. If one or both partners exhibit toxic behaviours but accept responsibility and are willing to put effort into changing the relationship dynamic, things can certainly improve. But, if a partner refuses to accept responsibility for damaging behaviours and shifts blame onto the other, it could be a sign of emotional abuse and a strong indicator that the relationship needs to end.
I’m concerned that I might be in a toxic relationship. What should I do?
We recommend taking action if you suspect you are in a toxic relationship. If you have voiced your concerns with your partner and they are uncooperative, or you have tried to work through challenges together, and you still feel drained and unhappy, it could be time to leave the relationship. This can be difficult. We recommend setting up a support system for yourself (friends, family) and seeking the help of a counsellor.
If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship, visit Yourtoolkit.com to follow the four steps that can help you access a range of support services and find tips to deal with the financial and legal considerations during separation
Gilbert, B. (2020). Do You Have a Codependent Personality? Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/do-you-have-a-codependent-personality.aspx
(2020). Building and maintaining healthy relationships. healthdirect. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/building-and-maintaining-healthy-relationships
Gonsalves, K. (2022). 16 Green Flags To Look For In A New Relationship, From A Dating Coach. mbgrelationships. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/green-flags-in-relationships.
Pulge, M. (2021). 5 Lesser-Known Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship. Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/lesser-known-warning-signs-of-an-abusive-relationship/
Godel, G. (2018). 5 Lesser-Known Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship. Cerebral Sexuality. https://cerebral-sexuality.com/2018/07/31/toxic-relationships-vs-abusive-relationships/