Toxic relationships don’t happen overnight. Bad habits take hold over time, sometimes without the couple even realizing they’re doing harm to their relationship.
What toxic behaviors are the most damaging? Below, relationship experts from around the country share 10 habits the most unhappy couples have in common.
1. They’re hypercritical of each other.
“In a toxic relationship, there’s a chronic tone of criticism and tension. Partners feel as though they can never please the other. They describe ‘walking on eggshells’ to stave off the criticism. This is a learned behavior from a person’s family of origin. If someone was raised by critical parents and observed them being critical of each other, it’s as natural as breathing to criticize. It is a setup to create the same kind of toxicity in the next generation.” ― Bonnie Ray Kennan, a psychotherapist based in Torrance, California.
2. They don’t have separate identities.
“Not having your own hobbies, interests and opinions is a hallmark of a relationship that is overly merged and too close. These couples tend to have uncertainty around the relationship, and any separation (even the healthy ones) can feel like a threat. To alleviate that anxiety, they become fused. This can mean differences of opinion become major relationship catastrophes. A desire to spend time with co-workers after work can become an argument. These can also be signs of an abusive or controlling relationship.” ― Amy Kipp, a couples and family therapist in San Antonio.
3. They have very few friends outside the relationship.
“Individuals in toxic relationships often have to hide aspects of their relationships from people that care about them. This automatically can make it challenging to spend as much time with friends as they did prior to the relationship. Controlling, jealous people are usually critical of their partner’s friends and of their partner spending time with others.” ― Marie Land, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.
4. They put up walls.
“Avoiding communication and connection with your partner can be a particularly dangerous habit that can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Communication is a two-way street, and it isn’t hard to fall into a rhythm of disconnection that feeds off of each partner’s avoidant and distant behavior. It’s hard to be vulnerable when your partner is closed off, just as it is hard to be compassionate when your partner doesn’t communicate what’s going on.” ― Alicia H. Clark, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.
5. They have a me-vs.-you mentality.
“When the conflict becomes about who is right rather than solving the issue (or even just hearing each other), it is very difficult to resolve. Each conflict stacks on top of the last one, making it more and more likely that a couple will break into a fight again. When you feel like you’re not on the same team, it affects every area of a relationship negatively.” ― Kipp
6. They both have anxiety about where they stand in the relationship.
“People who have high degrees of attachment anxiety can be susceptible to toxic relationships. Anxiously attached people may be preoccupied with whether their partner loves them or will leave them. This is a perfect breeding ground for arguments to arise over trust and jealousy. People who are anxious in relationships often stay in those unhealthy relationships and exacerbate their problems by being clingy and demanding.” ― Land
7. They don’t have each other’s backs.
“One reason people pair off is to make life a little easier. It’s great to have someone there for you when times are tough. Relationships are unwittingly tested in difficult times. Offering support at the right moment deepens a couple’s bond. In toxic relationships, however, partners don’t have each other’s backs; they don’t step up to help at the right moment. This creates a marital culture of disappointment, loneliness and eventually bitterness. Partners brace themselves against the pain of being let down again and again. Eventually, they withdraw and stop hoping.” ― Kennan
8. One or both partners has low self-esteem.
“Plenty of confident, well-adjusted individuals find themselves in toxic relationships. But when a person is treated poorly, their self-esteem takes a hit and they can find themselves in a relationship where they’re willing to put up with more than they should. Having low self-esteem to start with makes one even more vulnerable; you may not recognize initially that you deserve more than a partner who is mean or overly critical.” ― Land
9. They try to control each other’s actions.
“Relationships in which partners attempt to control the other are joyless and toxic. One of the rewards of adulthood is freedom to choose how one behaves. In a marriage, spouses need to be able to trust the good common sense of each other. When they don’t have that confidence (and sometimes even when they do), spouses make great efforts to control the other’s behavior. Instead of controlling each other, partners should learn how to influence each other and negotiate for what they want.” ― Kennan
10. They play the blame game.
“Conflicts that are always your partner’s fault make fertile ground for feeling frustrated and stuck. When responsibility for difficulty isn’t shared and your partner is always at fault, there’s going to be resentment. Waiting for your partner to change, and criticizing him for not doing it fast enough, is a toxic place to be. If you find that your partner is the problem more often than not, your relationship may be heading for trouble.” ― Clarke