6 Early Warning Signs of Toxic Behavior in Relationships

Healthy relationships, whether they're friendships, romantic relationships, family ties, or connections with coworkers, are important for our mental health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, not all relationships are healthy and positive. Some are downright abusive, and others, while falling short of abuse, are toxic.  Here are six early warning signs of toxic behavior to help you spot dangerous actions and attitudes before they escalate or you become trapped in a relationship that may harm your wellbeing and interfere with your quality of life.  

Toxic Relationships Can Be Sneaky  

Whether we're introverts, extroverts, or somewhere in between, relationships with others are a key component of our happiness and wellbeing. Unhealthy relationships can contribute to a shaky self-concept, poor self-esteem, and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, not all relationships are healthy. Sometimes they're downright damaging, but if they're not obviously abusive, it can be hard to tell if a relationship is harmful. 

Even fully abusive relationships often begin as caring and fun. Outside observers of an abusive relationship sometimes wonder why someone would become involved in such a destructive situation. Friendships, too, can be this way, with one friend mistreating the other and outsiders wondering why someone would put up with that treatment.

The truth is that very few (if any) people choose, on purpose, to put themselves in toxic situations with other people. Typically, a relationship begins positively, with both people treating each other with kindness and respect. They usually have fun together and enjoy each other's company, at least at first. It's only later, once the connection is solid, that toxic (and/or abusive) behavior intensifies. At this point, feelings are complicated and conflicting, and it's more difficult to leave the relationship. (That said, it is always--always--possible to leave a bad relationship even though it isn't easy).

It can be very helpful to be able to spot toxic behavior before it escalates and your relationship has deepened. Here are some key things to look for in any relationship to make sure it is and continues to be healthy and nurturing. 

6 Early Warning Signs of Toxic Behavior in any Relationship

A toxic person has a pattern of:

  1. Choosing things for you without consulting you--If your friend or romantic partner almost always orders for you, speaks for you, decides what movie you'll see or activities you'll do together, take note. This is a sign of controlling behavior, and it often intensifies over time, leaving you with less and less freedom. 
  2. Making comments that border on sarcasm but are just innocent enough to slide by--For example, you have great news about an accomplishment that you save until the end of the day to share with your significant other. When you do, they give you a lukewarm response and say something like, "Were you planning on telling me first, or were you waiting for me to hear about it from someone else?"
  3. Complimenting you with hints of insults--Beware of frequent comments such as, "You look great! I didn't realize that you could look this good." The first part is healthy and supportive. The second part insinuates that you usually look less than great. 
  4. Being disinterested in your other friends, family, and life outside of this relationship -- A toxic person might act polite if forced to be around your parents, for example, but not want to hear anything about your family. Or they consistently ignore your other friends and belittle them when they're not around.
  5. Pulling you away from others--They also sometimes make subtle (other times, blatant) belittling remarks about your family and friends to put distance between you and them. 
  6. Being quick-tempered--We all have times when we're short-tempered, irritable, or downright angry, but a toxic and/or abusive person often goes from calm to angry in an instant and is easily upset by little things. You'll often see this when they interact with other people before they become this way with you. 

These behaviors and underlying attitudes are typically accompanied by caring, kind, and even loving behavior. That's why toxic relationships can be confusing and become traps. Also, these signs are often subtle in the early stages of a friendship or romance, but they're usually present even in the beginning. You can spot them when you know what to watch for. They're a pattern, and they become the norm rather than an exception. They're more than just a bad mood or a bad day. 

While of course you don't need to enter every relationship with suspicion and the assumption that the other person is toxic, knowing the signs and being open to the signals your friend or partner is sending can help you from becoming trapped in a toxic relationship. 

What kinds of toxic behaviors have you experienced? Share your thoughts in the comments.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, March 31). 6 Early Warning Signs of Toxic Behavior in Relationships, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 19 from

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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