There are a few glaring hints that a relationship isn’t good for you, like if someone is out-and-out abusive. But when it comes to figuring out whether a relationship is toxic, things get a little murkier. Here are seven key things to look out for that will help you figure out whether you’re in a healthy relationship—and what to do if you think you aren’t.
1. How you handle screw-ups.
In a healthy relationship: You can apologize when you shelve date night for work, and they can do the same when they forget to take the trash out yet again.
In a toxic relationship: One of you would rather move to Siberia than actually say, “I’m sorry.”
Everyone makes mistakes in their relationships, but the most important thing is being able to own up after the fact. “Some people have difficulty with apologies because it can create a sense of vulnerability,” says Anne Brennan Malec, Psy.D., a Chicago-based licensed clinical psychologist, marriage and family therapist, and author ofMarriage in Modern Life: Why it Works, When it Works. It can also make them feel like they’re flawed in some deep, dark way, so they’d rather avoid it altogether by pretending they didn’t do anything wrong. In a healthy relationship, you’re able to open up, admit you made a mistake, and trust in the fact that your partner will still love you.
2. What you emphasize about your partner.
In a healthy relationship: You mostly tell each other the things that delight you about the relationship, with a few complaints or requests to change something peppered in (because that’s totally normal).
In a toxic relationship: You’re more about voicing your frustrations with each other and your general status quo than talking about what either of you does right.
What you each focus on is a big part of forming a blissed-out connection. “In a happy relationship, both partners acknowledge and convey what the other person does to please them,” says New York City marriage and sex therapist Jane Greer, Ph.D., and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “In toxic ones, they only talk about what disappoints them, and they often communicate these issues in a critical, blaming way.”
3. How often you employ the silent treatment.
In a healthy relationship: Even when one of you is upset with the other, you still think about their feelings and don’t want to cause any unnecessary pain via ignoring them.
In a toxic relationship: One person completely ices the other out after a fight.
Beyond being a tactic best left to high schoolers, the silent treatment is a symptom of emotional manipulation. “The person who’s left behind doesn’t know what’s going on, or whether their partner is even still interested in being with them,” says Malec. Going off the grid, whether verbally or by straight up disappearing for a day after a fight, is a way to create emotional instability in the relationship. People in healthy relationships avoid inflicting this kind of pain, even to make a point.
4. Whether you’re both truly dependable.
In a healthy relationship: When your partner says they’ll do something, you know they’ll follow through.
In a toxic relationship: You’re never exactly sure whether they’ll stick to their promises or if it’s all lip service.
This one is all about feeling emotionally safe. “In healthy relationships, you have a foundation of trust, stability, and security,” says Greer. In toxic ones, you usually have to deal with a base level of anxiety because you never know if your partner will show up, either emotionally or physically. It’s even worse when they actively do things that you’re hoping they’ll change, like spilling too many details about your finances to your family. If they’re always promising to make a 180 but never actually doing it, you’ll wind up feeling like you can’t trust them.
5. How many little fights turn into huge blowouts.
In a healthy relationship: You can agree to disagree about the fact that Breaking Bad is the best show ever.
In a toxic relationship: A minor difference of opinion often turns into a sprawling argument.
“It can be hard for people to recognize that having different opinions doesn’t mean anyone’s right or wrong,” says Malec. This tendency for small issues to spiral out of control is also rooted in the fact that emotional bitterness is a hallmark of toxic relationships. “I frequently see deep levels of resentment and criticism in toxic relationships,” says Malec. When combined, they can push people to blow tiny disagreements way out of proportion.
6. Whether you can each handle being on your own.
In a healthy relationship: You regularly have movie dates with friends, and your partner has their own solo activities going on.
In a toxic relationship: You two are the human embodiment of Velcro and can’t stand being apart.
Codependency can seem flattering, like a sign that things are going so swimmingly you hate to be away from each other. In reality, always being together is probably based in some form of insecurity. “Codependency can happen because one person is afraid to be on their own, or as a form of control because one person always expects the other to be with them,” says Greer. People in healthy relationships know that cultivating your own hobbies, friendships, and interests will actually make your bond better.
7. How comfortable you feel being open.
In a healthy relationship: Both of you feel like you can discuss pretty much anything, even if it’s the fact that you ran into your ex or got hit on while out with friends.
In a toxic relationship: You find yourself hiding seemingly innocuous things from them, like that you were talking to a friend they’re not a huge fan of.
When your partner overreacts to things that should be NBD, you can instinctively start to walk on eggshells around them in ways that, on their faces, just seem like you’re being considerate. “It can be a subtle sign that you’re afraid of upsetting your partner,” says Malec.
So, what to do if you’ve looked over the list and have a hunch your relationship isn’t the healthiest? Luckily, identifying with some of these points doesn’t mean you automatically need to break up. “You can go to individual counseling and talk these things through with a therapist,” says Malec. Whichever professional you see should be able to help you come up with specific ways to bring these issues to your partner’s attention. “When you talk to them about this, you should mention things you’d like to change in addition to what you want them to,” says Malec. Not only will this help reduce the sense that you’re attacking them, it’s just the smart thing to do since “for the vast majority of relationships, you both play a role in the dynamic,” says Malec.
If they’re unwilling to work on reasonable requests or are completely dismissive of your feelings, then you can ask them to see a couple’s therapist with you—or consider whether this is really a relationship you want to be in at all.