They say hindsight is 20/20, and TBH, nothing could be truer in regards to relationships. Once the wounds from a breakup have begun to heal, it’s a lot easier to take an honest look at your relationship. You might realize what you could have done differently, or why you weren’t actually compatible. But what if you start to suspect that your relationship was bad for your well-being? You might know that you were in a toxic relationship if it was constantly on-and-off again, or was particularly tumultuous. But as it turns out, you can also figure out whether you were in a toxic situation simply by recalling how your ex talked to you.
First, let’s define what a toxic relationship is. According to Psychology Today, on a basic level, it’s any relationship that’s having a negative impact on you, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. A relationship that is lacking in the basic principles (trust, support, etc.) may be toxic. Given that broad definition, it’s safe to say that many of us end up in toxic relationships without even realizing it. That means it can be very challenging to recognize that you and your ex had a toxic bond.
“It can be difficult because you may start to feel responsible and part of the problem,” says licensed clinical social worker Melanie Shapiro. “Plus, a toxic relationship can create anxiety and depression, and symptoms of these mental health issues (such as low mood, low motivation, negative thoughts) make it difficult to recognize toxic relationship patterns.”
One way to tell is to think about things that your ex said to you. If any of the following phrases sound familiar, there’s a good chance your relationship was toxic.
"It’s your fault. You ALWAYS…"
Relationships are obviously a two-way street. That means that at some point or another, both partners are bound to be wrong. So, if you felt like you were always the bad guy, that’s another red flag. According to Shapiro, if your ex was always blaming you for the problems in the relationship, or forcing you to make changes rather than meeting you halfway, that suggests that you were likely in a toxic relationship.
"When it becomes one-sided and your partner refuses to make adjustments to understand your feelings or meet your needs, that can be toxic," she explains. "They aren’t willing to take responsibility for their actions."
It’s worth noting that some people may have an easier time admitting when they’ve been wrong, while others may have a greater tendency to get defensive. That said, if you can’t ever remember your partner admitting to any wrongdoing or apologizing, then that suggests your relationship was toxic. There needs to be a sense of accountability on the part of both partners for a relationship to be truly healthy.
"You’re crazy — that never happened."
Did you often feel like your memories were in conflict with your ex’s? Did they have a habit of saying "I never said/did that?" This is a super common tactic involved in gaslighting, a form of manipulation that is used to undermine your reality by making you doubt your own feelings and thoughts.
Shapiro notes that if your ex often denied saying or doing things that you clearly remembered, that’s a definite red flag that they were gaslighting you. If your ex was gaslighting you, you may recall doubting your own judgment or emotional responses, as well as your memory. And if you were in that relationship for a long time, you may have even gotten to a point where you didn’t trust yourself to remember things correctly. Gaslighting automatically makes a relationship toxic, because one partner is seeking to gain control over the other.
"Don’t listen to your sister."
It’s not unusual for someone you’re dating to dislike one of your friends or family members. Hopefully, however, they have a legitimate reason — like they feel that person is mistreating you or somehow negatively impacting your health or well-being. But if your ex was often trying to alienate you from supportive loved ones, that’s a different story. According to Shapiro, this is not only another common sign of gaslighting, but it’s also just a generally toxic behavior.
“Proving other people are untrustworthy allows your partner to narrow the reality,” she explains.
So, did your ex constantly tell you that your sister’s advice was BS, or try to keep you from hanging out with your girlfriends? Putting down the people you love or outright attempting to isolate you from them is a major red flag that they were grasping for more control over you.
"That was stupid."
According to Shapiro, undermining is a common sign of a toxic relationship, and it can happen in many ways. Your ex may have subtly put down your appearance, or constantly criticized your choice of career. It’s one thing to offer constructive criticism — if you’re upset about a conversation you had with a coworker, a supportive partner may point out what you might do differently next time. However, it’s another thing to continually erode your self-worth by making you feel inferior or wrong all of the time.
Shapiro notes that in a toxic relationship, a person might not only make them feel bad about themselves but also like they actually deserve negative things that happen to them. She also notes that if your ex exploited your insecurities, that’s not only toxic but emotionally abusive. For example, if your SO knew that you were self-conscious about your job and they occasionally made degrading remarks about your occupation, that’s definitely undermining behavior, and it’s definitely not OK.
So, you’ve realized you were in a toxic relationship with your ex. Now what?
Shapiro recommends trying to learn from this experience. Are there any behaviors or traits you can be more alert to in the future? Most importantly, what are you looking for now that you’ve been through that experience?
“A relationship shouldn’t make you feel badly about yourself,” she explains. “Look for a partner who supports you and makes you feel valued.”
If you feel like your toxic relationship is causing you lingering distress, such as anxiety, depression, or self-esteem issues, you may want to seek counseling from a licensed professional, who can help you to heal from your experiences and rebuild your sense of self.
Coming to terms with the fact that you were in a toxic relationship is likely to trigger a confusing wave of emotions. You may feel frustrated that you stayed with your ex for so long, or wish you had noticed the signs sooner. But whatever you do, don’t give yourself a hard time for being in a toxic relationship. It can happen to anyone, and it’s not your fault — the important thing to focus on is that you managed to break free for the sake of your health and well-being. While you can’t change the past, you do have the power to shape your future. Now that you know what a toxic relationship looks like, you can actively seek out healthier bonds — the kind you deserve.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
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