What Are The Signs Of An Unhealthy Relationship

Unhealthy relationships are often marked by repeated behaviors, habits, and communication that make the relationship feel negative and almost unbearable for one or both parties involved.

Unhealthy relationships can have a significant detrimental impact on a person’s mental health and well-being. 

While in some types of relationships, the presence of toxic or abusive behaviors is evident, unhealthy patterns can be subtle and more difficult to recognize. 

They can sometimes emerge as a result of temporary life stressors or change in circumstances or indicate more persistent patterns that become more noticeable as the relationship evolves over time. 

man and woman facing away from each other in frustration

By being in touch with our own and our partner’s needs, it is possible to recognize these patterns better and find ways to address them (Walters, 2015).

What is the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship? 

Healthy relationships are often built on a sense of support, reciprocal respect, and equality (Feeney and Collins, 2015). 

Both partners are able to openly communicate their needs, and they create opportunities to increase understanding of each other’s feelings to reinforce intimacy. Avoiding discussions of problems can generate misunderstandings and conflicts and be a sign of an unhealthy relationship. 

To prevent resentment in the relationship, healthy partners are open to compromise and listen to each other’s perspectives to find mutually beneficial solutions. They show genuine interest in readapting behaviors and priorities to better support the relationship. 

By contrast, the inflexibility to introduce changes when needed can become an obstacle for the relationship in the longer term. 

Healthy partners can set boundaries and respect each other’s personal space, recognizing the importance of having activities outside of the relationship. They encourage each other to pursue personal goals, providing emotional support and advice

In a healthy relationship, there is also a balance in levels of commitment, with both parties trying to make the relationship work and grow.

Signs of an unhealthy relationship 

Lack of support

In an unsupportive relationship, we might feel that our emotional needs are constantly missed or not attended to, increasing our sense of loneliness and leading to an accumulation of tension in the relationship (Feeney and Collins, 2015). 

When a partner is unsupportive, they might minimize our feelings, saying, for example, “you are overreacting to this” or “this is not a big deal,” instead of validating our emotions. 

The tendency to dismiss serious conversations might also indicate that our partner is unavailable to listen and feels uncomfortable dealing with problems that are left unresolved.

Not asking questions to check on our mood, especially if we are going through a tough time, might suggest an unwillingness to help or find ways to make us feel a bit better. 

Finally, in an unsupportive relationship, our partner might show a lack of engagement in our goals, values, and ambitions for the future, and they do not celebrate our little achievements.

Negative communication

Effective communication helps create a deeper connection with the partner and is one of the key elements for maintaining a healthy relationship (Preston Ni, 2014).

If our partner is using frustrated language when talking to us, for example, by using statements such as “You always do this” or “You never take my side,” it can make us feel inadequate, as it highlights what is wrong instead of how things can be done better. 

Blaming each other for mistakes or adopting overly-critical language can also diminish the perception of self-worth and cause both parties to become more defensive and less prone to negotiation. 

Another sign of negative communication is making assumptions, and expecting the other person to read our mind, rather than clearly stating our needs. Abruptly stopping communication or refusing to explain what offended us can also create more distance in the relationship.


Over-dependence can arise when we are involved in a relationship characterized by low confidence and self-esteem (Bacon et al., 2020). 

We might constantly look for approval from our partners, considering their judgment more relevant than ours, and we struggle to make decisions independently. 

We might also have difficulty establishing healthy boundaries or making compromises that do not take our needs into account, as we fear rejection from the other person. 

Emotional dependency may also involve the belief that we will not find a sense of fulfillment on our own, and the prospect of being left causes us significant anxiety. This increases the risk of developing a relationship that is excessively disempowering and manipulative. 


In a controlling relationship, one partner dominates the other in a way that makes them feel intimidated, insecure or guilty (Preston Ni, 2014). Sometimes, the person might adopt behaviors that seem very caring and affectionate. However, the aim of these actions is to prevent us from doing things that are outside our control. 

Some signs might include a partner getting upset when we make plans that do not include them and the need to constantly check where we are and with who with text messages and phone calls. 

Control may also manifest in the forms of jealousy and possessiveness, to the point where our partner might accuse us of infidelity. As a consequence, they might make us feel guilty when we spend time with other people or try to isolate us from our friends and family. 

Gaslighting behaviors

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that causes us to question our own beliefs and sense of reality (Preston Ni, 2017). 

It creates an imbalance in power dynamics, and it can result in significant forms of control and psychological abuse. The aim of gaslighters is to make us lose confidence in our ability to interpret facts while trying to reduce their sense of accountability for their own actions. 

Phrases like “You are worrying too much” or “It didn’t happen this way” might indicate an attempt to minimize our feelings and instill self-doubt, making us worry about the appropriateness of our reactions. 

Another example of a phrase that gaslighters can use is “If you really care about me, you would do this,” inducing the other person to break down their boundaries to better manipulate them. 

Physical or emotional abuse

Abuse is a pattern where one partner has almost complete control over the other (Goldner, 2004). It can manifest with physical abuse, where force and violence are used to obtain what the partner wants, or emotional abuse, with behaviors that are less tangible and, therefore, difficult to identify. 

Forms of physical abuse include hitting, slapping, punching, shoving, or forced sex. Even if experienced as a one-time incident, it can be a warning sign of future abuse. 

Emotional abuse involves attempts to undermine the other person’s self-esteem, for example, through criticizing, humiliating and belittling. It might also show unrealistic expectations placed on the partner, and significant dissatisfaction when these are not met.

First warning signs of an unhealthy relationship 

In an unhealthy relationship, we might feel uncomfortable sharing our true thoughts and emotions, either because we fear the other person’s reaction or because we failed to develop a sense of psychological security that allows us to confide in them (Anderson and Saunders, 2003). 

We also might feel like we need to walk on eggshells around our partner due to frequent ups and downs, mood swings, or unpredictable behaviors. 

Consequently, we might not voice our personal needs, trying instead to overcompensate for the lack of effort by giving up our wants and desires. This can, in turn, result in an imbalanced, one-sided relationship that leaves us unsatisfied and emotionally drained. 

Another warning sign of an unhealthy relationship is the tendency to justify or rationalize the other person’s behaviors despite the growing discomfort, hoping they will act differently in the future (Walters, 2015). 

We also might struggle to identify ways our partner has positively influenced us or collaborative behaviors that make the couple work as a team. If we generally feel less confident about our personal qualities, this might indicate our partner is not showing enough appreciation for the person we are and our experiences of success.

The impact of unhealthy relationships 

Unhealthy relationships can be very damaging to our sense of self-worth and leave us with feelings of anxiety, fear, and depression (Walters, 2015). 

Suddenly, we tend to perceive our identity through the eyes of our partner, and our ego might have become more fragile as a result of insidious, longstanding negative patterns.

We may also be more suspicious towards others, subconsciously fearing to receive the same treatment, and miss new opportunities to be accepted and loved. 

We tend to have second thoughts on everything, constantly doubting our thoughts and actions. We feel less confident overall, and our self-perception of being worthy of love is a challenge to re-introduce. 

As a result, we might have the tendency to isolate ourselves from others, and we feel less interested in cultivating our life outside the relationship. 

An unhealthy relationship can also negatively impact our ability to focus on other tasks, such as work or academic commitments, as our mind is occupied by concerns related to the relationship.

Ultimately, experiences of uncertainty and exhaustion can lead to a depressed state, where we feel sad and detached most of the time, and we consider happiness to be a thing of the past (Simpson and Rholes, 2017). 

We might experience fear in expressing our own opinions and thoughts, and stressful events more easily trigger us, constantly feeling on edge and unsupported. 

Our physical health might also be impacted. For example, some people might experience a lack of sleep due to constant worry and increased levels of fatigue during the day. This can have a detrimental effect on our general immune system functionality, making us more prone to illnesses. 

Prolonged stress can also produce an increment in cortisol levels, posing a greater risk for our cardiovascular health (Ditzen et al., 2007). 

Some people might also develop dysfunctional coping mechanisms, including alcohol or substance abuse, to distract themselves from problems in the relationship.

How to fix an unhealthy relationship 

Identify the problems

The first step towards building a healthier relationship is recognizing the problematic patterns that led to the point of disconnection from the partner. Specifically, we might want to focus on the ABCD – accusations, blame, criticism, and demands. 

At this stage, it is essential to be honest with each other when expressing problems and be open to having uncomfortable conversations, seeing them as an opportunity for growth in the relationship (Overall and McNulty, 2017). 

To be able to break the cycle of unhealthy behaviors, it is also important that both parties are committed to introducing changes and maintaining them in the long term, avoiding falling back into old habits.

Take responsibility

Sometimes, problematic patterns do not involve one partner in isolation but emerge from a combination of both parties responding in a dysfunctional manner to each other. 

For this reason, reflecting on our role in escalating the problem is essential, as well as acknowledging it in front of our partner. 

We should also resist the impulse to blame our partner for triggering the problem, as this will elicit defensiveness from their side. One way to approach it is by saying, “I feel hurt when you do…” rather than using the accusatory “You always do this.”

Practice healthy communication

When communicating, it is important to carefully listen to each other, paying close attention to the emotional needs our partner is conveying through their message (Overall and McNulty, 2017). 

It is particularly important to avoid sarcasm, minimizing issues, and interrupting, as this will demonstrate disinterest in what the other person has to say. Over-talking can also be a problem and discourage our partners from sharing their feelings. 

To maintain healthy communication in the longer term, we can regularly create opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations with our partners and show emotional support.

Show compassion towards each other

When we feel inclined to blame our partners for a problem, identifying potential motivations for their behavior can help us gain perspective and view them with more compassion (Bolt et al., 2019). 

For example, they might have had a difficult day at work, or they might be dealing with a different number of challenges resulting in reduced levels of stress tolerance.

Even though these contexts do not justify problematic behaviors, they can help get an understanding of where they are coming from. 

Let the past rest

When we are losing an argument, we might be tempted to refer back to negative scenarios to prove our point. However, this can cause increased frustration in the relationship and leave problems unresolved. 

To make communication more efficient, it is important to focus on the present and discuss what our needs are going forward (Feeney and Collins, 2015). If we cannot leave the past behind us, we can seek guidance and advice from a trained professional. 

Seek additional support

If dysfunctional tendencies have been building up for a long time and we feel unable to fix them, couple’s therapy can be considered as an option. 

Sometimes, having an external perspective from a professional can help us gain awareness of the problematic patterns we feel trapped in and the situations that are perpetuating them. 

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but indicates a willingness to invest our efforts in the relationship. In addition, a therapist can help identify underlying mental health problems that might be contributing to unhealthy behaviors and set a plan to treat them.

When to leave an unhealthy relationship 

two people facing away from each other, arms folded, broken up

If we tried our best to change the relationship, but our partner does not seem as committed as us, it might be time to walk away from them.

Ending the relationship should not be considered an egoistic act but the first step towards prioritizing our well-being (Anderson and Saunders, 2003). It will also allow us to invest more energy in nurturing healthier bonds with other people. 

Before making the definitive decision, we might experience some common fears, such as “I won’t find someone that will love me as much as him/her” or “We have been together for a long time to end it now.” We also might worry about the emotional effort it will take to start again and be on our own. 

However, staying in an unhealthy relationship will also be emotionally demanding, and leaving it at a later stage might take more effort. 

To decide whether it is time to leave the relationship, we can consider some signs which may indicate it is time to leave:

  1. We do not feel ourselves with our partner, having to constantly change our behaviors or pretending not to feel in a certain way to please them
  2. We do not consider our partner to be part of our support system, and we feel uncomfortable sharing thoughts or happenings in our life with them 
  3. Our partner is only present during the “high points” of our life, while they have difficulty showing support in times of adversity
  4. We struggle to keep up with their expectations, being frequently told how we should do things differently, and moments of appreciation are very rare
  5. We don’t trust the relationship to work in the long term, and the same unhealthy patterns tend to be repeated over time
  6. We perceive the relationship as bringing out our worst and as an obstacle to our personal growth

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes a relationship to be unhealthy?

Unhealthy patterns can emerge in response to fears that we developed from previous life experiences and are now difficult to discard (Simpson and Rholes, 2017). 

These might include fear of abandonment, the belief of being unworthy of love, and the tendency to feel embarrassed when sharing our vulnerabilities with others or asking for help. 

Being exposed to unhealthy relationships as we grow up might also cause us to unconsciously internalize them as a model, tending to replicate the same pattern in future relationships.

Can unhealthy relationships become healthy?

Fixing an unhealthy relationship is not easy, but it can become possible if both partners are willing to make a real effort to change it. 

In order for the changes to be effective, it is necessary to show consistent commitment in the longer term and be aware of how to avoid old patterns to re-occur.

If the relationship has reached a level of significant toxicity, however, it might be more difficult to re-establish a connection with the partner, and holding onto it can cause additional harm.

Is an unhealthy relationship the same as an abusive relationship?

An unhealthy relationship does not always equal an abusive relationship. In an abusive relationship, a partner is more actively showing disrespect and emotional neglect towards the other, and they may treat their thoughts and feelings with contempt (Goldner, 2004). 

When disagreements occur in abusive relationships, responses can be more violent and include exaggerated emotional reactions such as anger or indignation. Controlling behaviors can also be more amplified and result in excessive isolation of the partner from other people and reduced power in making decisions.

Are unhealthy relationships always toxic?

Even though “unhealthy” and “toxic” are often used interchangeably, they mean different things. A relationship is considered to be toxic when it causes emotional and sometimes physical harm to one person (Lee, 2018). 

By contrast, unhealthy relationships do not necessarily result in toxic consequences for the couple, and there is more room for improvement of dysfunctional dynamics. In a toxic relationship, unhealthy habits are amplified and impact our psychological well-being to the extent that there is almost no point of return. 

What can I do if I am the one that is making the relationship toxic?

If we struggle to identify or define dysfunctional dynamics in the relationship, it is possible that we are the person originating them. 

The first step to acknowledging toxic behaviors is taking some time to reflect on them and recognize our responsibility. Seeking support from a therapist can aid this process, ensuring that we are putting in place the right strategies in the desired direction. 

Practicing techniques that help release stress, such as exercise, meditation, or breathing exercises, can also help develop a deeper connection with our emotions so they ultimately do not override us. Most importantly, we should avoid blaming ourselves and believe that there can be an opportunity for us to change.


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Bolt, O. C., Jones, F. W., Rudaz, M., Ledermann, T., & Irons, C. (2019). Self-compassion and compassion towards one’s partner mediate the negative association between insecure attachment and relationship quality. Journal of Relationships Research10, e20.

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Simpson, J. A., & Rholes, W. S. (2017). Adult attachment, stress, and romantic relationships. Current opinion in psychology13, 19-24.

Walters, D. (2015). Identify an Unhealthy Relationship and Take Action to Repair It or Free Yourself – (How to Get Out of a Toxic Relationship). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Sara Viezzer

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc in Applied Neuropsychology

Sara Viezzer is a graduate of psychological studies at the University of Bristol and Padova. She has worked as an Assistant Psychologist in the NHS for the past two years in neuroscience and health psychology.