The word ‘toxic’ has become a bit of a buzzword in the media and online, and it’s often used to refer to relationships. But  how do you know if you’re genuinely in a toxic relationship? And what can you do about it?

Our member Susie Masterson has seen the impact of toxic relationships on individuals and couples. She says they don’t just happen between partners in a romantic couple, but can be among friends, family members or work colleagues too. 

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is one where you're unsupported, undermined, misunderstood or degraded. There may be controlling behaviour, dishonesty, resentment or jealousy.

An example of toxic behaviour is gaslighting, where one partner may repeatedly disagree with the other's views or question their memories and reactions. At its worst, this can become serious emotional abuse.

“The toxic behaviours mean you don’t have equal space in the relationship, there’s an imbalance,” says Susie. “One person’s agenda is being pushed more than the other’s.”

Toxic relationships can be unhealthy and seriously affect your wellbeing - emotionally, psychologically and even physically. They may leave you deeply unhappy and affect your confidence, self-worth and mental health.

What are the signs you’re in a toxic relationship?

If you’re in a toxic relationship, your behaviour may change.

“People might comment that you’re not acting like yourself,” says Susie, “You might be making excuses all the time for someone else’s behaviour.

“Or you might be displaying rescuing behaviour, where you are trying to fix someone else."

What can you do if you're in a toxic relationship?

In some cases it may be best to leave the relationship. But Susie says it’s not always that simple.

“There are many circumstances where you can’t remove yourself from the relationship,” she says. “But there are things you can do to keep yourself safer within it.”

She suggests creating some boundaries to give you more control. This could include deciding how to respond if certain things are said or happen.

A face to face conversation with the other person can help.

Susie says: “Try to open the conversation by being accountable and modelling the behaviour you would like to receive, for instance, saying 'I know I’m doing this'. But don’t take all the responsibility. You shouldn’t end up in a situation where you’re saying ‘It’s all my fault’."

She recommends thinking about your language and focusing on how you feel.

“It should be ‘I feel like this’ rather than ‘you made me feel like this’, she says. "Own how you feel. And try to talk about emotions without being emotional.”

How can counselling help with toxic relationships?

It's important to understand the relationship so you can both make changes. This is where therapy can help.

“As a therapist, I see toxic relationships from an individual and couple perspective,” says Susie. “Sometimes when both parties are in the room it can be easier. It can be the space for them both to understand the relationship.”

As a trauma-informed therapist, Susie looks at how family relationships and attachments have influenced how people think and behave. She says people often act out what has happened to them,  but they may not be aware of it. They can be trapped in the same patterns and choices.

“Understanding the situation can help you see the steps to take to unpick things," she says. 

“A therapist can help you unpack what is happening in the relationship and to you with curiosity and compassion. You can slow things down and make changes.”