Relationships can be full of playful dates, positive emotional growth, and a stream of sunsets and heart emojis. But unfortunately for many women, romantic relationships can also be major sources of negativity, stress, and a never-ending stream of drama. Even worse, a lot of the signs of a toxic relationships are tricky to spot, so people in one might not even be aware of it. “It’s easy to identify physical abuse but very difficult for a person in a toxic relationship to ‘hear’ abuse, especially if the victim was raised around negativity or criticism,” says Dr. Gloria Brame, award-winning sex therapist and best-selling author. “For them, toxic relationships are a norm. Learning the verbal/behavioral signs of an abusive/narcissistic personality is a critical learning skill for everyone who dates. It’s an issue I work on in therapy with depressing regularity.”
We asked experts to break down everyday relationship scenarios and tell us how they’re handled in a healthy relationship versus a toxic one. After all, identifying the problem is the first step toward doing something about it.
1. How they act when they meet your family
“A partner in a healthy relationship will see this as the glorious opportunity it is: A chance to get in good with the (possibly) future in-laws. They will prep for it, like they would if they were going in for an interview at their dream job,” says Emily Morse, doctor of human sexuality and host of the Sex With Emily podcast. “They will pepper you with questions beforehand, hoping to gather as much intel as possible: What is your sister’s husband like? What kind of gift should they bring for your parents? Do your folks like chocolate or are they more wine people?”
And when the day actually rolls around? “A healthy partner will be genuine, enthusiastic, and as interested in getting to know your loved ones as they were to get to know you. They will ask engaging questions, offer to help with the dishes, and treat you like the gem you are, reassuring your parents that you are in great hands,” says Morse.
It may surprise you, but one of the best warning signs that you’re with a toxic partner is how they act the second you tell him or her you want everyone to meet—long before the IRL moment occurs. “A toxic partner is not worried about building a foundation with you and your kin. Instead of treating it like an opportunity or a symbol of trust, they will treat it like an unnecessary obligation,” says Morse. “From the moment you utter the words ‘My family would love to meet you,’ a toxic partner acts like you’ve just cordially invited him to a 24-hour shopping fest…on Black Friday…in a blizzard. They will take every chance they get to remind you what they’re giving up (‘I guess I’ll tell the gang that they’ll be one short for poker night, but whatever!’), not to mention how much you owe them for their act of generosity.
“A toxic lover takes zero interest in your family, choosing instead to spend the time on their phone, dozing off or complaining. They’ll answer your family’s questions with the enthusiasm of a fast food drive-thru worker, and ask no questions of their own. When the time comes to talk about you, they’ll do the opposite of building you up. Because nothing says ‘healthy relationship’ like telling your parents the story of when you got too drunk at an office party and he had to carry you up two whole flights of stairs.” In short, they’ll make a time as exciting as meeting the fam (or the peeps you consider your family) as treacherous as possible.
2. How you exchange text messages
Real talk, we all spend more time than is probably necessary texting our boo—and that’s OK! And yes, we also spend a decent amount of time getting into a riff or two via text—and that’s OK too. When things are going well, those SMS messages should reflect it. “They text you on a fairly predictable schedule and check their phones often enough that you can count on a text back even during busy times,” says Brame. Regular sexting can also be part of a healthy relationship. “They’re all hot and intense in text and when you hook up later, they are just as hot and intense about seeing you too!”
P.S. Research has found people who sext are more satisfied with their sext lives. Just saying.
On the flip side, erratic texting patterns and negative, hurtful text content can be signs of a toxic relationship that isn’t on the right track. “In these kinds of relationships, you partner will] text when they feel like it, at random times, and more often than not, when they are bored or horny,” says Brame. “They don’t feel obligated to answer you until they ‘feel’ like it, which can be hours or days.” And regarding sexting? “They’re all hot and intense in text and when you hook up later, they’re more interested in gaming, drinking, or suddenly announce they’re going out with their friends.”
Since a lot of relationships blossom over early-stage texting, pay close attention to how the person’s texts and texting behavior makes you feel. “With a new relationship, you should feel like the person you are seeing is the one to check in, the one to ask about your day, the one to make plans,” advises Shallon Lester, author of dating memoir Exes and Ohs and YouTube sex and dating expert. Otherwise, if you feel like you’re always the one reaching out and showing interest in their lives, you may be unconsciously setting the foundation for an unbalanced relationship. If you feel this has been the norm for a while, you may be with someone who really isn’t ready to be in a caring, stable relationship. “Let them be super interested in you!”
3. How they act regarding your personal development
They support your dreams. And struggles. And #GirlBoss goals. “Healthy relationships promote the growth of yourselves as individuals and as a couple. You support each other’s interests even if you don’t share that interest. You actively explore things together as a couple that you both enjoy and add interest, fun, and vitality to your relationship,” says Megan Fleming, a sex and relationship therapist in New York City.
“Toxic relationships are one’s in which a partner feels threatened or insecure about your hobbies and interests,” says Fleming. Remember that middle school crush who was furious when you beat them running the mile in gym? Like that, but on a much, much larger scale. “They might create drama whenever you choose to do something that doesn’t include them. They may implicitly or explicitly say you can’t see (a particular friend) or do (a particular thing). They make you choose between them and someone or something else. Ultimatums are a sign of a toxic relationship,” says Fleming.
4. How they act when they screw up
“Healthy relationships take responsibility for behavior doing 100 percent of their 50 precent,” says Fleming. “If you are in a healthy relationship, you and your partner take responsibility for your actions. Yes, sometimes we screw up and do things that hurt or disappoint our partner. Healthy relationships are those in which you both can own when you act badly and take effort to repair the connection.”
Meanwhile, a stubborn reluctance to concede you’re at fault? You should take this kind of sign seriously that things might be off. “A sign of an unhealthy relationship is when your partner never admits [they are] wrong, doesn’t take responsibility for their actions or always needs to have the last word,” says Fleming.
5. How they act after a bad day at work
Just like there will be bumps in the road in your relationship, there will be crummy days when each partner has a rough time at work or school. “Everyone reacts differently to a bad day at work, no matter how healthy or toxic they may normally be,” says Morse. “The difference is in how they treat and behave with you. A healthy partner will be able to see that you are not the enemy, and will resist the urge to take their bad feelings out on you.”
If they choose to work out, take a walk, or read a book immediately after a not-so-stellar day, know that it may just be their way of coping, and it doesn’t mean they don’t want to share things with you. “They may not be ready to talk about it (now or ever), but they will certainly communicate that they’ve had a rough day and need a little space,” says Morse. “Whether they choose to share the details with you or not, they will eventually turn to you for comfort and will allow themselves to be comforted.”
“A toxic lover will wield their bad day like a sword, lashing out at you with the slightest provocation. More likely than not, your partner will try to cope with their bad day through avoidant and toxic means: staying out all night, drinking, partying, or going off the grid completely,” says Morse. “If you live together and they do come home, they are not a person you want to be around. They may shut themselves in their room, refuse to talk to you or tell you what happened, and make you the clear enemy. How could they possibly open up to you about what happened? It becomes a matter of pride, and they would rather break up with you than let you see them in a vulnerable moment.”
6. How they act when you have different sexual appetites
Mismatched desire is a common, but oft-undiscussed, issue in relationships. “Healthy relationships accept that you both might inherently have different levels of libido, and you work together so that your needs for both connection and physical intimacy are met,” says Fleming. In short: “Each of you are stretching out of your comfort zone and personal preference to find that balance.” (For some help on finding that equilibrium, check out what you should do if your sex drive is different than your S.O.’s) And if a healthy intimate life means not having sex right now? “A quality dude or gal will love that you want to wait. They’ll respect that you value your personal worth,” adds Lester.
“Toxic relationships are ones in which one party demands sex when their partner isn’t interested, and equally toxic is to withhold sex or to be in a sexless relationship—unless that’s an arrangement that’s what you both consensually want,” says Fleming. Different libidos in relationships are normal; different levels of respect are not.
7. How they act after a fight
All couples argue. In fact, it can even help improve your relationship and help you establish better communication skills. “A healthy relationship partner will approach the fight as exactly that: a partner. This person will make every effort to see both sides of the conflict, making an effort to listen to your perspective and share their own experience without hostility. Afterward, they will apologize for their own part in it and offer solutions for how the problem could be avoided in the future,” says Morse. Everyone gets angry sometimes, but when you’re in a healthy relationship, your better half will work hard to improve whatever issue is at hand, and reinforce the fact that they they believe in you as a couple and want to work things out.
“Toxic relationship partners are not known for their conflict-resolution skills, as they are generally unable to see their own part in a fight. And since this person has never been at fault for anything in their entire life, they will most likely go back and forth between total denial and apathy, with random bursts of rage,” says Morse. Needless to say, it’s a recipe for making you feel pretty damn crummy about things— especially if your partner uses a fight as an opportunity to refuse to talk to you or as a chance to withhold sex, attention, or affection from you, keeping the control completely in their hands