woman standing under a pier thinking about toxic relationship definitions

Though toxic relationships can be hard to recognize for those involved, there are certain signs you can look out for. Talkspace, a leading platform in online therapy, explains, “One of the first warning signs of a potentially toxic relationship is that the other person is consistently violating your boundaries.”

While this is a great place to start, it’s dependant on us first understanding our  own boundaries, which vary from person to person. Let’s take a closer look using the following example. 

Eg. Chris was verbally abusive to Kate, and understanding that the relationship was highly toxic, Kate left. She now dates Todd. Todd, while kind to Kate, does not support her dreams of becoming a singer. He feels it’s unrealistic and though he won’t admit it, is threatened by men she might meet in the entertainment business. For this reason, Todd showers Kate with affection and encourages her to get a more stable job. While Kate would love for her dreams to be supported, she’s just happy to be in a non-abusive relationship

Is this a toxic relationship? 

Toxic relationship: definitions different, broken boundaries alike

I would say yes. Kate’s toxic relationship definition, however, is probably different from my toxic relationship definition. Kate has been through a traumatic experience, and because of that experience, she is now prone to settling for less than she deserves as long as it’s more than what she had. Though her relationship with Todd isn’t healthy in the grand scheme of relationships, she doesn’t know any better and her ability to set boundaries suffers accordingly.

When it comes to toxic relationships, we need to break through our own lenses and have an objective view based on basic violations. It’s important to understand that there are different degrees and types of toxicity.

Verbal abuse is a degree of toxicity. Being unsupportive of a partner’s dreams is a degree of toxicity. Using affection as a form of manipulation, a phenomenon known as love bombing, is a degree of toxicity. 

Simply put, if a partner’s needs and values are not being communicated and respected, there is a degree of toxicity. Therefore, you should identify your own needs and values early on, communicate them, and see where it leads.

The first step is to hone in your own needs and create boundaries from them. Decide which of these needs are non-negotiable and which needs you’re willing to flex on. The more you decide are non-negotiable, the harder this will be. But this is a rewarding step in learning self-respect and building a fulfilling life and relationship. Congratulations! You’ve just created boundaries, and now it’s time to communicate them.

Once you’ve calmly laid these needs out to your partner, encourage them to share their needs with you. After you’ve listened to them explain their needs (don’t forget to listen!), see how well those needs align with yours and if you’re willing to meet them. In a committed relationship, this is an opportunity to build a healthy relationship right from the beginning. 

Also, consider if you’ve behaved in a way that’s disrespectful of their needs without realizing it. If so, perhaps you were the one intoxicating the relationship all along, and now you have a chance to remedy that. It’s always important to take responsibility when applicable.

It’s in this type of exchange that you have the opportunity to identify if the relationship is toxic, and if it is, gracefully begin the process of walking away. The relationship is toxic if either partner can not or will not put in the effort to meet the non-negotiable needs of the other.

The relationship can also be classified as toxic if either partner is not even willing to have this conversation to begin with and their reaction is laced with shame and unresponsiveness.

If you realize the relationship is toxic, you can walk away knowing that you genuinely gave both of you a chance to be heard and assess your needs openly. I promise this will save you time, emotional energy and regret in the long run. It will ideally save your soon-to-be-ex some regret as well. Reminding them that the relationship is ending because of a mutual respectful for each other’s needs instills a sense of positivity in the ending, the possibility of a better future for both of you. 

You are free to go about living a life that meets as many of your needs as possible – you do not need a partner to do this! Explore your passions and interests, surround yourself with a good community, take note of the lessons you’ve learned from this relationship, and build your own confidence trying new things. 

Now that you’re armed with well-defined needs and boundaries, you can prioritize finding outlets that fulfill them. This new self-awareness and self-respect will be carried into your next romance, your toxic relationship definition will have become clearer, and you’ll be in a better place to be and have the right partner. Watch out world, you’re on your way!

Greg Audino

Greg is a certified life coach, advice columnist and hosts both the Optimal Living Advice podcast and the Optimal Relationships Daily podcast, which combine for over 35,000 downloads each week. On his website, he has also created upwards of 70 videos and essays; all of which offer unflowery, uncommon perspectives on life’s greatest challenges. You can also find him on Instagram or YouTube.

Greg sends 10% of the earnings from his website and his Patreon to the World Wildlife Fund, because animals are one of the other things that occupy his brain. It’s basically animals, relationships and hockey. There’s not much else going on in there.