Love and Relationships

Are you a toxic couple? How to know, and what to do about it

Steph Arnaldo
Are you a toxic couple? How to know, and what to do about it


A relationship therapist shares the signs that you're in a toxic, volatile relationship, as well as couple resolutions you can try to help save the love

MANILA, Philippines – All couples fight. A few squabbles here and there and an argument from time to time doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed; a healthy, normal relationship actually needs discourse to thrive! It’s inevitable that two people won’t always see eye to eye, and that’s okay.

But how “normal” is “normal” when it comes to fights? To what extent is your tumultuous relationship still “healthy?” You may actually already be in a volatile, toxic relationship without even knowing it.

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Volatile couples usually have a “dynamic between them that has a highly-reactive response to one another,” psychologist and relationship counselor Lissy Ann Puno told Rappler. This means that reactions to your partner are usually negative, easily triggered, unpredictable, and mostly blown out of proportion. These charged reactions are what contribute to the “unsafe environment” a toxic relationship breeds over time.

How does a relationship grow to be ‘unsafe?’

It only takes one highly reactive person to ignite the not-so-romantic, rage-filled spark in a relationship.

How does someone become “highly reactive?” Lissy Ann says that “individual temperament” is a main factor, as well as any past unresolved trauma. An individual’s unprocessed emotions can bring about a feeling of internal unsafety, anger, constant arguments, and defensiveness, which can increase a couple’s volatility factor, especially if there is an increase in day-to-day stressors, like family problems, finances, children, job security, and chores.

Simply put: if your relationship begins to feel unsafe and uncomfortable, it probably already is. According to Lissy Ann, an unsafe relationship usually reflects one or both parties’ needs that are not being met, considered, or communicated properly. This causes the affected parties to react violently to get any sort of response.

“If this continues, then it becomes a toxic pattern of behavior.”

Red flags to watch out for

Here are common toxic behaviors and modes of communication you should watch out for in your partner (and even in yourself):

  • Frequent arguments
  • Indifference, apathy
  • Lack of common courtesy
  • Contempt (being disrespectful)
  • Silent treatment, being dismissive
  • Constant criticism that isn’t constructive
  • Belittling, being put down
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Overly controlling

The following red flags are also important to note at any point in your relationship:

  • The relationship atmosphere is very negative
  • Lack of love and affection
  • Other people have expressed concern that the relationship is not good for you
  • You feel like it is abusive – emotionally, mentally, or even physically
  • Mistrust, secrets, and infidelities
  • You don’t feel like you share the same values
  • You constantly feel like a victim
  • Fear, worry, and stress surrounding the relationship prevails
When it’s time to seek help

If you’re already in too deep, it can be very difficult to simply swim your way out of murky waters and breathe fresher air. “Without effective communication skills and emotional maturity, it will be quite challenging to escape a volatile relationship,” Lissy Ann said.

What helps clear the waters are self-awareness on both sides, and at the root of it all, a mutual desire to be better to one another and the commitment to make things work, no matter the costs. It’s important to want to make the necessary changes as early as possible, as a lot of couples seek help a little bit too late, Lissy Ann said.

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“Most of the time, it is when extremely toxic behavior has set in that there is no motivation to repair anymore. They have fallen out of love, so the image of reviving it appears to be too challenging,” she added. This is why it is advised to seek relationship counseling or couples therapy as a preventive measure; think of it like your much-needed annual physical exam, Lissy Ann said, but for your relationship.

Relationship counselors will usually suggest various steps to cover all areas – couples retreat, couples counseling, couples holiday, and couples visioning – to help alleviate certain strains in your relationship. Relationship counselors are also trained to determine if you are in an empty relationship, disconnected relationship, loveless relationship, affection-less relationship, or parallel relationship (when someone simultaneously has a sexual relationship outside of their main relationship).

It’s also time to seek help when there is a more obvious gap between a relationship’s “distancer” and “pursuer.”

“In every relationship, there is a distancer and a pursuer. If this is kept in a healthy way, it can work. Imagine it to be like a rhythm in a dance as a couple. If you keep distancing (withdrawing, isolating, shutting down, silent treatment) then the other keeps pursuing (wanting to talk, wanting to solve the problem, needing attention, offers affection, says sorry right away), this creates tension if the other is not ready or unable to respond. Then they suddenly explode because they are not getting what they want, and they explode,” Lissy Ann said.

When you don’t feel good about yourself and also feel that your relationship is not giving you the fulfillment that you want out of a shared life, these are already red flags. If you feel unsafe, unheard, unvalidated, ignored, neglected, manipulated, attacked, and can’t be your authentic self? These are signs you can’t ignore, either.

Red flags vs relationship resolutions

Lissy Ann shares a few of the most common behaviors toxic couples exhibit, as well as the corresponding relationship resolutions that partners can start practicing with one another to rekindle the romantic flame. Don’t worry, there is hope!

  • Constant criticism. Do you feel judged or criticized when you share your experiences, thoughts, or feelings with your partner?

Relationship resolution: Request for your needs. This means being able to honestly communicate to each other what you need from one another.

  • Belittling and put downs. Does your partner make comments or criticisms that are focused on the negative and make you feel insecure?

Relationship resolution: Try compassion. This is when you and your partner are able to recognize when the other is suffering, and instead, be loving, kind, and empathetic.

  • Contempt. Does your partner use unkind words, eye-rolling, sarcasm, and dismissal with you?

Relationship resolution: Care. You and your partner can try to understand each other’s quirks and mannerisms, and take the time to find out how the other is feeling.

  • Indifference. Do you feel annoyed by some of your partner’s quirks or characteristics?

Relationship resolution: Curiosity. This is when you and your partner constantly want to learn new things about each other.

  • Stonewalling. Does your partner give you the silent treatment or refuse to communicate with you? 

Relationship resolution: Communication. You and your partner not only make your points to each other, but also actively listen to one another.

  • Control. Does your partner get excessively jealous or disrespect your boundaries?

Relationship resolution: Validation. You and your partner actively show interest in one another’s interests, and respond with kindness.

Finding yourself in a toxic relationship isn’t the end of the world – the mere fact that you’re aware of it is the first and most important step in finding yourself out of it, or working your way through it with an open, trusted partner. Contrary to popular belief, people can change; it all starts with the commitment to do so. –

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.