4 Telling Signs that a Relationship is Toxic.

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Photo: Jorge Mendez on Pixoto. http://www.pixoto.com/images-photography/people/fine-art/gas-princess-5711239875395584

In general, I’m not someone who likes to get rid of things, especially when it comes to people.

The majority of my friends have been in my life for over 20 years.

However, sometimes, we are all better off cutting certain people out of our lives permanently, or at least for a very long period of time.

Specifically, I am referring to  the people who hurt us over and over again and leave our lives, only to return with promises that they will never treat us this way again, that they weren’t themselves, etc., only to repeat the process again. They came in the guise of friends, lovers and even family members. As someone who has been on this emotional merry-go-round more times than I care to admit, I know first hand how draining these “emotional vampires” can be. Also, as someone whose seen others struggle with this, I know how difficult it can be to see a friend or loved one keep returning to these sort of relationships.

While I tend to think most people deserve the benefit of the doubt and change is possible, here are a few red flags to be aware of, suggesting the relationship is toxic.

When we see these things, it is a clear sign to get off the merry-go-round once and for all. It may be hard but ultimately, you will thank yourself for ridding these people from your life.

1. They refuse to take responsibility for their actions.

They may be good at saying they were wrong, but they do nothing to make amends for what they did. Making amends means more than acknowledging fault. It means reaching out to the people they hurt, saying they were wrong, empathizing with them, and making a deliberate attempt to avoid treating others like that in the future.

While one need not engage in self-flagellation, true remorse is pretty easy to spot.

2. They rewrite history—dramatically.

All of us are guilty of rewriting the past from time to time, but these sorts do so in such a way that that their version of events has little or nothing to do with the actual event.

One example I can think of is the time when a former friend came back into my life and said that I was directly responsible for the event leading up to the fight that ended our friendship. It was not how I remembered it nor was it how those around us remembered it. Our friendship could not be mended or repaired when they refused to acknowledge even the most basic facts of what had happened.

3. They say someone or something “forced” them into making the decisions they made.

People can be influenced to make decisions that hurt others, but ultimately, no one can be “forced” into acting or doing something unless they want to.

Blaming others for one’s poor choices or bad behaviors is the ultimate way to avoid responsibility. (See #1) and it is a way of them to reinvent what happened so they don’t have to admit they were in the wrong (See #2).

As soon as anyone says, “It wasn’t my fault but (insert person, circumstances, etc.)” run, don’t walk away from them.

4. They’ve done this before.

This may seem obvious, but as someone who kept giving a “friend” the benefit of the doubt over and over again only to get burnt each time, I can say that sometimes we are very good at being in denial. In this case, I really wanted to believe this person was truly good at heart. There were times when they really were there for me, showed me true love and loyalty, but those were overshadowed by the times that they hurt me, lied to me, and otherwise let me down.

In my case, it finally took someone to frankly point out that this was a leopard who wasn’t going to change their spots. Worst of all, I wasn’t the only person who experienced something similar.

At some point, all the love and compassion in the world cannot “save” someone who has no interest in being saved.

While most of us know better than to stay with people who physically abuse us, it can be far harder to walk away from those who are emotionally abusive. People like myself, who desire to see the good in most people and hate seeing people leave our lives, tend to be the most at risk for attracting these sorts.

However, there comes a time when we have to cut ties, or else we risk losing ourselves or those around us.

The first cut may be the deepest and hardest, but it may ultimately be the most liberating thing we can do for ourselves.


Relephant reads:

12 Ways to Deal With A Toxic Family/Family Member.

5 Ways to Detect Toxic People. 

The Relationship Funeral: Rituals for a Breakup.


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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Jorge Mendez on Pixoto

Bonus: The one Buddhist Red Flag to watch out for & how you’ll know if he or she is The One.

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About Kimberly Lo

Kimberly Lo is a yoga instructor and freelance editor & writer based in Charlottesville, VA. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework, travel, and photography. Connect with her on Facebook.


26 Responses to “4 Telling Signs that a Relationship is Toxic.”

  1. "The first cut may be the deepest and hardest, but it may ultimately be the most liberating thing we can do for ourselves." Absolutely true. 🙂

  2. Stefan says:

    Conratulations! I loved your post Kimberly

  3. Kristen says:

    What a great article; I can certainly relate to everything here. Seven months ago, I left a five-year-long relationship with a man who has borderline personality disorder and several other severe (and untreated) mental health issues. Only after I left did I realize how much of *me* I gave up to this other person who, by the way, never once considered the pain he caused. It is never, ever worth putting yourself through psychological torment because another person hates and cannot control themselves.

    • kimberlylowriter says:

      I am so sorry to hear about your experience. I have seen and even been in a similar situation, and it is like being in a war zone. Only, you usually cannot see how bad it really was until you are out of it. Best of luck to you. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • Janna says:

      Congrats Kristen for leaving that toxic 5 year relationship. Dealing with borderline and/or personality disorders is near impossible. I am divorcing a man with every single point in this article after a 30 year marriage. This process is incredibly difficult, but so worth it on countless levels. Thank you Kimberly for saying it like it truly is!

  4. Ellen says:

    Please do not stigmatize mental illness. People dealing with borderline deserve love, compassion, and respect just as all of us do. Any person can be difficult to "deal with" at any given moment. There are very effective strategies for people with borderline to access in order to help themselves. That said "idiot compassion," like you suggest, is no compassion at all.

    • CharmingLucy says:

      I don't believe it's 'stigmatizing" for these commenters to say "I'm leaving someone whose mental illness made it impossible to live with them". Of course mentally ill people deserve support and compassion, but that doesn't necessarily mean they "deserve" a relationship if they can't or won't get the help they need in order to deal with their illness, treat their partners well and to engage in the relationship in a healthy way.

  5. Alia says:

    I have to say while I can appreciate the desire not to love in a toxic way with others, I think the underlying idea that a toxic relationship is entirely the fault of another is false and very harmful. What I hear imbedded in these ideas in an unwillingness to take responsibility for ones own contributions to negative patterns in a relationship.

    And lets face it! We all have a hard time taking responsibility for our faults. We all interpret reality through our perspective, which may sound entirely false to another. We all blame external forces for our actions sometimes and we all repeat patterns.

    We can choose to work on that though. Rather than call ppl toxic, especially ppl who may be coping with deep traumas or mental illness (as mentioned in another comment), I would challenge us to support those ppl, let them know they are fully seen and loved, rather than punish them.

    In the end we are unified and connected, cut them out and the pattern will show up elsewhere. We are all mirrors for something within. I would ask what part of you are you rejecting when you reject another human.

    • Libby says:

      you are so correct here Alia, thank you for the reminder…. "we are all mirrors for something within"- it's hard to remember that there are no exceptions to the laws of the universe. xo blessings

    • kimberlylowriter says:

      We all have faults. I am not denying that. However, some people have issues or toxic personalities that can make it impossible for anyone to have a healthy relationship with them.

      Cutting them out of our lives is not punishing them. Sometimes, we have to save ourselves before we can help anyone else.

    • Shells says:

      In my experience Alia (and this is my experience) not all toxic people deserve support, especially when they are showing absolutely no willingness to change. In my experience (again), some toxic people are fully aware of their shortcomings and seek to work them out at the expense of other well meaning people who try to help them, but end up getting drained emotionally and mentally.

      I do agree that we are all mirrors for something deeper within…toxic people can come into your life to teach you something about yourself that perhaps you weren't aware of that you can change to make yourself a better person. So sometimes people enter your life to teach you something, but it doesn't mean they were meant to remain there. Not all friendships were meant to last forever…..

      Kimberly, you were spot on with your article, no one is perfect, but at the end of the day, only WE are in charge of our own spiritual growth and development, not other people.

  6. Rob says:

    "People like myself, who desire to see the good in most people and hate seeing people leave our lives, tend to be the most at risk for attracting these sorts"

    I wonder if you tend to attract these people into your life more or just hold onto them longer then most. I have always been very quick to distance myself from who I perceived as "toxic". While I have probably cost myself some potentially meaningful relationships before they could really begin I have mostly avoided the hassles you detail in the article.

  7. Tonja says:

    Sadly, just what I needed to hear….. thank you x

  8. KaitlinViolette says:

    Your article is incredibly relevant to me at the moment!!!! I am SO bad at giving people the benefit of the doubt, and usually have to be told that i shouldn't be excusing that person's actions because they've gone too far. Unfortunately this includes my current partner. He is exactly the person in this article, and i know this, and i've been told this by friends, but he also has a good heart. Although you are also right that the bad outweigh the good, and there comes a point when there is too much bad.
    My only problem is cutting that chord. I am not a person that likes to hurt another, especially someone i care about so deeply, so this is especially hard for me to gather courage for.
    Thankyou for the article, it has confirmed my thoughts and feelings somewhat 🙂

  9. Hi thank you for the post I tell myself you've had some hard relationships and you've really been forced to work your boundaries. My problem however with this kind of assessment is that it is one sided and for many of us enables the transition only from victim to a perpetrator as opposed to helping us to step out of the (Karpman) drama triangle all together.

    Toxic person has become the new politically correct way of marginalising people (it reminds of the old signs in bars: no blacks, no dogs, no Irish: no toxic). So called 'Toxic' people often bring out our own toxicity and that is uncomfortable and scary so we project that on to them and push them away (often necessarily I completely agree).

    However my experience suggests that until I am willing to own my own toxicity I will continue projecting that part of myself onto others and perpetuating the illusion that I am 'good as opposed to good and bad, right as opposed to right and wrong, beautiful as opposed to beautiful and ugly- the myriad of paradox' we face as a consequence of living an authentic, mindful life. As Pema Chodron says "Nothing goes away until it teaches us what we need to know."

    Governments for example do this at the societal level by blaming the homeless and the unemployed for our problems. Essentially labelling them toxic when the real reason we are in debit is because of our insane defence budgets and the money spent would solve unemployment and homelessness almost instantly.

    Can you own your own toxicity Kimberly?


    • Deb says:

      Michael…I agree with alot of what you say about projecting parts of ourselves onto others. But I kept keeping the peace with the wife of my partner's friend until one day she said something about the way I parent which was none of her business. I walked away and months later (because I was sick and needed surgery) I went to see her and let her know how her actions had affected me. Three of the points listed here applied to this situation. She said she had already apologised, it was a long time ago and basically it didn't happen like I said. If she had have shown genuine empathy and remorse we could have mended the relationship.

    • JohnH says:

      Trying to be politically correct in relationship with a mentally ill person is a recipe for disaster. If you did not install the toxicity, then it is not your job to uninstall it, particularly if you are not a licensed mental health professional. Yeah, we all have our own "stuff", but serious mental health issues is not best handled by amateurs. It is not a matter of owning our own toxicity, but protecting ourselves from that of others. If we have to become "toxic" to be with another, then that is a sure sign to sever the relationship. "Nothing goes away until it teaches us what we need to know." Know you boundaries and don't let severely wounded people violate them. Terrible things happen to good people and it is not your job to "fix" everyone.

      • MaryP says:

        Michael's response is not about political correctness, nor is it about fixing someone's mental illness. We are all bundles of contradictions and grime that's left from our pasts, the pasts of those who were responsible for raising us and the environment we live in. Michael's not suggesting that one has to become toxic to engage with another person, but rather, that we ALL potentially bring baggage along with us. Read Kimberly's post clearly and you'll notice that there's a consistent disparagement of the "other," instead of admitting that her own faults (and thinking she has none is the first flaw) may play into it. People aren't perfect, so relationships sure can't be expected to be, but the act is an attempt to find middle ground, in oneself, in the other and in each other and each other's lives.

  10. Celina says:

    Hi Kimberly!
    This is an awesome article. I resonate with your words so much. I know what it's like to try giving more love and compassion to someone hoping it will change the relationship dynamic for the better and make it healthier, and then it doesn't because people just are who they are. They are on their own journeys, and they will only change how they treat others in their own time and in their own way, if they desire to do that.

    Recently I read that it's actually harder to let go of something than it is to push through and do the work involved with staying. I think letting go is one of the hardest things in life for me. It feels like death for me to let go, and death can seem so dark, final, empty and scary. Like stepping forward and finding no ground beneath my feet.

    I have been able to find compassion for those in my life who can't apologize. I find owning my mistakes, talking about them openly, empathizing with the other person and apologizing to be so deeply cleansing and freeing, and it makes my relationships so much closer and more satisfying, even if it's just closer and more satisfying in my heart because they are no longer in my life or have passed on. I know people who can't admit they were wrong, empathize, talk about it or apologize, and to me it seems like they are in a kind of prison. It must be so hard to be trapped inside. I love to apologize when it's needed! It sets me free, and allows me to be in the space of humility, which is so needed for growth and relationships.
    Love to you Kimberly,
    Celina 🙂

  11. Kimberley says:

    I think we can do all of the above In any situation.

    Own our own actions

    Show compassion


    Set boundaries

    And let people go.

    Ultimately we know what choices we need to make in order to be happy and healthy.

  12. Francisco D. Castro says:

    Ah i love the article 🙂

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