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How to Stop Being Toxic in Your Relationships

6 min.

People aren’t toxic, but behaviors and relationships can be. Here’s how to stop being toxic, have healthier relationships, and model the behaviors you value.

By: Sarah duRivage-Jacobs

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

September 20, 2023


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Table of Contents

As experts learn more about the many causes of human behavior, it’s become increasingly clear that there aren’t “toxic people.” Research shows that people can and do change their behaviors, meaning that people aren’t inherently toxic—but behaviors and relationships can be. So, for those of us who recognize that our behaviors can be toxic, healthier relationships are possible.

How can you stop behaving in toxic ways with the people around you? And what could the impact be if you didn’t try to change? Below, we’re answering these questions and offering more advice and support for anyone who wants to stop their potentially toxic behavior.

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How to stop being toxic

If you reflect on your behavior and realize that some of it is toxic, you’ve already taken the first step in addressing the issue. Now that you’ve identified that your behavior can be toxic, here are some additional steps to understand your behavior better and be more respectful and compassionate toward the people you care about.

1. Seek out mental health support

Getting mental health support is an important step to take any time we want to examine and change our behaviors, including toxic behaviors. Therapy isn’t just a safe space for you and your feelings—it’s also a place for you to set new goals and track your progress toward meeting them. You can talk about the qualities you value in people and try to model those behaviors.

2. Explore what’s going on underneath the toxicity

There is very often something else that’s contributing to our toxic behavior. Criticism of others, for example, may stem from our own lack of self-esteem—or maybe there’s an unresolved issue bubbling under the surface. Other toxic behaviors, like gaslighting and manipulation, can be signs of emotional abuse. Maybe you’ve learned some of your behaviors from a family member or caretaker, and you’re beginning to realize that this isn’t a cycle you want to repeat.

With the support of a mental health professional, you’ll have the space to better understand where your toxic behaviors come from. When we understand our behaviors, we’re more equipped to identify them when they happen and make changes.

3. Apologize to the people you’ve hurt

If you have a toxic trait or you’ve behaved in toxic ways toward those in your life, people may be hurting. While apologizing won’t undo the pain, it signals to your loved ones that you recognize the harm in your behaviors, take accountability, and are trying to do better.

Apologizing doesn’t come easily to everyone. Consider what format might be the best for you and your relationships. Writing a letter, for example, is a good way to make sure you stay on track and don’t get defensive. Practice the apology with your therapist if you think that might help.

The key to apologizing, though, is not to aim to get a certain response from the other person. The apology is about letting them know you’ve been wrong and how you plan to improve—it’s not so you can relieve your own anxiety and feel better. When we offer apologies with ulterior motives, we’re less likely to meet the other person where they are and actively listen to what they’re saying.

4. Practice less toxic behaviors

Behaviors don’t change overnight. It takes time and effort to practice more positive behaviors. What behaviors are worth practicing? This depends in large part on the person you’re engaging with. Everyone values different behaviors differently. However, according to the Relational Maintenance Behavior Measure (RMBM), a research tool used in the field of interpersonal communication and relationship studies, the following qualities and behaviors support positive satisfaction with romantic relationships in particular:

  • Positivity: being cheerful and upbeat when you’re with another person.
  • Understanding: feeling seen, heard, and understood in a relationship.
  • Self-disclosure: the ability to have open and honest conversations about your feelings.
  • Relationship talks: open and honest conversations about the relationship.
  • Assurances:  saying “I love you,” showing love, talking about what someone means to you, and talking about the future.
  • Tasks: shared and equal responsibility with necessary tasks. 
  • Networks: shared friends and affiliations.

While the RMBM was designed specifically for romantic relationships, being positive and understanding, having open communication, and sharing friends and interests are also examples of behaviors for any kind of healthy relationship.

5. Show yourself some compassion

Being kind to yourself is just as important as being kind to others. Even if there are behaviors you want to change, you still deserve self-compassion. Remember that no one’s perfect in every moment, and people can change. 

There are no “toxic people,” and you are not a “toxic person.” While you are not your behavior, you can make your behaviors better reflect the person you are or want to be.

How do you know if your behavior is toxic?

There’s no set definition for what behaviors are considered toxic, but controlling, manipulative, or otherwise abusive behaviors are commonly viewed as toxic.

Toxicity in relationships may look like:

  • Constant criticism
  • Belittling
  • Manipulation
  • Control
  • Explosive anger
  • Angry outbursts
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Gaslighting and denial of reality
  • Blaming
  • Shaming
  • Passive aggression
  • Withholding affection and attention
  • Jealousy
  • Possessiveness
A young woman and man sit at a coffee shop. The woman has toxic behaviors that affect their relationship and her partner.

Having conflicts or disagreements is not inherently toxic. Likewise, just because someone demonstrates some toxic behaviors doesn’t make them an overall toxic person. Nobody exhibits perfect behavior at all times. But because toxic behaviors in relationships can be hurtful, it’s important to be able to assess your own behavior and make changes when necessary.

What is the impact of toxic behavior?

People consistently on the receiving end of harmful behaviors in toxic relationships may have resulting mental health challenges. Being a toxic partner in a relationship can lead to extreme and recurring emotional distress for the other person, increasing the likelihood of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, according to the American Psychological Association.

Chronic stress from a toxic relationship can also lead to a number of physical health problems, including sleep problems, headaches and body pain, high blood pressure, heart disease and attacks, and strokes.

In toxic relationships where physical, sexual, or emotional abuse are present, there are higher rates of depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide, research shows. 

Unlearning toxic behaviors at Charlie Health

If you’re struggling with unwanted behaviors in a potentially toxic relationship, Charlie Health is here to help. Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is an effective treatment option for young people who want to improve their mental health and model healthier behaviors in relationships.

Charlie Health combines group sessions, individual therapy, and family therapy to provide more support than once-weekly therapy without taking time away from school, work, family, or friends. All clients benefit from interpersonal skill-building in our supported group sessions with peers who have similar needs and preferences. By matching clients with other young people who understand what they’re going through, clients can practice healthy relationship skills as they learn them. Clients also meet with a dedicated therapist for weekly individual and family therapy so loved ones at home remain on the same page throughout care.

We accept major commercial insurance providers and Medicaid in many states, and our team is available any time of day or night to get you started. If you think virtual IOP is right for you, fill out our form or call the number below to connect with our Admissions Team and get started.

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