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How Toxic Relationships Affect Your Mental Health

7 min.

This blog explores the impact of toxic relationships on mental health and provides strategies for recognizing and healing from them.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

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

April 28, 2023


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Table of Contents

A toxic relationship is a relationship that is damaging to one’s mental health, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

Toxic relationships can be emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. They can leave individuals feeling helpless, insecure, and traumatized. It can be difficult to recognize when a relationship is toxic, as individuals often become desensitized to toxic behaviors over time. 

In this blog, we will explore toxic relationships, how they affect mental health, how to handle them, and whether they can be fixed.

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is an unhealthy relationship in which one or both partners exhibit controlling, manipulative, or abusive behaviors. These behaviors can manifest in various ways, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Some signs of a toxic relationship include:

  • Constant criticism and belittling
  • Manipulation and control
  • Explosive anger and outbursts
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Gaslighting and denial of reality
  • Blaming and shaming
  • Passive-aggressive behavior
  • Withholding affection and attention
  • Jealousy and possessiveness

It is important to note that not all relationships with poor communication are toxic.

Poor communication can result from differences in communication styles, personality clashes, or unresolved issues. In contrast, toxic relationships are characterized by patterns of behavior that are intentionally harmful and damaging.

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Is there a difference between a toxic relationship and an abusive relationship?

Toxic relationships involve harmful behavior by one or both partners, causing emotional harm such as criticism, belittling, manipulation, and control. While toxicity can be found in any relationship, toxic relationships do not necessarily involve physical abuse or violence.

Abusive relationships involve one partner using physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to control or harm the other. The abuse can take various forms, such as physical violence, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and financial control. Victims often feel powerless, isolated, and trapped, fearing retaliation and further harm.

It’s essential to recognize harmful behavior in both toxic and abusive relationships and to take steps to protect yourself. In the case of an abusive relationship, seeking help immediately from a trusted friend, family member, or professional organization is crucial. Understanding the difference between toxic and abusive relationships can help individuals recognize harmful behavior and take steps to protect themselves and their well-being.

Are toxic relationships limited to romantic relationships?

Toxic relationships can be found in all areas of life, including friendships, family relationships, and workplace relationships. While romantic relationships are often the first type of relationship that comes to mind when discussing toxic relationships, it is important to recognize that toxicity can manifest in any relationship.

As outlined above, in a romantic relationship, toxic behavior may include controlling behavior, manipulation, jealousy, and physical or verbal abuse. However, toxic behavior can also occur in non-romantic relationships. For example, a toxic friendship may involve a friend who constantly puts you down, spreads rumors about you, or uses you for their own benefit. In a toxic family relationship, a family member may use emotional manipulation or guilt to control you.

Toxic behavior can also occur in the workplace, which may be called workplace bullying. This can involve a boss who belittles you in front of others, assigns you an unreasonable workload, or withholds opportunities for advancement.

It is important to recognize toxic behavior in any relationship, regardless of whether it is romantic or not. Allowing toxic behavior to continue can have a negative impact on your mental health and well-being. If you find yourself in a toxic relationship, it may be necessary to end the relationship or seek professional help.

Toxic relationships and mental health

Toxic relationships can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health. The harmful behavior in a toxic relationship, such as criticism, belittling, manipulation, and control, can cause emotional distress, leading to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

In a toxic relationship, the person being subjected to the harmful behavior may start to doubt their own self-worth and abilities. They may feel like they are constantly walking on eggshells and be in a state of heightened anxiety or fear. Over time, these feelings can become overwhelming and lead to chronic stress, which can harm the physical and mental health of the person.

Toxic relationships can also affect an individual’s social and emotional well-being. The person may feel isolated and cut off from their support system, as the toxic partner may isolate them from friends and family. This isolation can lead to a lack of social support, which is essential for maintaining good mental health.

The effects of toxic relationships can persist long after the relationship has ended. Individuals may struggle with feelings of low self-esteem and anxiety, which can impact their ability to form healthy relationships in the future. Seeking help from a mental health professional can be beneficial in addressing the impact of toxic relationships and building healthy coping mechanisms.

Individuals in toxic relationships are at an increased risk of developing:

The science behind how toxic relationships affect mental health

The human brain is wired for connection and social interaction. Our emotional well-being is closely tied to our social interactions and relationships. Toxic relationships disrupt our brain’s natural reward system, leading to negative emotions and behaviors. The constant stress and anxiety associated with toxic relationships activate our body’s stress response system, leading to increased cortisol levels (the stress hormone). Chronic exposure to high levels of cortisol can have a detrimental effect on our mental and physical health.

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How to handle toxic relationships

The first step in handling a toxic relationship is to recognize the signs and acknowledge that the relationship is toxic. Once you have acknowledged that the relationship is toxic, it is important to take action to protect yourself. Here are some steps that you can take to handle a toxic relationship:

Set boundaries

Identify your limits and communicate them clearly to your partner. Be firm in enforcing healthy boundaries.

Seek support

Reach out to friends, family, or a therapist. A support system can help you navigate the challenges of ending a toxic relationship.


Take care of your physical and emotional needs. Engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.

Plan your exit

If you decide to end the relationship, create a plan for doing so safely. This may involve getting a restraining order, changing your phone number, or finding a safe place to stay.

Cut off contact

Once the relationship has ended, cut off all contact with your ex-partner. This includes blocking them on social media and avoiding places they are likely to be.

Can a toxic relationship be fixed?

In some cases, it is possible to repair a toxic relationship. However, repairing a toxic relationship requires both partners to acknowledge the toxic behavior and commit to making changes. This may involve seeking the help of a therapist or relationship counselor. It is important to note that not all toxic relationships can be fixed, and in some cases, it may be necessary to end the relationship for your well-being.

Moving on after a toxic relationship

Moving on after a toxic relationship can be a challenging and emotional process. It is important to take time to heal and process your emotions. Here are some steps that you can take to move on after a toxic relationship:

Prioritize self-care

Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. This may involve getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in activities that bring you joy.

Reach out for support

Reach out to friends, family, or a therapist. Having a support system can help you process your emotions and move forward.

Set new goals that focus on you 

Identify new goals and aspirations for yourself. This can give you a sense of purpose and direction.

Forgive yourself

It is important to recognize that the toxic behavior was not your fault. Forgive yourself for any mistakes you may have made and focus on moving forward.

Healing from a toxic relationship with Charlie Health

Healing from a toxic relationship can be a difficult and overwhelming process. At Charlie Health, we provide personalized, evidence-based mental health services for individuals who have experienced trauma and abuse. Our care team is equipped to provide individuals with the support and resources they need to heal and move forward. We offer various services, including individual therapy, supported groups, and family therapy. 

Reach out today to learn more about our services and how we can help you heal from a toxic relationship. Whether you choose to repair the relationship or end it, it is important to prioritize your well-being. With the right support and resources, healing from a toxic relationship and moving forward with your life is possible.

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