The honeymoon phase doesn’t last forever, and it’s completely normal to fight with someone you’re married to—but when does that cross over into toxic marriage territory?
The major sign of a toxic marriage is that it starts to feel like it’s more dysfunctional than functional, explains Seth Meyers, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author ofOvercome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve. “People often forget that the purpose of a romantic relationship is to provide a sense of security and emotional support,” he says. “When, as a pattern, the relationship stops feeling supportive, the relationship’s emotional costs can outweigh the benefits.”
If this sounds familiar, then it might be a good idea to seek professional help. “Couples can benefit from an objective person who has no motive to make the relationship continue or end—one who can point out productive mental approaches and concrete behaviors that can benefit the couple,” Meyers says.
And while seeking professional help is wise, not all relationships can be saved; you may ultimately find you want to want end a marriage that feels toxic, says Joel Block, PhD, psychologist and author of The 15-Minute Relationship Fix. “Relationships that are physical or characterized by chronic, serious trust violations are often beyond repair.”
If you’ve exhausted all other options and there is no desire for couples’ therapy or any other effort to make the relationship work, then it could be time to consult an attorney about divorce. If you’re concerned about your own relationship, consider these 16 tell-tale signs that you’re in a toxic marriage.
1. You and your partner go through long periods of angry silence.
“Real openness and trust is key to a healthy relationship,” says Block. If you aren’t communicating, then you’re leaving room for other negative emotions like resentment and anger to brew. You won’t find the solutions to your problems without being open about how you’re feeling and what’s on your mind.
2. You consistently avoid important emotional issues.
“This leads to resentment, emotional alienation, and issues that will eventually overwhelm emotional intimacy,” says Block. It’s not okay to keep your emotions bottled in. Likewise, it’s not okay to be unreceptive to a conversation where your partner expresses their feelings. For example, if your partner says they don’t like it when you “bash” them in front of your family when you’re angry, instead of undermining their concerns, let them express why they are hurt by that behavior, while establishing a solution you are both happy with.
3. There is a pattern of fighting that ends with things worse than before the fighting started.
“This kind of pattern leads to frustration, the build up of resentment, and/or withdrawal,” says Block. If your arguments tend to get pretty nasty and you resort to name-calling for example, then both of you need to take a step back, as this is yet another sign that your marriage is toxic. Establish ground rules for your disagreements and conversations that will make it less likely for either of you to get hurt even more, and instead find solid solutions.
4. Your partner is constantly and overly critical of you.
This is often a sign that the critical partner is insecure about themselves in a certain area of their life, says Dr. Tony Ortega, PsyD, author of #AreYouHereYet: How to STFU And Show Up for Yourself. “One of Freud’s defense mechanisms is projection where the individual projects unwanted/unrecognized aspects of themselves onto someone else,” he explains. This kind of behavior can lead to resentment and anxiety in any marriage. To tackle this issue, Ortega suggests first trying to identify what your partner may be insecure about, and then reassuring them about it. “You could point out how the projected trait is a strength for your partner,” says Ortega.
5. One of you (or both) is keeping secrets.
Toxicity can stem from keeping secrets that you know would hurt your partner if they knew, or likewise fearing that your S.O. is keeping secrets from you, says Block. While trust violations don’t always equate to cheating, casually hanging out with your ex and keeping it a secret from your partner knowing that it would upset them can lead to a marriage full of toxicity and mistrust. While it’s fine for each partner to claim their personal space and maintain a personal life, it’s not healthy to engage in activities you would feel guilty about sharing with your partner.
6. When you engage in social activities without your partner, you’re made to feel guilty about it.
Repeat after me: Spending some time away from your partner is valid and necessary—so if your marriage involves a dynamic that makes you feel bad about doing things that don’t include your S.O., it might be toxic.
“You are a whole and complete individual without your partner,” says Ortega. That’s why it’s totally fine for you to have your own friends and do things like go out to brunch or the gym with them. You shouldn’t sacrifice the genuine connections you’ve made in order to maintain your relationship.
“As long as doing your own thing is not done with the active intention of causing harm while engaging in self-care, this is honestly one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves,” Ortega explains.
If your partner is making you feel guilty about the activities you do without them—or even if they don’t overtly say anything but you still don’t feel comfortable having some social outings you go to solo, that’s a red flag that the relationship isn’t in a good place.
7. You haven’t properly dealt with past trust issues.
If you’ve found your partner lying on several occasions or often feel betrayed by them (or vice-versa), then both of you need to make time for a serious conversation, at the very least. In order to repair the trust that’s been broken, you need to be honest about why you feel betrayed and the offending partner needs to acknowledge why their actions were wrong. The next step is making a plan to move forward. If either partner is unwilling to engage in a conversation like this, then it could be a sign that you’re in a toxic marriage and that’s it’s time to seek professional help.
This particular sign calls for a good couples’ counselor, says Ortega. “Past trust issues really need to be explored in a safe and neutral environment. Both parties need to actively listen to each other to cut through the hurt feelings. We can acknowledge hurt feelings while doing the work to heal them.”
8. Your partner’s controlling.
Controlling behavior can range from forcing your partner to look or dress a certain way to keeping a tally of every way you’ve helped your partner out in order to guilt them into “returning the favor” later. The need to control comes from the fear of the unknown, says Ortega. “A controlling partner is experiencing a lot of fear and anxiety at the core.”
Ortega recommends trying to get to the root of the issue. To do this, talk through what the worst-case scenarios that your partner fears are, and address how realistic it is that these situations will play out in real life and your relationship, he suggests. You can do this through a conversation where both of you are raw and honest about what you want and need from each other—and about why the controlling behavior needs to change.
9. One or both of you are cheating.
For obvious reasons, cheating is a major trust violation. But how you tackle this issue is up to you, says Ortega. “You need to decide if this is something your can forgive, work through, and come out stronger on the other side.” There are some people who can never regain their trust in the other after a cheating incident. Others may need to seek professional help like couples’ therapy to help them work through it. The other thing to consider is how committed your partner is (or you are) to not repeating this toxic behavior.
10. You or your partner are checking out.
A relationship requires effort from both people, says Ortega, and when that’s lacking, it could mean you’re in a toxic marriage.
Ortega suggests first looking at whether there’s anything you can change on your part to motivate you both to be more present in your relationship. “With that being addressed, you will have greater ability to approach your partner and get to work” on the changes you or they will need to make.
After doing this, you’ll be able to go through the motions of trying to change your relationship from one where there’s little effort involved to one where both partners are trying. If you and your partner aren’t willing to make changes, then the marriage could get even more toxic than it already is.
11. You feel like your self-worth is slowly diminishing.
If you feel your self-worth slipping, it’s time to take a hard look at the parts of your life that deserve more attention, says Ortega. “Get yourself in front of a mirror and ask yourself what are you compromising in this relationship.” Have you stopped doing things that made you feel amazing? Has your partner noticed the change in you? If not, your marriage might be toxic. Marriage is about building each other up, so it’s important that neither partner sacrifices their happiness in order to make things work.
If you’ve noticed a difference and think it’s time to build your self-worth back up, Ortega suggests working with a mental health professional. If that isn’t possible, Ortega recommends a simple exercise. “Grab a notebook and start writing down who you want to be in an ideal situation. If someone waved a magic wand and suddenly your life was exactly how you wanted it, how would you think and feel differently?”
Once you’ve done this, tell your partner how you’re going to align your thoughts and actions towards those notes. In a marriage, your partner should motivate you towards the things that make you feel good. “A partner can help the most by encouraging the other to engage in any of these things identified and provide support,” says Ortega.
12. Your relationship lacks affection.
Have you stopped having sex or cuddling in front of the TV? It could be that both of you have just gotten used to the new normal, but affection and physical intimacy are important in any relationship. “Maybe the affection is not there because a complacency pattern has set in,” says Ortega. “We always have to look at what we are not doing, as well when we are pointing out something in our partners.” Before you think your marriage is doomed, reflect on whether there’s anything you could do more of to reintroduce affection to your marriage.
That may be easier said than done, but it is possible. Here are a few tips: Plan a fun date that’ll get you out of your everyday routine. “Novel experiences boost levels of feel-good hormones in the brain, which are linked with sexual arousal and those punch-drunk, falling-in-love feelings,” sex educator and author of Girl Boner, August McLaughlin, previously told Women’s Health.
Another tip? Go back to what you know. When stuck in a rut, you may feel pressured to start experimenting with new things, but that could just put more pressure on both partners. For now, stick to the sex you love, and introduce new things over time.
13. You have a sense of overwhelming uncertainty.
Uncertainty alone doesn’t mean your marriage is done, but it can be stressful to have constant feelings that things just aren’t right. This, coupled with the other signs of a toxic marriage, could be a cause for concern. It would be wise to sit down and have a conversation with your S.O., or call in help from a third party, like a couples’ therapist, to see if you can move past those feelings of uncertainty. These feelings could just mean that you are anxious about the future and a professional will help you work through them.
14. Your values differ vastly from your partner’s.
Are you interested in saving up money to buy a house, while your partner is more interested in the here and now? These are things you have to talk through to see if you can find common ground between your differing values, says Ortega. “How can the two values meet? Discuss what the intentions behind the value are.” Marriage requires a lot of compromise, and if one partner isn’t committed to bargaining, then your future could be in deep trouble.
15. There’s a pattern of substance abuse in your relationship.
Is either partner drinking or using drugs to avoid your relationship issues? These are dangerous and seriously unhealthy habits, says Block. If the use of substances has gotten out of control, it’s time to seek professional help.
16. You’ve had physical confrontations.
This is never okay. If you feel you’re in danger, you need to get away from your partner immediately. “When there is physical danger (one partner assaulting the other) or other critical factors, separating for safety and seeking professional help while separated is wise,” says Block. Look to resources like the National Domestic Hotline or the Crisis Text Line (in the U.S., you text HOME to 741741 to take advantage of the service) for immediate help.
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