Toxic relationships: spotting the red flags

When you’re in a bad relationship, either platonic or romantic, it can be hard to tell sometimes. Do you suddenly relax after they’re gone? Do you feel a pit in your stomach whenever they text you? If you think something might be off, you should trust your instincts. 

Not everyone who is toxic will have the same warning signs. I’ve put together a list of some of the most common red flags in a bad relationship. If you notice one or more of these in your relationship, it’s time to have a serious talk.  

*Disclaimer* I’m not a psychologist. I created the following list based on some research and my own personal experiences.

Using you

One of the most common signs of an unhealthy relationship is an unequal one where you give more than you get. I’m not talking about money (although that can be part of it). Setting double standards is a huge red flag. If it ever feels like certain rules only apply to you and not to them, it’s possible they’re just using you.

Trying to make themselves look better

Some so-called friends will use you to make themselves look and feel better. There are a few ways people can do this. Maybe they won’t really let you talk about the awesome things you’ve done but won’t stop talking about the things they’ve done. They might also pick on your physical flaws to feel better about their own insecurities.

When someone is using you as some sort of foil to look better in comparison, it sucks. They won’t want you to do better or be better because they will always want to one-up you to stay on top. They might even actively try to hold you back so that they can always feel superior. 

Never supporting you when you need it

Fake friends will sometimes monopolize your time and attention during hard times, but as soon as you need some help, they’re nowhere to be seen. Sure, people can get busy, and it can be coincidental, but to an extent, they should be able to do something to show you that they care and want to help you through your tough times too. 

Honestly, I’ve known a few people like this. They aren’t always self-aware enough to realize what they’re doing, though. They might just want to avoid dealing with anything too hard or heavy, even when it’s really hard on someone they claim is their best friend.

Not letting you have other friends

If you’ve ever been hanging out with someone and all of a sudden had your phone blow up because someone is upset at you for not dropping everything to hang out with them, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Some toxic friends will want to keep you all to themselves and will grow upset if you spend time with anyone else. They might not straight up tell you that, but they might start sending you passive-aggressive texts or giving you the cold shoulder just because you went to get a coffee with someone other than them.

This is an especially dangerous red flag in romantic relationships. Getting upset when you spend time with someone else is a way of isolating you and making you depend more on them. A lot of abusive relationships have this in common, and eventually, you could find yourself with no one to turn to because they made you push everyone else away. 

Constantly asking for advice and never following it

If you’ve got a friend who treats you like a therapist but never actually follows your advice, odds are they aren’t doing it on purpose, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating or toxic. People like this create a lot of drama and have a hard time being enough of an adult to deal with the fallout. 

You can give them amazing advice until you’re blue in the face. They probably aren’t ready to actually follow any of it and don’t really want to put in the effort to improve their life. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get that sometimes you just want to complain when something frustrating happens. 

Don’t try to force someone to follow unsolicited advice. This is only applicable to people who ask for your thoughts and then continually ignore them. There’s a solid chance they just want the attention and don’t really care about whatever advice you’re trying to give.

Bringing you down

When someone brings you down, it can be a bit similar to using you to make themselves look or feel better. Sometimes people just like to rain on your parade, though.

Trying to ruin your achievements

A good friend won’t try to ruin your mood when you do something good. A bad friend will immediately dislike the attention you’re getting and try to point out flaws or try to change the subject. If your friend doesn’t want to support you when you succeed or even hear about your success, they probably aren’t really your friend.

Even if they don’t actively try to ruin your achievements, they might become surly or upset when you’re doing well. Most people will probably begin to feel guilty for doing well when someone else gets upset about it. Either way, it’s really not fun and a crummy thing to do.

Giving backhanded comments/ compliments

It’s like negging but worse, and it really does start to wear away at your confidence. No one wants to hear backhanded comments from someone they care about. Even if you don’t realize it was backhanded, there will be a part of you that doesn’t feel good hearing it. 

Most people who give comments and compliments like this don’t respect you and want to actively bring you down.  

“Good vibes only”

If someone has a philosophy of “good vibes only,” it usually means they don’t want to talk about anything serious and especially not anything negative or bad. Not only will they immediately try to shut you down if you come to them with a problem, but they also won’t want to give you any support during tough times either.

If someone is only your friend when things are going well, they aren’t really your friend. It’s super cliché, but it’s true. If they can’t handle you at your worst, they don’t deserve you at your best.

Invalidating your feelings

Invalidating how you feel or brushing off your emotions is one of the most common toxic traits a bad friend is going to have. They might genuinely care about you, but they won’t necessarily respect you enough to hear out what you have to say and will get defensive if you try to call them out on something problematic. 

Gaslighting

If someone is gaslighting you, it essentially means they are trying to twist what actually happened and make you question yourself and, in extreme cases, even your sanity. At first, it might seem like it would be really easy to tell if someone is gaslighting you; it can be a lot more subtle than you’d think, though. 

Gaslighting can be as simple as someone saying, “you made me do this,” after they do something bad. You didn’t make them do anything. If you realize someone is gaslighting you over and over, it’s hard to defend yourself every single time. Eventually, you might find yourself agreeing with them or doubting yourself.

Being blamed for things you didn’t do or manipulated into questioning yourself continuously does a real number on your self-confidence and makes it even harder to stop the gaslighting. Listen to yourself and write down events after they happen if you’re afraid of being gaslighted. It really helps to have something concrete to back you up if someone tries to change what happened.

Gaslighting is probably one of the most dangerous red flags on the list. If you’re afraid you’re being gaslit, Psychology Today has a great article to help you pick out the warning signs written by Dr. Stephanie Sarkis. Dr. Sarkis has even written a book on gaslighting, so she really knows her stuff.

Manipulating you

There are plenty of people who will manipulate you into doing what they want or acting certain ways. They may not be doing it intentionally, but that doesn’t make it okay either. A relationship is supposed to be a two-way street, don’t let someone control you. 

If it feels like you aren’t allowed to do anything but agree with them or you’re afraid to point out any criticisms about them, there’s a good chance they’re manipulating you. If you have to change the way you act and feel around them, it isn’t a healthy relationship. 

Anyone who ever says “you’re too sensitive” or “it’s just a joke”

I absolutely loathe whenever someone says, “it’s just a joke” or “you’re too sensitive.” If I’m upset about something and that’s your response, we’re going to have a problem. When that is how someone responds to you, they’re ignoring your feelings and probably just getting defensive because they don’t want to be the one in the wrong.

Projecting insecurities and reacting defensively is a pretty common thing, honestly, so I wouldn’t say this makes or breaks a relationship. It’s entirely possible to talk to someone with a habit of saying these phrases and explain why you’re upset. If they continue to ignore you and just get more defensive then yeah, you should probably evaluate the relationship.

Use caution

If you’ve noticed someone in your life does one or more of these things to you, don’t be reckless. If you want to talk to them about it, you might be able to resolve the issue or clear up any misunderstandings, but more often than not, if they’re guilty, they won’t just apologize and stop the problematic behavior. 

When people are confronted with their wrongdoings, they tend to dig their feet in and double down. If it comes down to it, you may need to consider breaking things off with them (whether your relationship is romantic or platonic). Think it over carefully before you decide what to do. Talking to someone you trust for an outsider’s opinion is also a good idea.

If you decide to follow through with breaking things off with them, we have another blog all about breakups. Whatever happens, I wish you the best and hope all of your relationships are healthy.

Have you ever had to confront someone about problematic behavior?

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