By: Paired. Expert reviewed by Moraya Seeger DeGeare
A toxic relationship can take many forms, whether it’s controlling, manipulative, or abusive.
Recognizing the signs is vital to knowing how to fix a toxic relationship — or knowing when to leave. The steps to building a healthy relationship include communication, self-care, and breaking toxic patterns. Only then can you move forward together with a respectful, caring bond.
What is the difference between a toxic relationship and a healthy one?
The word “toxic” is thrown around a lot these days, but what exactly does it mean to be in a toxic relationship?
In a healthy relationship, all partners feel free and safe to be themselves. Many toxic relationships might begin as happy relationships but change over time. You might share good memories that make it harder to leave the relationship later on.
In a toxic relationship, one partner typically feels attacked, neglected, or unsupported — as if they can’t be themself in case they risk upsetting the other. It can be really draining for the partner and damaging to the relationship.
What are the warning signs of a toxic relationship?
Some signs that you’re in a toxic relationship include:
Controlling behavior where your partner tells you what you can and can’t do.
Extreme jealousy or insecurity that isolates you from your friends and family.
Abusive relationship behaviors such as outbursts of anger, violence, accusations, and name-calling.
Feeling like you’re constantly walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting your partner.
Loved ones, close friends, or family members expressing concern for your well-being.
Feeling anxious, unsafe, or having poor self-worth because of how your partner treats you.
Can toxic relationships be healed?
Knowing how to fix a toxic relationship relies on self-awareness. For a toxic person to change, they must recognize the issue and want to fix it. Communication, teamwork, and self-care are all part of the healing process. Laura Doyle, a New York Times best-selling relationship author, explains how improved communication and awareness of each other’s needs can lead to a much healthier, happier connection.
“Rather than seeing evidence of your partner's shortcomings, you'll start to see life through a lens of happiness,” she says. “You’ll see evidence of the kindness, consideration, and thoughtfulness that really exists in your relationship.”
Can a toxic person change?
For a toxic partner to change, they have to want to change. Trying to fix or change another person might only cause frustration and resentment. The toxic person must recognize and accept how their actions are affecting the relationship. Instead, talk honestly about how you both putting effort in might improve the relationship.
It’s also worth acknowledging that a relationship can be toxic without one person being the “bad guy”. It can often be the way the couple communicates that continues a pattern that is toxic for them both.
Is a toxic relationship worth saving?
It’s up to you to decide whether a toxic relationship is worth saving. Some might require only minor changes to become a good relationship, while others might already have too much damage. Each couple must talk and recognize whether they want to put in the effort to heal together.
“Is everyone involved willing to look inward to their part in the dance of connection and fighting? Without that willingness you won't be able to really feel any sense of movement,” asks Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and Paired’s In-House Relationship Expert.
How can you fix a toxic relationship?
So, how can you fix a toxic relationship and grow as a couple? “Whether your partner is criticizing you or accusing you of doing unthinkable acts, a toxic relationship feels like a dagger to the heart,” says Doyle.
“Living in fear or walking around on eggshells is enough to make you think you're the crazy one in the relationship — even if your partner is lying, being manipulative, or intentionally gaslighting you,” she adds.
However, that doesn’t mean a toxic relationship is beyond saving. “There is a way to fix your toxic relationship, without having to break up,” says Doyle, who recommends taking the healing process step-by-step to improve communication and compassion.
1. Have an honest conversation
It starts by using healthy communication to work out your issues. Doyle says that many couples tend to focus on the negatives and foster a defensive environment. Instead, try listening to the other’s point of view.
“You've probably already heard this and have tried it several different ways. But are you dumping everything on each other that you see as a shortcoming? No matter how politely you broach the topic, or how gently you phrase your complaints, criticism is a form of disrespect,” she says.
“Start listening to your partner instead. ‘I hear you’ are three powerful little words, which often lead to a meaningful conversation, with a lot fewer words.”
2. Take accountability
“Ideally, both your partner and you will take responsibility for your actions,” says Doyle. If it happens, that’s the ideal direction to heal as a couple.
Doyle also recommends leading by example. “Maybe you criticized your partner or communicated that your partner needs to change in some way?”
Instead, recognizing any toxic behaviors and apologizing can help your partner open up about theirs. Doyle recommends being honest to your partner without using excuses, trying such phrases as "I apologize for being disrespectful when I...". That may help your partner have the confidence to share their own feelings.
3. Give each other space to heal
Once everything is out in the open, you might need some space to heal. Trust your partner and pay attention to healthy boundaries.
“Trust your partner to get help with things as needed and on their timeline,” says Doyle. “Don't push or beg, which removes their desire to approach the topic. Instead, give each other the space you need to step into your best selves.”
Once again, you might need to set a great example here. “Focus on being your best self, which will ultimately inspire your partner to do the same thing.”
4. Find forgiveness
Once you’ve both aired your feelings and started the healing process, it’s important to find forgiveness — for yourselves, as well as each other. Doyle explains how toxic behavior can distort what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Remembering to practice self-care is the next step on the road to healing. “When you put your own desires and needs on the back burner, you become miserable and angry.
You can't seem to understand why your partner doesn't appreciate you bending over backward, right? Well, things will start to turn around once you make self-care a priority again,” she says.
The idea is that looking after yourself shows self-respect and confidence, both attractive qualities. “The happier you get, the more your partner will be inspired to step up. After all, happy people attract other happy people.”