Red flags: Is there any science to spotting a toxic relationship?


Let’s face it, few – if any – relationships are blissfully perfect. They all take effort and compromise. They go through highs and lows. Many, perhaps most, will end in a breakup, some dramatically, after an infidelity or a massive disagreement, others through a slow drifting apart.

But a toxic relationship is different. It’s about more than bumpy patches, disagreements or waning romance – something is seriously and harmfully wrong. Social media is full of speculation and warnings about the red flags that imply you could be in one of these worrying partnerships, but what does the science have to say?

The ‘toxic’ label isn’t a scientific term, but it’s generally used to imply that a partner is exerting some kind of harmful control or abuse – physical, psychological or both – over the other partner, and part of this will usually involve the victim feeling trapped in the relationship. Less often, it’s possible that both partners are mutually involved in variations of toxic behaviour toward the other.

What are the red flags in a relationship?

Probably the most obvious red flag is that your partner threatens you physically or actually perpetrates physical violence against you (setting aside forms of consensual and safe sexual practice that involve domination, bondage and similar acts). For a sense of what this kind of physical threat feels like, it can be informative to consider the questionnaires used in domestic violence research.

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For instance, the Women’s Experience With Battering Scale includes items such as, ‘He makes me feel unsafe, even in my own home’ and ‘He can scare me without laying a hand on me’. This measure is aimed at female victims of male abusers, but of course anyone, regardless of their sex or sexuality, can find themselves the target of an abuser.

A more specific form of toxic control relates to sexual coercion – being made to engage in sexual acts when you don’t want to, under physical or other kinds of threat and manipulation. Researchers use various scales to measure this kind of behaviour.

One example is the Sexual Coercion In Intimate Relationships Scale which includes items such as ‘My partner threatened to have sex with another woman if I did not have sex with him’ and ‘My partner told me that it was my obligation or duty to have sex with him’.

Being physically threatened, physically hurt, and made to have sex against your will – most people know intuitively that these are serious red flags in any relationship. But there is increasing recognition that broader forms of psychological coercion and manipulation can also be abusive and if your partner is doing this to you, it’s another red flag.

Indeed, the law was changed in England and Wales in 2015 to introduce a new offence of Controlling or Coercive Behaviour that recognises the emotional and mental harm that is caused by psychological manipulation.

Psychological control and coercion can take a vast many forms, such as isolating you from financial or emotional support; restricting your access to friends and family; monitoring your behaviour with spyware or other devices; making you feel worthless (via insults or public shaming, for example); and enforcing rules upon you that make you feel humiliated. If your partner makes you doubt your own judgment, this is also manipulative and sometimes referred to as ‘gaslighting’.

Again it can be insightful to look at the ways that researchers measure these kind of things. For instance, scholars at the Autonomous University of Madrid recently investigated why teenage victims stayed in physically abusive relationships. They used a measure of psychological coercion (specifically toward staying committed to the relationship) that involved statements such as ‘My partner encourages me to believe that life is meaningless outside of the relationship’ and ‘My partner makes me feel that I should be grateful to him/her to stay in the relationship’.

A toxic relationship can have health consequences

All the red flags mentioned here are those in the other person’s behaviour that indicate you are in a toxic relationship. But another important component is how the relationship is making you feel, both mentally and physically.

If the stress of your relationship is severely affecting your sleep; if you feel constantly emotionally drained (such as being made to feel guilty, ashamed or afraid); if you’re manifesting physical symptoms as a consequence of the unhappiness and pressure of the relationship (such as tightness in your chest, nausea or constant headaches); and/or if you find yourself regularly dreading seeing your partner – all these are signs that your relationship has turned toxic and it would be a good idea to consider getting out.

What should I do if I’m in a toxic relationship?

If you feel unable or afraid to speak to your partner about ending a toxic relationship, don’t suffer in silence. There are various forms of support available, be that reaching out to a friend or relative in the first instance, speaking to your GP, or contacting a dedicated support service, such as local safe-guarding services or shelters for abuse victims.

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