When is a relationship toxic? Signs, consequences and risks

Updated: 04/14/2022 – 12:38 PM

An expert explains
Dysfunction and manipulation: When is a relationship toxic?

Photo: Getty Images / Carles Navarro Parcerisas

A toxic relationship harms mental health over time. In an interview, an expert explains what those affected can do.

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Love is not always characterized by positive feelings and affection. If there is frequent alternation between highs and lows instead, it could be a toxic relationship. Psychologist Christian Heimsheimer, author of The New Dimension of Love (Arcana), explains in an interview with The Associated Press on the news site when one can talk about a toxic partnership and its consequences for those involved.

Interview with an expert in toxic relationships

What is a toxic relationship anyway?

Christian Hemschemeier: The term is somewhat unclear today. I mean relationships in which there is a selfish or other walled partner and a dependent partner, that allows. The dependent partner then develops what is called a love addiction, a condition in which one only suffers and cannot sleep, eat, or function properly. However, not every unhappy or unbalanced relationship is automatically toxic.

Where did the term “toxic” come from?

The term originally comes from a specialized American magazine from 1972. It describes the relationship between two partners who stay together only to escape their loneliness. A toxic relationship is the lesser of two evils in this case. In America, the term “toxic” has been in use ever since. He describes these drug-like and unhealthy relationships.

At what point can one talk about a toxic relationship?

In relationships that really deserve the name, there’s the “love-blasting phase” first. In this one you are floating on cloud nine and believing with every fiber of your body that you have found the right person. Usually, after about three months, there is a burglary (detection of cheating, crossing borders, lies). From then on, the relationship oscillates between shorter and shorter “highs” and more and more “lows”.

However, nearly all those affected reported inconsistencies from the start. Obsessive thinking is often the first symptom. So relationships are toxic when they are accompanied by a lot of imbalances and manipulations – consciously or unconsciously – and you still stay in them, even though they greatly harm you. Once again, you can see the similarities with addiction.

The dependent person suffers more and more

Are toxic relationships becoming more common?

no I do not think so. The public focus is often on such relationships, and today’s society allows for more freedom. This raises some questions in the first place, plus today we’re dating a lot more different people than we used to.

What happens to the psyche of people involved in a toxic relationship?

Participating in a toxic relationship is ultimately not a satisfying experience for either of you. However, in most relationships, it is the dependent partner who suffers first. This leads to an increasing loss of self-confidence and control, which can lead to a variety of symptoms: fears, substance abuse, turmoil, physical symptoms and much more.

Can a toxic relationship be treated therapeutically?

If this means couples therapy: Usually no. Usually one of them is not interested at all or even tries to manipulate the couples therapist. Individually, of course, you can work on self-love, norms, and an insecure attachment style. However, most often, one tries to “save” the other, but this does not help at all. You can only work on yourself in the long term if you leave a toxic relationship and do not resume it.


According to a survey, a surprising number of people have actually gone through a toxic relationship. Read how many there are.

If the relationship is toxic, the spouses must urgently separate. Couples expert Eric Hegemann advises this, too. How to recognize a toxic partnership and what to do next.

Sometimes there’s no way around: Here are the best tips for newly separated people.

These tips also help with a breakup. Are you still about to break up? Read here the best way to end a relationship.

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