What is the Definition of a Toxic Relationship (and How to Move on From a Toxic Relationship)

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Whether you have been dating someone for a while or are in a committed serious relationship, you might have experienced a conflict or two. While conflict is natural in a relationship, you might want to know when it becomes unhealthy or toxic. 

Read on to learn what is the definition of a toxic relationship, and—if you find yourself in one—how to move on from a toxic relationship.

what is the definition of a toxic relationship? Illustration of a couple fighting

What is the definition of a toxic relationship?

The first step to knowing if you are in a toxic relationship is to understand what it is.

A toxic relationship can be defined as a connection between two people (romantic or otherwise) where there is no peace or progress and is often detrimental to one person more than to the other. Toxic relationships can often be volatile, have repetitive cycles of destructive behaviour, and do not nurture the fundamentals of what makes a relationship healthy and joyful. 

Signs of a toxic relationship

While toxic relationships can be recognised easily from the outside, it can be difficult to recognise if you’re in one, especially because different people perceive the experience differently. 

Some people who have an anxious attachment style may label a relationship toxic or engage in toxic behaviour to justify ending it when the relationship had been quite normal. People who have experienced trauma may not recognise a toxic relationship and may stay in one for a while. Here’s where you can learn more about the signs of a toxic relationship.

Illustration of a couple fighting

Why do people find themselves in toxic relationships?

There are several reasons why you may find yourself in a toxic relationship, which can range from childhood trauma to love addiction. Here are a few reasons:

Unhealed trauma

Whether you are the abused or the abuser in a toxic relationship, the reason might be unrecognised or unhealed trauma. 

Trauma is stored in the RAS (Reticulating Active System), a part of the brain that works like a GPS, which seeks familiarity. Therefore, if you are only familiar with abusive love and toxic behaviour, your brain might automatically gravitate towards that.

A need for validation

If you are struggling with self-love or low self-esteem, you might try to look for acceptance or validation from other people, which can cause you to find yourself in a toxic relationship where you want to be validated at any cost.

Social media

Being preoccupied with social media can make you prone to enter or cultivate a toxic relationship. Social media encourages you to seek attention and validation in likes and numbers which can cause narcissistic behaviour that may translate into toxic behaviour.

A desire to rescue or be rescued

“Cinderella” syndrome is the desire to have someone rescue you from learning to love yourself and can put you at risk of entering a toxic relationship. You may instead enjoy helping or saving people who are struggling, which might cause you to be taken advantage of or cultivate toxic and controlling behaviour.

Illustration of a couple fighting

Toxic habits that seem normal

Some qualities of a toxic relationship might seem normal, but it can be important to learn what habits are normal and what are actually toxic to prevent yourself from staying in a toxic relationship. Here are some examples:

Lack of intimacy

While intimacy can ebb and flow in a healthy relationship, in a toxic relationship cycles of intimacy and lack-there-of may be used as a manipulative tool. If you are in a toxic relationship, you may experience cheating to cause emotional distress to a partner, or being forced into intimacy against your will. 

Communication breakdown

Great communication takes time and practice between a couple and may need constant improvement even in a healthy relationship. When communication never improves, or a breakdown in communication often leads to conflict, indifference, or abuse, the relationship might be toxic.

Extreme love

It can be normal to feel infatuated with someone when you first start dating, and this feeling often evolves into stable, healthy love. In a toxic relationship, this transition might not occur since they tend to focus on lust that is fed by insecure attachment. This may produce a toxic cycle of breaking up and reuniting. 


Conflict can often be healthy and normal in a relationship. However, constant conflict with no resolution may be a sign of a toxic relationship. You might experience avoiding conflict to please someone else or conflict that leads to verbal or physical abuse.

If you are experiencing abuse in any form, please seek professional help. 

Illustration of a couple fighting

How to move on from a toxic relationship

Now that you’ve learned what is the definition of a toxic relationship and how to recognise it, you might want to either try to fix it or end it and move on. 

Learning how to move on from a toxic relationship can help you avoid entering another one. There are several steps you can take to try and move on: 

  1. Grieve the relationship: even though the relationship might have been toxic, it is normal to take time to grieve it. 
  2. Reflect on the reasons you entered the relationship: try to think about why you found yourself in the relationship, what it allowed you to have, and what it took away from you and learn from it. Talking to a professional can help with this process.
  3. Educate yourself on healthy relationships: you can read about how to handle conflict in a healthy way or how to recognise gaslighting. This can help you handle toxic behaviour when you recognize it. 

Illustration of a couple fighting

What is the definition of a toxic relationship (and how to move on from a toxic relationship): FAQs

How to avoid a toxic relationship before it starts?

Knowing the signs of a toxic relationship can help you prevent yourself from entering one. It is difficult to notice toxic behaviours at first, so pacing yourself in a relationship can give you time to learn someone’s character before becoming attached. 

You may also ask friends, family, or a professional for an outsider’s perspective.

Can you fix a toxic relationship?

Although many toxic relationships might need to end, if both partners are willing to work, some toxic relationships can be turned around.

What are some resources for help?

There is a lot of support for people who have been in toxic relationships. You can reach out to a mental health professional, do some research online to find support groups, or talk to family and friends. Try to be open about your experience, and tell someone if you are in danger.

What is the definition of a toxic relationship (and how to move on from a toxic relationship): our final thoughts

While a toxic relationship can be difficult to recognise when you’re in it, learning what is the definition of a toxic relationship can help. If you realise that you are in a toxic relationship, try reaching out for help to end it and learn how to move on from a toxic relationship.

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