11 Types of Toxic Relationships

toxic relationship

Toxic relationships suck, don’t they?

They poison your life and yet, sometimes, people don’t even realize they are in a toxic relationship.

Well, here is a rule of thumb for you: good relationships make you happy and fulfilled more times than they make you sad, depressed, or disappointed.

Anything else likely has some shades of toxicity.
This article presents you with 11 types of toxic relationships to help you troubleshoot and learn.

toxic relationship

Toxic Relationships

To begin with:

What is a toxic relationship?
This is a high-level definition that will include any type of toxic relationship:

A toxic relationship is a relationship that, on net balance, subtracts from your general well being.

It might not be as easy as it seems to assess whether your relationship fits into that description, though.
The reason is that most toxic relationships are not always all bad and pure evil. Most toxic relationships also present some good -or kind of good- moments during which partners dupe themselves into believing that things are not that bad, after all.

Don’t be a self-duping fella, though. Check out here, and if you see any hint of these in your relationship, start planning how to move on.

#1. Abusive Relationship

The abusive relationship is the poster child of a toxic relationship.

It’s not always true that it takes two to tango, and in abusive relationships, the abusive partner can be the one responsible for all the toxicity.

Both genders can be abusive, but the sad award here goes to men: the majority of abusive individuals are men.

Abusive relationships can be violent, but not all of them are.
Some emotionally abusive relationships look perfectly normal on the outside. The abuser can be a professor, a doctor or a polished-looking office worker.


Here is one non-physically violent example from The Breakup.
His way of disrespecting her publicly is verbally violent and emotionally abusive.

#2. Psychopath / Sociopath Relationship

Not every single relationship with a psychopath leads to a toxic relationship. But when they do, they often cause immense pain.

Sociopaths are obsessed with social dominance and winning and they see the world as a big chessboard. And you might be a pawn in it.

It’s possible they will fake feelings and pretend to love you only to make you fall in love with them.
Their relationships usually follow a known pattern:

  1. Idealization (bring you up and make you believe you two are soulmates)
  2. Devaluation (turn the tables: they stop coming after you and start devaluing you)
  3. Discard (they move to the next target, sometimes dropping you in the most painful way possible)

If you want to read more there’s a book with a great description of a sociopath relationship called Psychopath Free.

Example: Framing Him As An Abuser

Most psychopaths and sociopaths are men.

But there are some women too.
The movie Gone Girl is a great example of one.
And this is a real-life gone girl:

#3. Narcissistic Relationships

If you like emotional shallowness and selfishness, then pick a narcissistic partner.

Narcissists have a grandiose sense of self -often not backed by reality-, and believe the world revolves around them. They are all about appearances and what others think of them.

Narcissists also lack empathy.
Indeed, they only care about you as long as you can help their sense of grandiosity.
The most narcissistic of narcissists also only care about their children when and if they can help their own sense of grandiosity. That, of course, can have devastating effects on the children’s psyche.

Narcissists are also manipulative and play plenty of games.
You cannot develop a relationship based on mutual knowledge and appreciation and you cannot have a deep or even a normal, but real emotional bond, with a narcissist.

Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics


There are a few different kinds of narcissists and there several good movies that portray them.
This one is from American Beauty.

Notice the distance between them, both physical and emotional. He is acting rather crazy of course, but that’s also the point: she is not one bit concerned about what’s happening to him. Or God forbid, how to reconnect with him.
And she could care less to keep her daughter out of their problems.
Indeed, as soon as her daughter walks in, she tries to use her to pile up pressure on his husband.

#4. Scorecard Relationships

Keeping tabs means keeping score as to who has done what.

Don’t get it wrong here: most healthy relationships do entail a give and take (law of social exchange).
However, the focus in great relationships is on giving and the pleasure of giving. And the partner does the same.

The give and take thus happen naturally because both are happy to be giving.
John Gottman‘s research confirms that the happiest relationships do not keep score.

The relationship becomes toxic when the focus instead is on what we get. Giving only becomes a tool to get something, and that’s a draining, poor relationship to be in.

#5. Mutual Assured Destruction

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a term borrowed from military strategy.

And in a relationship, it’s the most toxic way of keeping score.

The mindset is: “you hurt me, so I hurt you back”. And it keeps on going forever. Or until one destroys the other.
These relationships lack an adult and lack a partner who is mentally strong enough to stop the nonsense.


The movie The Break-Up shows a lot of mutual harm.
Especially after the actual break-up:

Warning: MAD is rather common during divorce proceedings. Women also tend to stay stuck in “destruction mode” longer than men. That’s why a prenup can be a smart choice.

#6. Competitive Relationships

Great relationships are mutually supportive.

One partner wins, and he wins for the team.
Poor, toxic relationships instead see the partners trying to tear each other down.

Often it’s the man who starts it.
It stems from internal insecurity, and he starts the competition to feel superior and in charge. The woman is then forced to do the same to defend her dignity and/or to stop the onslaught.

The men who engage in competitive devaluation have usually a fixed mindset and weak egos.
To fix this dynamic, it often helps to:


Here is a great example of what a competitive relationship looks like:

He also always and only refers to his wife as “beautiful”. And he says she looked exactly like the woman he wanted. Another sign of narcissism.

#7. Downward Spiral Relationships

In the downward spiral, one partner self-destructs and the other follows suit.

This is an all too common toxic relationship among drug addicts.
One partner does drugs or starts doing drugs and then introduces the other to the drug scene.

In the beginning, all seems great.
The new experiences, the excitement of the forbidden, and walking the path together all make for memorable feelings.

The partner introducing the other to the new experiences takes on the role of the shepherd and leader.
If it’s the man, it’s very exciting for the woman to have him lead her into a new path, and she can come to idolize him (see Christiane F for a movie example).

Then they keep going down together, each dragging each other down.
It often entails lots of drama and possible escalation into violence (see Sid and Nancy).


The song we found love in a Hopeless Place is about a downward spiral type of toxic relationship until she finally breaks free.
And he keeps spiraling down.

#8. Toxic Relationship Dances

Toxic dances are relationships where one partner takes on a role that only exists in relation to the other.

Not all dances are toxic relationships.
For example, the man taking a more traditional male role and the woman taking a more traditional female role is not toxic.

However, there are instances where dysfunctional relationships become toxic.

Here are some:

  • Authority & Rebel: one partner lays down the law and the other undermines it
  • Parent & Child: one partner plays the wise and rational side, the other the clueless baby
  • Saint & Sinner: the saint rescues and the sinner gets in trouble (dependent/codependent)
  • Chaser & Runner: one partner seeks intimacy and contact, and the other runs for independence
  • Planet & Sun: one partner demands and expects, and the other caters to every whim (often in narcissistic relationships)


Here is an example of a parent-child relationship dance from Sex And The City:

Read more here on dysfunctional dances:

#9. Never-Ending Bickering

Gottman’s research says that conflict is not always bad.

However, two conditions must be met:

It’s difficult to keep a positive balance when you are arguing all the time.
And you cannot argue well when there are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.

Contempt is the worst of them all.
Contempt communicates that we feel our partner is inferior and not good enough. It’s an emotion of superiority and disgust, and disgust is the opposite of love.

When contempt enters a relationship a vicious circle starts which results in divorce in more than 90% of the cases.
And divorce is often better than a toxic relationship.


The argument in Forgetting Sarah Marshall has lots of contempt, both verbals, and nonverbals:


Her: ‘Oh, I’m Aldous Snow. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. ‘No, no drinks for me, thanks. ‘Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.’

That’s a lot of contempt there.

#10. Power Struggle Relationships

Some individuals, most often men, are power addicts.

Being a power addict means that every little suggestion, argument, dispute, or feedback is distorted into a war.
A war that he needs to win.

Power addicts aren’t always direct about it though.
Sometimes they just make up excuses to delay or deny you so that you can’t “win” with your request.

Maybe you want to change the channel on the TV and they aren’t even watching.
But they reply: “wait a second, I need to hear this”

Or maybe you ask him to take you to the dry cleaner on the way home.
And they speed towards home saying “sorry I really need to run home to make an urgent call”.

They make up stories because they need to have the last word.

Some women fall for the power addict because they confuse their steam-rolling approach for strong leadership.
It’s not strong leadership, though. And most certainly it’s not good leadership.

Power addicts make for truly toxic relationships, and refusing influence has been shown to be a leading indicator of break-ups.

#11. Emotional Roller Coaster

The big question:

What really keeps people in a toxic relationship?

It’s the roller coaster effect.

Some people indeed do not really want to get out of a relationship.
Some partners are perversely attracted to their toxic partners.

And what causes that attraction is the roller coaster of feelings.

When a toxic relationship can drag you down, down, down and then take you up, up, up, that’s extremely addictive to our brains (something we mentioned in how to drive him crazy).

Not all toxic relationships present a roller coaster of feelings and emotions, but those that do are the hardest to break free from.


The Oscar-winning “La Vita E’ Bella” presents an avoidant/anxious toxic relationship with the typical roller coaster effect:

Notice all the drama, how devastating it is for her.

But then… He comes back and rescues her.

When he rides back, she forgets all the nastiness that preceded it.
She forgets it was him who abandoned her there.

Now, she feels that he is her rescuer in shiny armor.
And that he is the only one who can make her feel great.

Getting Out of Toxic Relationship

How to end a toxic relationship?

If the advice was as simple as “just end it”, toxic relationships probably wouldn’t exist at all in the first place.

Some life roadblocks can get in the way.
Children, low self-esteem, fear of repercussions, lack of options, financial dependency, or social pressure are just but some of the obstacles to breaking free from a toxic relationship.

However, as a rule of thumb, human psychological biases often make changes seem much scarier and more difficult than they actually are.

Indeed usually, under heavier scrutiny, most of the roadblocks can be removed or mitigated.

Research for example says that a divorce is better for children than growing up in a house with a bad relationship.
And tackling a lack of options and financial dependency is the same as saying that you are going to improve and upgrade yourself.

What about social pressure?
People who pressure you to stay in a toxic relationship are not the people you should listen to.
They either don’t care about you or don’t know what you’re going through.
In either case, they should have no say in what’s best for you.

Here is a more in-depth article on getting out of a toxic relationship.

You can’t fly with the eagles if you keep hanging with the turkeys.
Break free.
The quicker, the safer; the earlier, the better.

end toxic relationships

Scroll to Top