Shelley J Whitehead

3 overt signs you are in a toxic relationship

8 November, 2022

There are some behaviours that are overt signs of toxicity in a relationship. 

In my work as a relationship coach, whenever these overt signs crop up with individuals or couples, I interpret them as very clear signs of an unhealthy relationship. All of these overtly toxic behaviours are clear-cut indicators that an action needs to be taken. 

In this article, I’discuss three overt signs of toxicity and share my recommendations on what action you might want to consider taking if any of these behaviours are showing up in any of your relationships. 

1. Physical abuse 

There is never, ever, any circumstance under which physical abuse is acceptable and should be tolerated. If I am ever coaching someone who discloses that there is physical abuse of any kind in a relationship, my very direct advice is that they take measures to remove themselves to safety as quickly as they can and to report the abuse. I am not a specialist on the legalities of seeking protection in all jurisdictions, as different parts of the world have different legal mechanisms in place to support people at risk of physical abuse, but my advice is unequivocal: physical abuse should not be tolerated, under any circumstance. 

2. Cruelty

Cruelty can be defined as deliberately inflicting pain or injury on another. If someone gains pleasure from the suffering of another, there is no possibility of a healthy relationship. I would never recommend that anyone stay in a relationship where cruelty is a recurring pattern. 

3. Contempt

Contempt is closely related to cruelty. The difference between the two is that cruelty involves gaining pleasure from someone else’s suffering whereas contempt is a form of indifference. Examples of contempt include sneering or belittling someone else – the kinds of behaviours that involve a lack of respect for the other person. A huge amount of research has shown that this kind of behaviour is one of the greatest indicators that couples are headed for a rupture, as it is a very difficult behaviour to come back from. 

Unlike physical abuse and cruelty, in my couples work I have worked with relationships where couples are able to wind back from this behaviour into more healthy ways of relating. But if you are in a couple where extreme contempt is part of your day-to-day relationship pattern, it takes a lot of work on both sides to get back into a place of loving connection. 

What to do if you are in a toxic relationship

If you are experiencing any of these three behaviours in your relationship, I strongly advise you to take action. These behaviours can be extremely damaging and they are not behaviours that should be tolerated. 

There are many resources available for supporting people in abusive relationships. If this is you, don’t suffer in silence – there is help out there and there is always hope. 

If the signs of toxicity in your relationship are a little more subtle or if you’d like to explore more about when you should leave a relationship, you might find my article ‘When to end a relationship’ a really helpful one.

Wishing you love and courage,

Shelley J Whitehead
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