Identifying toxic relationships


Graphic illustration by Lillian Fu

Healthy relationships sometimes buckle due to psychological factors and harmful habits, which can negatively influence future relationships.

Amishi Chandra and Ria Phelan

Butterflies and queasy feelings often accompany new relationships. The desire to be with one’s partner is overwhelming yet exciting, and the possibilities for the future seem endless. However, healthy relationships sometimes buckle due to psychological factors and harmful habits, which can negatively influence future relationships. 

Students often meet their first love in high school or college, which can substantially influence their mindset when forming connections in the long run. Along with excitement, relationships bring lessons of intimacy, trust and heartbreak. However, some young people are faced with struggles when their partner unexpectedly takes advantage of them. 

“High school relationships are definitely a great thing to experience,” senior Archana Pisupati said. “Having someone to talk to about everything, the good and bad, is really comforting and fun.” 

Often called the honeymoon phase, the first few months of most relationships are considered the best and smoothest. Partners are constantly learning new things about each other, which keeps the excitement of getting to know someone new alive.

Gradually, partners begin to trust each other more and reveal more personal emotions, giving their partner more power and influence over them. When this power is wielded in an overbearing or imbalanced way, however, a relationship can quickly become toxic and harmful.  

“The biggest indicator of a toxic relationship is when one or both partners are walking away from serious conversations or interactions with each other feeling worse about themselves,” Lynbrook’s school-based therapist Jenna Starnes said. “When you start thinking, ‘Am I the crazy one?’, you may be in a toxic relationship.” 

For example, in pressuring their partner to change their career goals or to work out through body shaming, individuals can discourage their partner’s healthy ambitions. Gaslighting, or invalidating one’s feelings, can also become common as one partner will do anything to undermine the other’s feelings or perceptions of reality in an effort to manipulate them.

Large age gaps, especially in high school, can mean different levels of experience and maturity between partners. The older partner often knows more about navigating a relationship and will therefore take the lead in activities and decisions. However, if they begin to dismiss their partner’s feelings or ideas, the power dynamic becomes unbalanced and unhealthy. This puts them in the position to define their relationship and groom their younger partner into following their requests.  

Coercion for sexual activity is one of the most common signs of a toxic relationship. While some teenagers are eager to explore more intimate activities with their partners, others may feel pressured to engage in intimate acts regardless of their emotional readiness. Although intimacy can strengthen a relationship, both partners must have clear communication so both parties feel comfortable.

Following a toxic interaction, partners often attempt to reconcile through mechanisms such as love bombing — when a partner attempts to influence a person through demonstrations of attention and affection —  without concrete changes in their behavior. Fights and mistakes are improperly reconciled through affection or loving gestures instead of a confrontation of the issues at hand. 

Positive endings to negative events confound the issue and allow the negative cycle to be repeated constantly with no plan for improvement. The attachments of a relationship render it much harder to leave toxic partners, and there are a multitude of reasons why people choose to stay with partners who they know are not good for them. 

“It’s hard to see what you’re in from the inside, and you need somebody on the outside looking at it with you,” marriage counselor Jeni Woodfin said. “Find a therapist or find a friend. If you feel safe and comfortable, you can establish boundaries and try to correct the toxic relationship to get it into a more healthy place.”

It is important to learn how to recognize and prevent toxic relationships because they can render damaging emotional and mental effects on both partners. The impact is sometimes latent, but more often, it shows.  Many people suffering from toxic relationships experience elevated anxiety,  a breakdown of their willingness to trust others and even changes in the ways they act and behave. A study conducted by the New York Times demonstrated that teenagers who suffer from dating abuse are subject to long-term effects such as drinking, eating disorders and violent behavior.

“I think it is very important to know your own boundaries in a relationship,” junior Angela Chung said. “If you know it affects your school work, then you should end the relationship. Sometimes, I have struggled in being persistent in doing my work because of friendships. People should make sure that school comes before relationships — relationships happen a lot in life.”

Toxic relationships are a major problem among teenagers, but their severity is often overlooked. According to The New York Times’s teen dating violence statistics in 2019, one in three girls have been sexually assaulted in high school. Additionally, one in ten teens have been physically abused by their romantic partner. Among those abused, 33% did not tell anyone about their experience. Moreover, 81% of parents don’t believe toxic relationships are a problem. 

 “I see kids get really distracted by relationships, and their grades might change a little bit,” Woodfin said. “Some even get anxious and depressed. Sometimes they don’t have anyone to turn to which leads to bigger problems. That’s where I come in.” 

Emotional vulnerability is not easy to embrace, and many high school students who are in toxic relationships live in denial. When people are pressured by their partners, they often justify the actions by convincing themselves of the actions’ validity. By ignoring red flags, many lose their sense of reality.

“When you are in a toxic relationship, it’s easy to make excuses for your partner,” Starnes said. “The what-ifs go on and on — ‘they had a hard past,’ ‘maybe if I did this differently,’ ‘I can fix this.’”

Studies on teenage relationships have demonstrated that intimate partner violence sets the stage for emotional and physical problems in subsequent relationships and increased chances of becoming victims of other abuse throughout life. Youths who are subject to dating violence

“I think the first relationship, if it goes badly, can discourage people from future relationships, or they start to think that this is what a normal relationship is supposed to look like,” Woodfin said. “They will try to recreate the toxic relationship with their next person and so on.”

Recognizing the attributes of a positive or negative relationship can prevent toxicity. Healthy relationships come from trust, respect and open communication between partners, requiring effort and compromise  from both parties. There is a balance of power in a healthy partnership: Partners respect each other’s independence, can make their own decisions without fear of retribution or retaliation and share in decision-making.

 “The biggest thing for a relationship to be successful is communication because that’s what you are promising the other person when you get into a relationship,” Pisupati said. “That way, you can solve any problems together before it gets toxic.” 

Fortunately, students can spot the signs and prevent such relationships before they impact their lives irrevocably. Taking the right first step and identifying red flags will help ensure a healthy relationship. Places to get help include counseling websites, national hotlines, school counselors and even parents. Reach out to any of the sources listed below to get help for yourself or a friend.