Damaging relationships can be hard to spot because they’re not usually 100% toxic. Like a bad meal that’s mostly burned but has two or three okay bites, a relationship that is overall harmful to you or detracts from your health and wellbeing may nonetheless have a few redeeming qualities or bright moments, which can be confusing and misleading. We may want to believe that those not-awful moments are the “real” relationship or what it “could be” if we just try hard enough, stay long enough, or figure out the other person.

Pop Culture Says

Pop culture tells us that relationships are hard work and that we need to be willing to put in the time, effort, and some heartache. We are encouraged to take ownership of our individual roles in conflict and difficulties in relational interactions. We are also taught that it’s important to compromise and be compassionate about others’ shortfalls and to give each the people in our lives opportunities to grow and be better.

Additionally, many of us feel that we must somehow be “in the right” or be able to completely justify ending a relationship to the other person. We feel pressured to “prove” the wrongness of the relationship to the other person before we feel exiting is warranted. Many of us are deeply fearful of being accused by others (and/or by ourselves) that we didn’t work hard enough, didn’t “care enough to try,” gave up, or that our desire to move on is somehow evidence that we “never cared at all.”

If you are in any kind of relationship where any of the above accusations sound familiar, you are in a damaging relationship.

All Kinds of Circumstances

Damaging relationships happen under all kinds of circumstances. Acknowledging that you’re in a damaging relationship doesn’t have anything to do with ascribing fault. It doesn’t mean that you are accusing the other person of anything. It simply means that you are in a relationship that has negative outcomes and/or consequences for your wellbeing. The degree to which the other person knowingly contributes to those consequences is variable, but their ownership or contribution is irrelevant. What matters is how the relationship impacts you.

Substance Use

Substance use is often a part of damaging relationships. The more overt examples include relationships in which substances lead to harmful behaviors towards one another and/or towards oneself and negative consequences.

Substances can also play a more subtle role in damaging relationships. Using substances (together or individually) can be a way the individuals avoid conflict, problems, or pain. It can be a way of glossing over incompatibilities that are not anyone’s fault, but nonetheless significant. It can be a way of forestalling the inevitable end of a relationship that isn’t working.


When evaluating if your relationship is damaging, try and focus on outcomes without getting hung up on fault, because fault is always a matter of perspective and will keep you stuck in circular, highly subjective justifications (yours and the other person’s). Some questions to ask yourself are:

Is this relationship contributing to or detracting from my sense of wellbeing, calm, and fulfillment? Is this relationship a way for me to escape/avoid other things in my life that I don’t want to deal with? If we were sober together 100% of the time, would this relationship still be attractive to me?

Your Responsibility

Remember, you do not have to prove anything in order to end a relationship. It’s your responsibility to accept that the other person may not agree with your assessment that the relationship is unhealthy for you, and that’s okay. They are entitled to have their opinion; you are not obligated to have the same view.

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