How to identify toxic behaviours early on in any relationship – family, friendship or romantic

Abuse can be so subtle at first that over time you may realise you’ve had your autonomy taken away from you but can’t quite identify why or when it started. Here, Hera Hussain, the founder of Chayn, lists how to spot toxic behaviour early on. 

When we think about toxic people and the way they are often seen in pop culture, this conjures up an image of Dirty John, but much of manipulative behaviour is insidious in nature and can be hard to spot. Do you feel like you have to think and behave a certain way to get someone’s attention and love? Do you often find yourself in situations where it’s hard for you to trace back why you are behaving the way you are?

Abusive relationships go far beyond physical violence. The abuse and control they inflict is all-encompassing, from sexual and psychological to financial. It can be so subtle at first that over time you may realise you’ve had your autonomy taken away from you but can’t quite identify why or when it started. When did the spying on messages and calls start? When were you last able to access your money? When did you start being forced to perform sexual acts? Abusers regularly use a variety of tactics including name calling, screaming and extreme critiquing of any decisions you make. And abusers aren’t only sexual partners. It could be family members, carers, friends or colleagues. 

Hera Hussain, Founder and CEO, CHAYN
Hera Hussain, Founder and CEO, CHAYN

We are all at risk of being controlled, regardless of your or your abuser’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Further, if there are any factors that make you more vulnerable in terms of access to support networks and financial independence, abusers are likely to exploit this to maintain control over you.

It’s not easy to identify abuse in your relationships; even harder when the perpetrator is not physically harming you. 

Listen to your body

A quick way to help you identify a toxic relationship is to look inside at how your body is reacting. If you feel like you’re walking on eggshells or afraid of saying the wrong thing, this could be a warning sign. If your self-esteem has been lowered and you feel nothing you do is right – leaving a feeling of despair and anxiety – you may be in a toxic relationship.

Our body tells us if we fear being hurt, whether mentally or physically. It may express this through physical pain in the heart, breathlessness and a fast heartbeat; it may retract completely leaving a feeling of numbness, which leads to depression and an inclination to remove yourself from things and people who once made you happy.

There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of an abusive relationship, just as the way someone responds to trauma is very different. The tips below will help you identify if you’re in an abusive relationship so you can find support and, if necessary, escape.

Isolating yourself 

It may start out okay but slowly you realise your friend or partner is saying no to group plans and encouraging you to stay at home or only with them instead. Over time, this may turn into something more controlling, like removing you from your support network and claiming it is for your benefit. This may be noticeable through statements like: “I don’t like your parents, they are not good to you and I don’t want you to see them.” 

Hera Hussain, Founder and CEO, CHAYN
Hera Hussain delivering a talk

Financial control 

This might sound like: “You spend too much on yourself” or “You know you can’t be trusted with money. It’s best that I’m in charge.” Manipulative people will use financial control methods to gain power and control in relationships. Financial abuse is one of the most powerful ways to keep someone trapped in a relationship, and can take subtle or overt forms to limit access to assets and accessibility to family finances. 

Fostering dependence and guilt-tripping

You many notice this in the form of drastic statements about what the manipulator might do if you don’t do what they ask, or over-reactions, such as obsessively calling you if you don’t answer at first. It could be a form of emotional blackmail and might appear in exaggerated, dramatic language that makes you feel as though the other person’s wellbeing is entirely your responsibility.

The abuser might say: “If you loved me…”, “every decent person would…” or “you should be grateful you have me.”

Lies and gaslighting

Gaslighting is a term that’s commonly thrown around but sometimes difficult to explain. 

In a toxic relationship, it might sound like: “They only like you because of me”, “I never said that!”, “You are imagining things again” or digs like: “You are nowhere near as beautiful as she is.” Manipulators may also frame statements as questions to shift the focus onto you, or they may start accusing you or changing the subject completely. 

You may also like

“He stole from me and left me in £30k of debt”: what you need to know about economic abuse

Withdrawal of affection

Controlling people may stop talking to you completely to exert pressure upon you, and to coerce you into what they want you to do, and see how long it will take before you break down. 

The term ‘ghosting’ is used a lot to describe break-ups, but in an active relationship, it is very much a form of control. For example, one survivor’s first boyfriend turned his back on her when she didn’t want to have sex, and would only respond once she agreed to have sex. 

You may also like

Do you know the difference between love and coercive control? This experiment proves most young people don't

Invalidating your feelings

This might sound like: “I’m sure they only have your best interests at heart” or “What did you do to make them feel like that?”

Controlling people may make themselves out to be the victim to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. They may react to your defence – in family situations this can be seen as “talking back”, and is seen as a sign of insolence and disrespect. They will act as though you are the one who has done something wrong and hurt them saying things like: “You’re blowing things way out of proportion” or “Your anger is a bit of an overreaction.”

They will invalidate your feelings. This happens when we recognise emotions, positive or negative, coming out of a person, and either discount, belittle, minimise, ignore or negatively judge these feelings. Remember you have every right to speak up for yourself. You matter.

Many of these behaviours look innocent or are explainable on their own but together, a pattern of abuse begins to emerge and this will help you identify whether your relationship is manipulative and toxic. Just remember that though people can change, you should always judge them on the basis of their pattern of behaviour and not their promises.

Hera Hussain is the Founder of Chayn - a global volunteer-run project crowdsourcing resources on the web to address gender-based violence. Chayn has reached more than 360,000 people through its resources which are designed with survivors of abuse. Born in Scotland, raised in Pakistan and living in the UK, she is a passionate believer in using the power of open source technology and open data to solve the world’s pressing issues and has appeared on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. 

Co-designed by survivors at Chayn, Your Story Matters (YSM) is a webapp that gives sexual assault survivors access to resources around trauma and recovery, including mental and sexual wellbeing, tips on creating a timeline of assault, how to disclose abuse to someone and stage-by-stage documentation of legal and police procedures. 

For more help and support in a difficult relationship, you can also seek confidential support with Relate or contact Refuge for help and guidance with control issues. Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is free to call and available 24/7 on 0808 2000 247.

Hero image: Getty. Photos of Hera Hussain courtesy of Chayn. 


Share this article

Recommended by Stylist Team


“I sucked at lockdown the first time, here’s what I’m doing differently this time”

One woman, who struggled with her mental health, family and drinking during the first lockdown, is determined to have a better experience this time around.

Posted by
Katy Harrington

“He stole from me and left me in £30k of debt”: what you need to know about economic abuse

Economic abuse is happening all around us in the UK but many victims are frightened to speak. Here a young woman explains how her abuser took over her finances.

Posted by
Katy Harrington

Do you know the difference between love and coercive control?

For a new televised social experiment, journalist Ellie Flynn brings together a group of young people to see if they understand what coercive control means.

Posted by
Katy Harrington

8 ways to move on from a toxic relationship

It can seem impossible to break free – but here's some advice on how to start.

Posted by
Deborah Cicurel

“How the night I was raped changed the course of my life forever”

After being raped by a man on her way home one night, a young woman was determined to see her attacker jailed, and help other women in the same situation

Posted by
Jen H