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These are subtle signs you’re in a toxic relationship

When abuse is not overt, it becomes difficult to identify. Counselling psychologist practising at Netcare Akeso Gqeberha, Marcel Hitge affirms that trusting your gut is key. His tips and advice will shed some light, and help you make an informed decision.

Marcel describes a toxic relationship as one where both partners feel that they are trapped, being controlled, and depleted by the toxic partner. “The nature of the relationship is abusive (emotional, psychological, verbal, physical),” he says. Noting that relationships aren’t easy and require hard work, being able to compromise forms an important part thereof. “Unfortunately, in a toxic relationship, partners do not support each other in a healthy way,” he adds.

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Glamour: What are some of the subtle signs that point to a toxic relationship?


– Feeling that you are never taken seriously, that your opinion doesn’t count

– There might also be jokes made to your detriment

– You may feel constantly unhappy, sad, or angry for no apparent reason

– Your opinion is discarded and not respected

– Toxic partners are also known to deny having said certain things and hint at you making up accusations or ‘facts’

– You may notice that you have strict rules that govern your contact with friends or family

– Jealousy and rage from your partner

– A partner that is unreasonable and always wants to be right

Physical, verbal, and sexual abuse

– Feelings of being emotionally and physically drained in the relationship

– A lack of support is common in a toxic relationship and is often replaced with an unhealthy pseudo-competition

– Communication is destructive and hurtful and there is a general feeling that you were not heard or understood

– Partners becoming jealous and being overly controlling

– You might start to become less interested in self-care and looking after your health and appearance

– Constant fear of upsetting your partner, feeling like you are treading on eggshells.

Glamour: What if I can sense that something is off, but my partner convinces me otherwise?

Marcel: Continue to probe the situation until you feel satisfied with the outcome. If this is not possible, consider obtaining outside counsel and advice as gaslighting might possibly occur in order to manipulate and control your reaction, and to continue the unhealthy relationship.

Glamour: Can I have a meaningful relationship with a manipulative person if I regularly go for counselling to sound off?

Marcel: Relationships are complex and to have a meaningful relationship in this regard will require joint efforts. Both parties would be required to work on the relationship for change to happen.

Glamour: How do I know if I'm being gas-lighted and how do I stand up for myself?

Marcel: Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse or manipulation where an individual is being treated in a manner where they doubt themselves, question their reality, as well as their memory. People who are being gaslighted may also start questioning their own sanity. In a relationship this may take the form of an abusive partner accusing the abused partner of suffering from a mental illness or being ‘crazy’. Also, they sow doubt over the opinion of the abused partner. The purpose of gaslighting is to create a state in which the abused partner’s self-confidence is broken down to the point where it is easy to manipulate and control them. The best way to stand up for yourself is to enforce boundaries that protect you and discuss this with your partner to find a healthy way to continue within the relationship.

Glamour: Once I am certain that I am being manipulated, what sort of boundaries can I put in place?


– Communicate calmly and don’t allow them to dominate you. If this is not possible, leave the situation, do not react.

– Identify and discuss the problematic behaviour with your partner.

– Stop making excuses for your partner and defending their actions.

– Voice your opinion and have open communication about your feelings.

– Don’t try and ‘fix’ them – You can’t.

– Don’t allow yourself to be isolated from others.

– Look to empower yourself and build your self-worth.

– Don’t believe your toxic partner easily. Question their statements in order to make sure you are receiving and responding effectively.

– Your own health, mental health, needs, and requirements come first. Don’t compromise on that and continue to please the abuser.

– If needed, leave the relationship.

Glamour: If I work on my mental health, will it be possible to shift the power dynamic?

Marcel: By understanding and acknowledging your own self-worth and strength you will be better equipped to stand up for yourself, which can help to shift the power dynamic from lacking control and being helpless to taking control of your reaction and response to the toxic relationship. When you're in a toxic relationship, it can often feel familiar to something you've known, though you might not realise right away. For this reason, it's important to reflect on what we saw growing up. If we grew up in a household where we saw unhealthy relationships, or around a friend group, or a setting where we saw unhealthy relationships as models, it is easier to think that this is normal, acceptable, or just the way things are. It can also come from having lower self-esteem or a lower sense of self-worth and not understanding what a healthy relationship looks like.

Glamour: If you call a toxic partner out and suggest couples therapy, is change possible?

Marcel: There is always a possibility of change. That said, it is important to understand that there are many factors that play a role in this process. Willingness of the toxic partner to change is vital and probably one of the most important factors at play. If the toxic partner does not see the need for this or they are unwilling to take part, it would be unlikely that change could happen. Also keep in mind that change is relative and expectations in this regard are important. Small changes must also be seen as significant.

Glamour: If my toxic partner commits to changing, how do I know if it's real or another ploy to get me to stay?

Marcel: If your toxic partner commits to changing you will likely no longer feel as anxious, insecure, and angry. You are likely to feel more at ease. More importantly it will be evidence of change if you feel that you are truly being heard by your partner and when you feel that you and your boundaries are respected. As change is relative, it is important to keep in mind that at first small changes are considered big leaps forward and over time more significant changes are likely to happen.

Glamour: Is it possible to walk away from this kind of relationship once you establish that the abuser/toxic partner will never change?

Marcel: Yes, it is possible to leave a toxic relationship but, in many cases, it may not be that simple depending on the nature of the toxic relationship. When there is a financial dependency, or a fear of physical safety present the dynamics are more complex. It would nonetheless still be possible to leave but assistance from family, friends, professionals and even the authorities might be required.

Glamour: How severe is the damage to the victim?

Marcel: Depending on the specific dynamics of the toxic relationship the damage and effect on the victim could range from mild to severe.

Glamour: How does one go from victim mode to survivor mode?

Marcel: Understanding of the situation that you are faced with is the first step. It is then important to accept that you are in an abusive situation as the victim. Thereafter, analysing and identifying the dynamics of the abusive relationship, for instance what led to the victimhood (verbal abuse, self-doubt, traumatic events, being isolated etc.). Once you understand how the cycle of abuse is maintained or kept going, the final step would be to identify various options to react to the situation. This will enable the victim to realise that they have more power than they initially believed and to actually see that it is indeed possible to end the abusive cycle.

Glamour: Manipulators know how to worm their way back into people's lives, how do I break the cycle?

Marcel: We often hear a lot about boundaries in our daily interactions with others and we also read about boundaries quite often but unfortunately it is not always concretely explained, due to the fact that it is a dynamic term that will be specific to different people in different situations. With that said, boundaries would be one of the most important to put in place to make sure that you do not fall victim to manipulation and continue with a self-perpetuating cycle of enabling a toxic relationship. To do this, you must know and realise your self-worth, that you are worthy to be loved, accepted and respected. Thereafter you will better understand where your specific boundaries need to be implemented by understanding what the abusive partner used against you to disempower you. Keep boundaries simple and straightforward. If you do not feel comfortable or able to create boundaries and put them in place, consider reaching out to professionals that can help you with this.

Glamour: How do I recover from a toxic relationship? Are there support groups etc?

Marcel: Discovering your own authentic value and self-worth must be one of the most important aspects to concentrate on during the recovery from a toxic relationship. Consulting with professional people, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers, is highly recommended to understand exactly what the dynamics of the toxic relationship were with the goal of growing yourself to prevent a recurrence in future. If it is not possible to obtain professional help it is recommended that you reach out to people you trust in your life or in your community. If the relationship is very volatile and a threat against your safety is a concern, it is strongly advised to contact the authorities.

Glamour: Is it true that abusers are attracted to empaths?

Marcel: Yes, empaths do attract abusers due to the warm and trusting nature of their personalities which abusers (who often have highly manipulative skills) will take easy advantage of. Empaths will always give the benefit of the doubt to people and are naturally accepting and apologetic. Empaths would like to see the good in people and often dismiss the red lights, to their detriment. However, empaths can also become very resilient and adaptive once they learn about themselves and understand their personalities better.

Glamour: What do I need to work on to ensure that I stop attracting abusive partners?

Marcel: Self-worth. This is a fundamental factor to stop being victimized by manipulators. Manipulators attempt to disempower you by creating significant self-doubt causing you to question your opinion, your values, beliefs, and actions to obtain the upper hand over you. They can also use the same skill set to make you feel good about yourself to fit their narrative and fall in love with them. So, if you start to uncover and understand your own self-worth, you will be better able to know exactly what you need, deserve, and want.

This will make it far more challenging for abusers to manipulate you as you will be more aware and confident in identifying the warning signs or ‘red lights’ and guarding yourself. Abusive partners will generally be very good with words, and they might make you feel very valued and special, especially if you have a lower self-esteem. Psychotherapy might be helpful in this regard as it will explore the pitfalls that get you stuck in abusive relationships and assist in building and discovering your self-esteem and self-worth to protect yourself against falling victim in future.

Glamour: Is it possible to trust again?

Marcel: Yes, it is possible to trust again, unfortunately it will likely be a long and emotional journey. It would start by recognizing your self-value, necessary boundaries that you require to be safe in a relationship and believing that trust is something that can be rebuilt. It will require support from friends, family, therapists etc., as well as a partner that will respect your boundaries and recognize your worth. Trust is earned over time by the actions of people you allow in your life. The actions of others will tell far more than the words they use. Think of it in this way, “Don’t tell me, show me…”. If this test holds true and you can see that you are respected, valued and protected, it is highly likely that you would be able to regain trust, even if it is to an extent. This must also be seen as a fluid process that will develop and grow over time.

Marcel’s Top 5 tips for navigating a toxic relationship?

– Trust your instincts or ’gut feeling’. If something feels wrong or you feel uncomfortable, please further explore that – you will likely be right.

– Explore and discover your self-worth and own it. Don’t allow others to determine how you value yourself. They don’t know you the way you do, and they also don’t know how and what you are feeling.

– Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries… If your boundaries make other people feel uncomfortable it should be an immediate indication that something is amiss. Don’t compromise on the boundaries you need to implement to feel safe.

– Conversation and dialogue. It is also possible that if a toxic partner is made aware of their behaviour and actions that change could happen. Therefore, always have a conversation and discuss your thoughts and feelings with your partner.

– If all else fails, GET OUT. LEAVE. If it is more complicated than just simply being able to end the toxic relationship, please reach out to a friend, a family member, a religious or community leader, professional, and/or authorities. Your safety and emotional wellbeing are not negotiable. Even if you feel trapped in a corner with no possible way out, still reach out until you are heard.

For information about mental health services and accessing care, Netcare Akeso is here to help. In the event of a psychological crisis, individuals can also phone the Netcare Akeso crisis helpline on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day, to talk to an experienced counsellor.

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