What You Should Know About Sex with a Narcissist

by | Jul 3, 2022 | Uncategorized

When you first got together, your partner might’ve seemed considerate, wildly devoted, and very interested in making sure you had a good time in bed.

Maybe they lavished you with attention, gifts, flattery, and promises of true romance, to the point where you almost felt overwhelmed by their charm.

Yet as time went on, you began to notice some persistent red flags in their behavior:

  • They begin to devalue and criticize you — first subtly, then openly.
  • They lash out in rage, or ignore you completely, when you do or say something they don’t like.
  • They no longer seem to consider what you enjoy in bed but instead seem entirely focused on their desires.

If your partner also has a general attitude of entitlement and superiority, along with a need for regular praise and admiration, you might start to wonder whether they could have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

“Personality disorder” is an umbrella term for a group of mental health conditions, including NPD, characterized by unhealthy patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

And the short answer is yes, it’s certainly possible.

We’ve got answers to your questions about sex with a partner who displays symptoms of narcissistic behavior below.

What does narcissistic sexual behavior look like?

The traits that characterize NPD and other personality disorders tend to remain pretty constant over time.

These traits also show up in multiple areas of life. So, someone with characteristics of NPD won’t just show narcissistic behaviors at work or around family and friends. You’ll eventually begin to recognize the signs in most of their interactions.

In a romantic or sexual relationship, key traits that characterize NPD can absolutely extend to all domains of your relationship, including the bedroom.

That said, you may not always notice specific behaviors right away, especially when your partner makes a dedicated effort to present a different side of themselves.

When a sexual partner exhibits symptoms of NPD, you might notice some of the following.

They only seem to care about physical pleasure

Sure, sex can be a lot of fun. Purely physical, no-strings-attached sex can be perfectly satisfying — as long as that’s what you and your partner both want.

In a relationship, sex (plus post-coital cuddling and pillow talk) also helps you connect with your partner on an intimate level. It doesn’t just feel good, it also promotes bonding and increased closeness.

But partners with symptoms of NPD may have little or no interest in building intimacy once they’ve accomplished their goal of sexual gratification.

If you try to talk about your feelings or the relationship, they might offer some token participation but seem bored or disinterested and quickly change the subject to how they feel.

They need a lot of praise

People who display narcissistic behaviors generally have a high opinion of themselves. They may consider themselves special, uniquely gifted, and more important than anyone else.

In bed, this can sometimes translate to putting their own pleasure first. They may want you to satisfy theirneeds, and if yours don’t get met, well, that’s not really their concern.

That said, self-importance can also mean that they could want to satisfy you so you can praise their skills and tell them how considerate they are as a partner.

So, instead of sharing how much fun you had together, they might want you to describe, in great detail, just how great they are at sex and how much you enjoyed the encounter.

They might look for this validation and approval every time you have sex. When you don’t offer the admiration they’re hoping for, they might press you for further compliments or even get angry.

They react poorly when you disagree with them

Let’s say you mention something you didn’t like or you suggest something to try in the future.

For example:

  • “I don’t love it when you bite my neck.”
  • “Please don’t hold my head when I’m going down on you.”
  • “I think it would be really fun to try sex standing up.”

It’s absolutely valid to express your own needs and preferences. Yet even when you do so respectfully, comments like these might challenge their perception of themselves as the “best” partner.

So, they might respond by dismissing your request, pointing out “flaws” in your appearance or performance, or making unkind remarks.

For example:

  • “You always seemed to like it before.”
  • “I only try to keep your head still because you’re not very good at that. I’d never finish otherwise.”
  • “What would you know? It’s not like you’re that exciting in bed.”

They feel entitled to sex

Narcissism is often characterized by a sense of entitlement, so a partner with symptoms of NPD might assume you’ll jump at the chance to have sex whenever they’re in the mood.

After all, they might reason, shouldn’t the chance to have sex with someone so attractive and talented delight you?

When you don’t want to have sex, they might:

  • try to make you feel guilty by saying you don’t care about them
  • accuse you of cheating
  • call you names
  • compare your performance to past partners
  • threaten to leave you or have sex with someone else

You may not automatically recognize these behaviors as abuse. You might even start to wonder whether not wanting to have sex makes you a bad partner and you really are the one at fault.

These manipulation tactics fall under the umbrella of sexual coercion, however. You can consider them calculated attempts to make you feel bad and give in to what they want.

No one deserves sex.

A partner might feel a little disappointed when they want to have sex and you don’t. But in a healthy relationship, they’ll respect your decision and your boundaries, and they won’t pressure you to change your mind.

They have little interest in your feelings

Narcissism typically involves a lack of empathy.

Low empathy doesn’t make someone completely incapable of understanding other people’s feelings.

But it does mean they may not spend much time thinking about the impact of their behavior. They might even seem unaware that other people even have feelings.

If your partner displays symptoms of NPD, you might get the impression that as long as they get what they want, nothing else matters.

Maybe they have a very detailed and specific outline of how your encounters should play out. They tell you what they want to do, in what position, and what you should wear to bed and say during sex. They don’t ask your opinion or consider that you might want to try something else.

This can leave you feeling more like an object than a partner.

Does it always come across in the same way?

Narcissistic behaviors happen on a spectrum.

It’s possible to have several narcissistic traits without meeting full criteria for a diagnosis of NPD. These traits can show up in varying degrees of severity.

A partner with less-severe narcissistic traits may show more willingness to acknowledge problematic behaviors when you call them out. They might also make more of an effort to consider your feelings and sexual needs.

Someone who displays severe symptoms of NPD, however, may remain firmly convinced that only their needs matter. They may continue attempting to manipulate and exploit you in order to get those needs met.

It’s also important to understand that a few different subtypes of narcissism exist. While narcissistic behaviors do align with the same main characteristics, they won’t look exactly the same from person to person.

Plenty of people might recognize the exaggerated sense of superiority and self-importance seen with grandiose narcissism, but vulnerable (covert) narcissism can look pretty different.

A partner with traits of grandiose narcissism might:

  • make outright sexual demands
  • tell you that you’re wrong when you challenge or criticize their behavior
  • ask for praise and compliments directly
  • become openly enraged when you disagree

On the other hand, a partner with traits of vulnerable narcissism might:

  • use passive aggression or other manipulation tactics to get what they want
  • shift the blame to you when you call out problematic behavior
  • put themselves down so you’ll offer compliments and praise
  • be very sensitive to criticism and hold grudges when they think you’ve insulted them

Many people with traits of NPD do cheat on their partners and attempt to manipulate them into having sex.

That said, narcissism itself doesn’t automatically mean someone will cheat, use sexual coercion tactics, or show any sexually aggressive behavior.

Is there a difference between narcissistic sexual behaviors and sexual narcissism?

It’s easy to confuse sexual narcissism with narcissistic sexual behaviors. After all, they sound like exactly the same thing.

Here’s the difference:

Sexual narcissism isn’t a personality disorder, or any type of mental health condition.

It specifically refers to traits of narcissism that show up only in someone’s sexual behavior and attitude toward sex. Someone can display traits of sexual narcissism without meeting any criteria for an NPD diagnosis.

A person with traits of NPD might have an entitled attitude and other narcissistic traits in the context of their romantic and sexual relationships. But narcissistic traits will also show up in other areas of life.

It’s also possible to display symptoms of NPD without behaving in sexually entitled ways. In fact, the criteria used to diagnose NPD don’t even touch on sexual behavior.

ResearchTrusted Source suggests a link between sexual narcissism and sexual aggression — which includes rape, other sexual assault, and sexual coercion. Experts have not, however, found evidence to suggest that narcissism alone makes sexual aggression more likely.

What should you do if you recognize this in yourself?

If you’ve noticed signs of narcissism in your own behavior, you might be curious about those traits and how they might affect your relationships.

Talking to a mental health professional is an important step toward getting more insight and creating lasting change.

You can certainly begin making changes on your own, perhaps by:

  • reminding yourself that your partner has just as much value as a person as you do
  • making a habit of checking in with your partner about their sexual needs
  • practicing more productive responses to criticism

Traits and behaviors associated with personality disorders tend to be difficult to change alone, though, so professional support can make a big difference.

Therapy provides a non-judgmental environment where you can:

  • explore underlying causes of narcissistic behaviors
  • identify how narcissistic traits show up in your life
  • practice considering things from your partner’s (or anyone else’s) perspective
  • learn new methods of communication and relating to others
  • learn to recognize and respect the boundaries others set

In short, support from a therapist can help you develop and maintain healthier relationships that satisfy both you and your partner.

What if you recognize this in a partner?

If you’ve identified some narcissistic traits in your partner’s sexual behavior, you might wonder what to do next.

Should you confront them? Dump them? Say nothing and hope the situation improves?

The best response usually depends on the circumstances of your relationship.

If you care about your partner and want to stay involved, you might try starting with a conversation.

For example:

“I feel hurt and ignored when you say my interests don’t matter. I’m willing to try things you enjoy, and if we’re going to continue this relationship, it needs to be on equal terms. My preferences are just as valid as yours.”

It’s also important to set clear boundaries (and stick to them!).

For example:

“When I say I don’t want to have sex, I mean it. If you continue to pressure me or try to make me feel guilty, I’ll leave/you can go home.”

If they want to maintain your relationship, they might be willing to consider working with a therapist, so you could also encourage them to seek professional support.

For example:

“I want to continue dating, but I don’t see that happening unless you’re willing to consider my feelings. Would you consider talking to a therapist about how to give that a try?”

At the end of the day, remember this: Change is possible, but it can take time and hard work in therapy to see any results.

Learn more about navigating a relationship with a partner with NPD.

How can this affect you long-term?

Narcissistic traits can affect all of your personal and professional relationships, making it difficult to keep a job, maintain friendships, or have healthy romantic relationships.

NPD also often involves feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, emptiness, and anxiety. Any of these can contribute to emotional distress and other mental health symptoms, including depression.

What’s more, if you do attempt to coerce or manipulate a partner into having sex, you might find yourself facing legal consequences — not to mention the lasting trauma and distress you might leave them with.

Since NPD is a mental health condition, it generally doesn’t improve without professional treatment. That said, support from a therapist can go a long way toward helping you address these signs and behaviors.

The bottom line

A partner with traits of narcissism may not always feel motivated to change any of their behaviors, so they might continue showing little interest in your sexual needs and desires.

If you’ve tried talking to them and they still fail to show consideration and respect for your feelings and boundaries, ending the relationship and moving on may be a better step toward your long-term well-being.

How to Recognize Sexual Narcissism — and What to Do Next

Sexual narcissism, sometimes called sexual entitlement, involves a largely self-centered view of sexual activity.

People with traits of sexual narcissism typically have an inflated idea of their sexual skills and bedroom performance and focus primarily on what they want.

They also tend to lack interest in cultivating emotional intimacy and show little interest in what their partners might want. It isn’t uncommon for these people to manipulate or coerce partners to get their needs met.

In fact, experts have linkedTrusted Source individuals who display coercive behaviors to infidelity, sexual aggression, and other harmful behaviors.

Whether you’re involved with someone who shows signs of sexual narcissism or re-evaluating your own ideas around sex, we’ve got answers to your questions below.

What does sexual narcissism mean exactly?

There’s nothing wrong with having confidence in your sexual abilities. In fact, sexual self-esteem can even have a positive impact on overall well-being.

It’s also perfectly normal to occasionally get caught up in the moment during sex and fixate on your own pleasure. These things don’t automatically suggest sexual narcissism, especially when you care about your partner’s desires and want to connect on an emotional level, too.

A key difference lies in the fact that people with sexual narcissism generally believe they have a right to sex, especially within the context of a romantic relationship.

They pursue sex for physical enjoyment, not emotional connection, and they might exploit or manipulate partners in order to have sex.

Older research suggests this behavior pattern has its roots in insecurity and low self-esteem.

Traits of sexual narcissism show up across someone’s sexual relationships, not just with one partner or for a brief period.

People with sexual narcissism pursue sex because it benefits them. Along with physical enjoyment, sex offers validation of their physical prowess. Still, they may not necessarily have a preoccupation with sexual thoughts or behaviors.

Is there a difference between sexual narcissism and regular narcissism?

In short, yes. Sexual narcissism and what experts call global narcissism are two related but distinct concepts.

Sexual narcissism refers to narcissistic traits, such as entitlement, low empathy, or superiority, that show up specifically in sexual behavior.

This term describes a pattern of behavior that shows up in someone’s attitude and beliefs about sex. It isn’t considered a personality disorder or specific mental health condition.

Narcissism is a personality disorder (NPD). Experts have reached a general consensus on its typical traits, and you’ll find specific diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The traits and behaviors associated with this condition typically show up across multiple areas of life.

It’s certainly possible for someone with an attitude of sexual entitlement to also meet the criteria for NPD, but this may not always be the case.

Researchers have noted that people with narcissism often display some type of sexual entitlement, yet the criteria mental health professionals use to assess narcissistic traits don’t specifically mention sexual behavior.

Another key difference between the two lies in the link between sexual narcissism and sexual aggression. Unlike sexual narcissism, NPD alone doesn’t necessarily suggest a higher likelihood of behaving in sexually aggressive ways.

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What does sexual narcissism look like?

Generally speaking, sexual narcissism involves many of the same traits associated with NPD.

These behaviors persist, showing up consistently rather than occasionally, but they appear in the context of sexual interactions and relationships instead of all areas of life.

A partner with sexual narcissism may:

  • believe they deserve sex and have a right to demand it whenever they want, even if you’re working, sleeping, or occupied with something else
  • expect sex in return for gifts or favors
  • feel perfectly willing to trick, deceive, or manipulate you into having sex
  • care little about what you want in bed
  • need a lot of validation and admiration for their sexual performance
  • believe they have superior sexual skills and that everyone else considers them fantastic sexual partners
  • react poorly when you refuse sex or fail to offer enough praise and approval
  • put you down, often to manipulate you more easily
  • feel bothered or dissatisfied by the idea that others are having more sex or better sex than they are

The belief they deserve sex when they want it may lead them to have sex outside your relationship. They might justify this behavior and you may feel as if it’s your fault for not making yourself available for sex.

While we want to emphasize not everyone with sexual narcissism will cheat or attempt sexual assault, experts have found evidence to suggest links between sexual narcissism and infidelityTrusted Source, as well as sexual aggressionTrusted Source, including sexual coercion and rape.

People with traits of sexual narcissism often lack empathy, so they may not feel particularly distressed by their behavior or care that they’ve hurt others.

Are there different types of sexual narcissism?

Existing evidence hasn’t outlined specific subtypes of sexual narcissism, but it’s important to understand that this behavior pattern can show up in different ways.

Like narcissism, it occurs on something of a spectrum. Higher levels of sexual narcissism will typically translate to a more severe, persistent pattern of behavior.

Not everyone with sexual narcissism will show all potential signs, or attempt to exploit or coerce partners. Some people may simply seem more inconsiderate than aggressive when it comes to sex.

Maybe they require a lot of admiration and approval in order to boost their sense of self-worth, or they insist on having sex the way they like instead of asking about your interests.

When you don’t praise them, they might respond by withholding affection and intimacy.

Still, these certainly aren’t healthy or positive sexual behaviors, and this lack of empathy can lead to plenty of distress.

What should you do if you recognize this in yourself?

Perhaps a few of your past partners have mentioned some of the above signs, or you’ve noticed them yourself, and you’re wondering how you can begin building healthier sexual relationships.

Recognizing these characteristics is a great first step toward making change. Without the willingness to change, you’re less likely to see improvement, so you’re on the right track.

Remember, partnered sex takes at least two people. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy a specific type of sex, but in order to enjoy healthy, respectful sexual interactions, you’ll also need to consider the needs of the other people involved.

Another way of looking at this might involve asking yourself (and them) what you can do to help them enjoy the encounter, too.

It never hurts to have a conversation about boundaries and what you’re both looking for, sexually speaking, before having sex with anyone new.

Discussing these things regularly with long-term partners can also have a positive impact on your relationship.

It’s also worth exploring how feelings of sexual confidence or superiority might affect your underlying motives for pursuing sex. Sex is more than a way to earn admiration and approval.

Sure, it’s fun and feels good, but beyond that, it offers the chance to connect with partners on a deeper emotional level and develop more fulfilling relationships.

When you’re willing to put in the effort, boosting empathy is absolutely possible. Greater empathy and consideration for your partner can offer several benefits, including better sex and a stronger relationship.

healthier relationship can, in turn, lead to improved well-being and overall satisfaction with life.

What if you recognize this in a partner?

Having a self-centered partner is one thing. Coping with the effects of sexual narcissism is quite another.

The best way to handle the situation can depend on your partner, as well as their typical behavior toward you.

If they generally seem to care about you and show an interest in maintaining your relationship, an open conversation can offer a place to start.

You might, for example, say something like:

  • “I enjoy having sex with you, and I consider physical intimacy an important part of our relationship. But it’s frustrating when I say I’m not feeling it and you instantly shut me out. I’m not rejecting you, but I don’t exist solely to serve your sexual needs, either.”

You can also set some boundaries:

  • “If this relationship is going to work, I need respect and understanding from you when I’m not in the mood for sex. I don’t want to have a relationship with someone who gives me the silent treatment or threatens to sleep with someone else.”

It may also help to gently remind them your sexual interests matter, too:

  • “We have a lot of fun during sex, but I’ve noticed you almost always choose where and what we do. I’m wondering if we can try a few of my ideas next time.”

Just know, though, you won’t be able to change them yourself. Their behavior likely won’t change unless they’re willing to address it.

If they continue to ignore or brush aside your suggestions, reaching out to a relationship counselor for support may have benefits.

Therapy offers a safe space to work on long-standing behavior patterns that affect your relationship, but mental health professionals generally won’t recommend relationship counseling if you’re experiencing relationship abuse.

Sexual narcissism can absolutely involve abuse, including sexual coercion and other manipulative tactics. Pursuing individual therapy and working to develop a safety plan may be a better option when they show abusive, angry, or violent behavior toward you.

How can this affect you long term?

A lack of empathy and consideration for other people’s sexual needs doesn’t bode well for fulfilling or satisfying relationships.

Sexual narcissism that leads to infidelity can end relationships. Abusive or coercive behavior can cause pain and trauma for your partner and legal consequences for you.

Even in the absence of cheating and aggressive behavior, you might move from one relationship to the next, feeling dissatisfied without really knowing why. If you begin to doubt yourself and your skills, you might end up with feelings of anxietydepression, emptiness, or anger.

Keep in mind, though, that help is always available. A mental health professional can offer guidance and support, without judgment, if you continue to grapple with:

  • low self-worth or self-esteem
  • insecurity, in general or specifically related to sex
  • relationship difficulties
  • empathizing with or relating to partners

What’s the bottom line?

Sexual confidence is a great thing (and perfectly healthy) — until that confidence becomes a sense of entitlement that leads to negative outcomes for others.

Therapy with a professional who specializes in sex and relationship counseling can help you begin to explore and work through problematic, entitled, or potentially harmful ideas about sexual behavior and develop skills for healthy and fulfilling relationships.

A therapist can also offer support and guidance when your partner believes they deserve sex, attempts to manipulate you, or shows other signs of sexual narcissism.

Is Your Relationship Toxic?

When you’re in a healthy relationship, everything just kind of works. Sure, there are bumps in the road, but you generally make decisions together, openly discuss any problems that arise, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Toxic relationships are another story. And when you’re in one, it can be harder to see red flags.

If you consistently feel drained or unhappy after spending time with your partner, it could be a sign that things need to change, says relationship therapist Jor-El Caraballo.

Here’s a look at some hallmark signs of toxicity in a relationship and what to do if you recognize them in your relationship.

What does it look like?

Depending on the nature of the relationship, signs of toxicity can be subtle or highly obvious, explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of “Joy from Fear.”

If you’re in a toxic relationship, you may recognize some of these signs in yourself, your partner, or the relationship itself.

Lack of support

Your time together has stopped being positive or supportive of your goals.

“Healthy relationships are based on a mutual desire to see the other succeed in all areas of life,” Caraballo says. But when things turn toxic, every achievement becomes a competition.

In other words, you don’t feel like they have your back.

Toxic communication

Instead of treating each other with kindness, most of your conversations are filled with sarcasm, criticism, or overt hostility. You may even start avoiding talking to each other.

Jealousy

While it’s normal to experience jealousy from time to time, Caraballo explains it can become an issue if you can’t get yourself to think or feel positively about their success.

Controlling behaviors

Questioning where you are all the time or becoming overly upset when you don’t immediately answer texts are both signs of controlling behavior, which can contribute to toxicity in a relationship.

In some cases, these attempts of control over you can be a sign of abuse (more on this later).

Resentment

Holding on to grudges and letting them fester chips away at intimacy.

“Over time, frustration or resentment can build up and make a smaller chasm much bigger,” Caraballo notes.

Dishonesty

You find yourself constantly making up lies about your whereabouts or who you meet up with to avoid spending time with your partner.

Patterns of disrespect

Being chronically late, casually “forgetting” events, and other behaviors that show disrespect for your time are a red flag, Manly says.

Negative financial behaviors

Your partner might make financial decisions, including purchasing big-ticket items or withdrawing large sums of money, without consulting you.

Constant stress

A normal amount of tension runs through every relationship, but finding yourself constantly on edge is an indicator that something’s off.

This ongoing stress can take a toll on your physical and mental health.

Ignoring your needs

Going along with whatever your partner wants to do, even when it goes against your wishes or comfort level, is a sure sign of toxicity, says clinical psychologist Catalina Lawsin, PhD.

For example, you might agree to a vacation they planned, either intentionally or unintentionally, for dates that aren’t convenient for you.

Lost relationships

You’ve stopped spending time with friends and family, either to avoid conflict with your partner or to get around having to explain what’s happening in your relationship.

Alternatively, you might find your free time is wrapped up in dealing with your partner.

Lack of self-care

In a toxic relationship, you might let go of your usual self-care habits, Lawsin explains.

You might withdraw from hobbies you once loved, neglect your health, and sacrifice your free time.

Hoping for change

You might stay in the relationship because you see the other person’s potential or think that if you just change yourself and your actions, they’ll change as well.

Walking on eggshells

You worry that by bringing up problems, you’ll provoke extreme tension, so you become conflict avoidant and keep any issues to yourself.

Can the relationship be saved?

Many people assume that toxic relationships are doomed, but that isn’t always the case.

The deciding factor? Both partners must want to change, Manly says. “If only one partner is invested in creating healthy patterns, there is —unfortunately — little likelihood that change will occur,” she explains.

Here are a few other signs that you might be able to work things out.

Willingness to invest

You both display an attitude of openness and willingness to invest in making the relationship better.

“This may manifest by an interest in deepening conversations,” Manly says, or setting aside regular blocks of time for spending quality time together.

Acceptance of responsibility

Recognizing the past behaviors that have harmed the relationship is vital on both ends, Manly adds. It reflects an interest in self-awareness and self-responsibility.

Shift from blaming to understanding

If you’re both able to steer the conversation away from blaming and more toward understanding and learning, there may be a path forward.

Openness to outside help

This is a big one. Sometimes, you might need help to get things back on track, either through individual or couples counseling.

How can we move forward?

According to Manly, repairing a toxic relationship will take time, patience, and diligence.

This is especially the case, Manly adds, “given that most toxic relationships often occur as a result of longstanding issues in the current relationship, or as a result of unaddressed issues from prior relationships.”

Here are some steps for turning things around.

Don’t dwell on the past

Sure, part of repairing the relationship will likely involve addressing past events. But this shouldn’t be the sole focus of your relationship moving forward.

Resist the temptation to constantly refer back to negative scenarios.

View your partner with compassion

When you find yourself wanting to blame your partner for all the problems in the relationship, try taking a step back and looking at the potential motivators behind their behavior, Caraballo says.

Have they been going through a hard time at work? Was there some family drama weighing heavily on their mind?

These aren’t excuses for bad behavior, but they can help you come to a better understanding of where your partner’s coming from.

Start therapy

An openness to therapy can be a good sign that things are mendable. Actually following through on this can be key to helping the relationship move forward.

While couples counseling is a good starting point, individual therapy can be a helpful addition, Manly says.

Concerned about the cost? Our guide to affordable therapy can help.

Find support

Regardless of whether you decide to try therapy, look for other support opportunities.

Maybe this involves talking to a close friend or joining a local support group for couples or partners dealing with specific issues in their relationship, such as infidelity or substance misuse.

Practice healthy communication

Pay close attention to how you talk to each other as you mend things. Be gentle with each other. Avoid sarcasm or mild jabs, at least for the time being.

Also focus on using “I” statements, especially when talking about relationship issues.

For example, instead of saying “You don’t listen to what I’m saying,” you could say “I feel like you aren’t listening to me when you take out your phone while I’m talking.”

Be accountable

“Both partners must acknowledge their part in fostering the toxicity,” Lawsin emphasizes.

This means identifying and taking responsibility for your own actions in the relationship. It’s also about being present and engaged during difficult conversations.

Heal individually

It’s important for each of you to individually determine what you need from the relationship and where your boundaries lie, Lawsin advises.

Even if you feel like you already know what your needs and boundaries are, it’s worth revisiting them.

The process of rebuilding a damaged relationship offers a good opportunity to reevaluate how you feel about certain elements of the relationship.

Hold space for the other’s change

Remember, things won’t change overnight. Over the coming months, work together on being flexible and patient with each other as you grow.

Abuse vs. toxicity

Toxicity in a relationship can take many forms, including forms of abuse. There’s never an excuse for abusive behavior. You’re unlikely to change your partner’s behavior on your own.

Abuse comes in many shapes and sizes. This can make it hard to recognize, especially if you’ve been in a long-term, toxic relationship.

The following signs suggest physical or emotional abuse. If you recognize any of these in your relationship, it’s probably best to walk away.

This is easier said than done, but we’ve got some resources that can help at the end of this section.

Diminished self-worth

Your partner blames you for everything that goes wrong and makes you feel as if you can’t do anything right.

“You end up feeling small, confused, shamed, and often exhausted,” Manly says. They may do this by patronizing, dismissing, or embarrassing you in public.

Chronic stress and anxiety

It’s normal to have periods of frustration with your partner or doubts about your future together. But you shouldn’t be spending significant amounts of time worrying about the relationship or your safety and security.

Separation from friends and family

Sometimes, dealing with a toxic relationship can cause you to withdraw from friends and family. But an abusive partner may forcefully distance you from your support network.

For example, they might unplug the phone while you’re talking or get in your face to distract you. They may also convince you that your loved ones don’t want to hear from you, anyway.

Interference with work or school

Forbidding you from seeking employment or studying is a way to isolate and control you.

They may also attempt to humiliate you at your workplace or school by causing a scene or talking to your boss or teachers.

Fear and intimidation

An abusive partner might explode with rage or use intimidation tactics, such as slamming their fists into walls or not allowing you to leave the house during a fight.

Name-calling and put-downs

Insults aimed to humiliate and belittle your interests, appearance, or accomplishments are verbal abuse.

Below are some examples of what things a verbally abusive partner might say:

  • “You’re worthless.”
  • “You can’t do anything right.”
  • “No one else could ever love you.”

Financial restriction

They may control all the money that comes in and prevent you from having your own bank account, restricting access to credit cards, or only giving you a daily allowance.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a technique that makes you question your own feelings, instincts, and sanity.

For example, they may try to convince you that they’ve never abusive, insisting it’s all in your head. Or they may accuse you of being the one with anger and control issues by acting like the victim.

Threats of self-harm

Threatening suicide or self-harm as a way to pressure you into doing things is a form of manipulation and abuse.

Physical violence

Threats and verbal insults can escalate to physical violence. If your partner is pushing, slapping, or hitting you, it’s a clear sign that the relationship has become dangerous.

Get help now

If you suspect you might be in an abusive relationship, trust your instincts and know you don’t have to live this way.

Here are some resources that can help you safely navigate next steps:

12 Signs You’ve Experienced Narcissistic Abuse (Plus How to Get Help)

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a complex mental health condition that typically involves:

  • low empathy
  • a grandiose or inflated sense of self
  • an extreme need for admiration and attention

People with NPD or narcissistic tendencies sometimes show a pattern of manipulative, controlling behavior that involves both verbal abuse and emotional manipulation. This all falls under the umbrella of narcissistic abuse.

These tactics can confuse you, make you question your sense of reality, and damage your self-esteem.

Narcissistic victim syndrome is a term that collectively describes these specific and often severe effects of narcissistic abuse. While it’s not a recognized mental health condition, many experts acknowledge narcissistic abuse can have a serious, long lasting impact on mental health.

Keep in mind that abuse and narcissism aren’t always related. A diagnosis of NPD doesn’t automatically translate to abusive behavior and many people who engage in abuse don’t have NPD.

Regardless, a mental health diagnosis never excuses abusive behavior. People choose to abuse and manipulate others, and it’s possible to live with traits of narcissism, or any personality disorder, without becoming abusive.

With that in mind, here are 12 signs that might suggest you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse.

They seemed so perfect — at first

Narcissistic abuse tends to follow a clear pattern, though this pattern might look a little different depending on the type of relationship.

In a romantic relationship, research from 2019 suggests, this abuse typically begins slowly, after you’ve fallen hard and fast.

It’s no wonder you fell for them. During the love-bombing phase, they seemed loving, kind, and generous. They made you feel special and adored with gushy compliments, affectionate displays, and expensive gifts.

This early stage might have felt so intense and overwhelming you never stopped to consider whether they might be too fantastic. Then slowly, negging or other manipulative tactics began to replace the gifts and declarations of love.

Narcissistic parents might also offer love, adoration, praise, and financial support until you do something to displease them and lose their favor. Then they, too, often turn to tactics like negging, silent treatment, and gaslighting.

People doubt the abuse took place

Narcissistic abuse is often subtle. When it happens in public, it might be so well disguised that others hear or see the same behaviors and fail to recognize them as abuse.

You might not even fully understand what’s happening. You only know you feel confused, upset, or even guilty for your “mistakes.”

A narcissistic parent might gently say, “Are you sure you want to eat dessert?” Or they might turn a broken dish into a joke at your expense: “You’re so clumsy. You just can’t help yourself, can you?” They laugh with everyone in the room while patting your shoulder to make the insult seem well intentioned.

You would hope friends and loved ones believe you, but unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Your loved ones might not doubt your belief you were abused, but they might question your perception of events or assure you, “You must have misunderstood them. They’d never hurt you intentionally.”

This doubt can be doubly harming. Not only does it dismantle your faith in your loved ones, it can lead you to wonder whether the abuse took place after all. Maybe you did read too much into their words or imagine that look on their face.

They’ve started a smear campaign

People with narcissistic traits often need to maintain their image of perfection in order to keep earning admiration from others. To do this, they may try making you look bad.

Once you begin pointing out problems or questioning their behavior, they might lash out by:

  • openly directing their rage toward you with insults and threats
  • involving others in criticizing you

By telling your loved ones stories that twist the facts about your “harmful” or “unstable” behavior, the narcissist tries to discredit you. Even worse, when you react angrily (who wouldn’t?), they can use your response to back up their lies.

People with narcissism often have a knack for charming others. That persona they showed you in the beginning? Everyone else sees that still.

They can often win support from your loved ones (who haven’t seen through the facade) by insisting they only have your best interests at heart. Then, when you try explaining the abuse, your loved ones might side with them.

You feel isolated

When your loved ones won’t listen to you, you probably feel pretty alone. This leaves you vulnerable to further manipulation. The person abusing you may pull you back in with kindness, even apologies, or by pretending the abuse never happened.

This tactic, known as hoovering, often works better when you lack support. You’re more likely to doubt your perceptions of the abuse when you can’t talk to anyone about it.

If your loved ones reach out to say you’ve made a mistake and encourage you to give the abusive partner another chance, you might end up doing so simply to regain that connection with them.

You freeze up

People respond to abuse and other trauma in different ways.

You might attempt to confront the abusive person (fight) or escape the situation (flight). If these methods don’t work or you feel unable to use them, you might respond by freezing instead.

The freeze response usually happens when you feel helpless. It often involves dissociation, since emotionally distancing yourself from the abuse can help decrease its intensity, effectively numbing some of the pain and distress you experience.

While freezing can have some benefit in certain situations, it doesn’t help much when you can escape from danger.

If you believe there’s no way out of the relationship, you might remain in it instead of seeking support to help you leave safely — more on this in a moment.

You have trouble making decisions

A pattern of devaluation and criticism can leave you with very little self-esteem and confidence.

Narcissistic abuse often involves frequent implications that you make bad decisions and can’t do anything right. An abusive partner may even call you stupid or ignorant outright, though they might insult you with a falsely affectionate tone: “Honey, you’re so dumb. How would you manage without my help?”

Over time, you might start absorbing these insults and attaching them to your self-perception, constantly second-guessing yourself as a result.

Gaslighting tactics can also make you doubt your decision-making abilities.

If someone manipulates you into believing you imagined things that actually took place, you might continue doubting your perception of events. This uncertainty can affect your ability to make decisions well into the future.

You always feel like you’ve done something wrong

A key characteristic of narcissism is difficulty taking responsibility for any negative actions or harmful behavior.

Abusive partners typically find some way to cast blame on you instead. They might accomplish this through deceit, often by:

  • insisting they said something you have no recollection of
  • getting so angry you end up soothing them by apologizing and agreeing you were wrong.

Say you suspect they’ve cheated on you. You explain the concerning behaviors you’ve noticed and ask if something’s going on.

They respond with extreme anger:

“How dare you doubt my loyalty, after I show you again and again how much I love you? How would you even know I’ve had phone calls from someone? You’ve been snooping through my things. Obviously you don’t care about me at all. You’re so disengaged, you don’t even enjoy having sex. If I were having an affair, it would be because you’re so boring in bed.”

These barrages of rage can leave you feeling helpless and dependent, grateful they’re willing to remain with someone who makes so many mistakes.

Even after leaving the relationship, you might carry forward the belief you can’t do anything right. When things go wrong in other areas of life, you might struggle to accept that you didn’t cause those problems.

You have unexplained physical symptoms

Abuse can trigger anxious and nervous feelings that sometimes lead to physical symptoms.

You might notice:

Using alcohol and other substances can sometimes seem like a helpful way to manage these symptoms, especially insomnia. As a result, you might end up consuming more than you’d like in an effort to manage unwanted feelings or physical distress.

You feel restless and unsettled

Narcissistic abuse can sometimes be unpredictable. You may not know whether they’re going to criticize you or surprise you with a gift.

If you don’t know what someone will do or say at any given moment, you might develop a lot of tension from needing to regularly prepare yourself to face conflict.

Worries about the constant stream of criticism and how to best handle the abusive behaviors you’re beginning to recognize can also leave you constantly on edge. You may not know how to relax anymore. It might even feel unsafe to let your guard down.

You don’t recognize yourself

When facing abuse, many people eventually adjust their self-identity to accommodate an abusive partner.

Say your partner insists, “When you go out with your friends, you’re telling me you don’t love me. You’d rather see them instead.”

Of course you love them, so you stop going out with your friends. Next, you give up your hobbies, skip after-work drinks with co-workers, and eventually cancel your weekly visit with your sister. You spend time doing what your partner wants to do, so they know you really do care.

These changes often lead to a loss of your sense of self, which can leave you feeling lost and empty. You might have a hard time enjoying life and lose sight of your sense of purpose.

You have trouble setting boundaries

Someone engaging in narcissistic abuse often has little respect for boundaries. When you try to set or enforce limits, they might challenge them, completely ignore them, or give you the silent treatment until you do what they want. Eventually, you might give up on your boundaries entirely.

Once you end the relationship or get distance from a narcissistic parent, you promise yourself you won’t answer their calls and texts or see them at all.

If they know they can eventually wear you down, though, they might not let you go easily. Instead, they’ll keep calling and texting in the hopes of getting you to set aside your boundaries again.

If you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse, you might also have trouble setting healthy boundaries in your relationships with others.

You have symptoms of anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression commonly develop as a result of narcissistic abuse.

The significant stress you face can trigger persistent feelings of worry, nervousness, and fear, especially when you never know what to expect from their behavior.

You might feel hopeless or worthless, lose interest in things that used to bring you joy, and struggle to see any more hopeful outcomes for the future.

It’s also common to have a lot of confusion over what caused them to change so abruptly, especially if you don’t know much about narcissism.

You might shoulder the blame for the abuse, perhaps believing their accusations that you must not care about them enough or blaming yourself for falling for their deception in the first place. Either can add to feelings of worthlessness and further diminish self-esteem.

How to find help

Any kind of abuse can take a significant toll on mental and physical health. If your loved ones still doubt you or tell you to just move on, you may feel unheard and unsupported. This can make it hard to trust people again, leaving you feeling isolated and alone.

Whether you’re just beginning to notice the first signs of narcissistic abuse or still trying to make sense of a relationship you’ve already left, therapy can help you begin to heal.

Therapy offers a safe space to:

  • learn coping strategies to manage mental health symptoms
  • practice setting healthy boundaries in relationships
  • explore ways to rebuild your sense of self

A therapist who specializes in abuse recovery can validate your experience, help you understand that you aren’t at fault, and offer support through the early stages of recovery.

8 Tips for Overcoming Codependence

Codependency refers to a pattern of prioritizing needs of relationship partners or family members over personal needs and desires.

It goes beyond:

  • wanting to help a struggling loved one
  • feeling comforted by their presence
  • not wanting them to leave
  • occasionally making sacrifices to help someone you love

People sometimes use the term to describe behaviors that don’t quite fit this definition, which leads to some confusion. Think of it as support that’s so extreme it becomes unhealthy.

The term is often used in addiction counseling to describe enabling behaviors in relationships affected by substance misuse. But it can apply to any kind of relationship.

If you think you might be in a codependent relationship, here are some pointers to help you move forward.

First, separate showing support from codependence

The line between healthy, supportive behaviors and codependent ones can sometimes be a bit blurry. After all, it’s normal to want to help your partner, especially if they’re having a tough time.

But codependent behavior is a way to direct or control someone else’s behavior or mood, according to Katherine Fabrizio, a licensed professional counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina. “You’re jumping into the driver’s seat of their life instead of remaining a passenger,” she explains.

It might not be your intention to control them, but over time, your partner may come to depend on your help and do less for themselves. In turn, you might feel a sense of fulfillment or purpose from the sacrifices you make for your partner.

Other key signs of codependency, according to Fabrizio, might include:

  • preoccupation with your partner’s behavior or well-being
  • worrying more about your partner’s behavior than they do
  • a mood that depends on how your partner feels or acts

Identify patterns in your life

Once you’ve got a handle on what codependency actually looks like, take a step back and try to identify any recurring patterns in your current and past relationships.

Ellen Biros, a licensed clinical social worker in Suwanee, Georgia, explains that codependent behaviors are typically rooted in childhood. Patterns you learn from your parents and repeat in relationships usually play out again and again, until you put a stop to them. But it’s hard to break a pattern before you notice it.

Do you have a tendency to gravitate toward people who need a lot of help? Do you have a hard time asking your partner for help?

According to Biros, codependent people tend to rely on validation from others instead of self-validation. These tendencies toward self-sacrifice might help you feel closer to your partner. When you aren’t doing things for them, you might feel aimless, uncomfortable, or experience lower self-esteem.

Simply acknowledging these patterns is key to overcoming them.

Learn what healthy love looks like

Not all unhealthy relationships are codependent, but all codependent relationships are generally unhealthy.

This doesn’t mean codependent relationships are doomed. It’s just going to take some work to get things back on track. One of the first steps in doing so is simply learning what a healthy, non-codependent relationship looks like.

“Healthy love involves a cycle of comfort and contentment,” Biros says, “while toxic love involves a cycle of pain and despair.”

She shares a few more signs of healthy love:

  • partners trust themselves and each other
  • both partners feel secure in their own self-worth
  • partners can compromise

In a healthy relationship, your partner should care about your feelings, and you should feel safe to communicate your emotions and needs. You should also feel able to voice an opinion that differs from your partner’s or say no to something that conflicts with your own needs.

Set boundaries for yourself

boundary is a limit you set around things you aren’t comfortable with. They’re not always easy to set or stick to, especially if you’re dealing with long-standing codependency. You might be so accustomed to making others comfortable that you have a hard time considering your own limits.

It might take some practice before you can firmly and repeatedly honor your own boundaries, but these tips can help:

  • Listen with empathy, but stop there. Unless you’re involved with the problem, don’t offer solutions or try to fix it for them.
  • Practice polite refusals. Try “I’m sorry, but I’m not free at the moment” or “I’d rather not tonight, but maybe another time.”
  • Question yourself. Before you do something, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Why am I doing this?
    • Do I want to or do I feel I have to?
    • Will this drain any of my resources?
    • Will I still have energy to meet my own needs?

Remember, you can only control your own actions

Trying to control someone else’s actions generally doesn’t work out. But if you feel validated by your ability to support and care for your partner, failing at this can make you feel pretty miserable.

Their lack of change might frustrate you. You might feel resentful or disappointed that your helpful efforts had little effect. These emotions can either leave you feeling worthless or more determined to try even harder and begin the cycle again.

How can you stop this pattern?

Remind yourself you can only control yourself. You have a responsibility to manage your own behaviors and reactions. You aren’t responsible for your partner’s behavior, or anyone else’s.

Giving up control involves accepting uncertainty. No one knows what the future holds. This can be scary, especially if fears of being alone or losing your relationship contribute to codependent behaviors. But the healthier your relationship is, the more likely it is to last.

Offer healthy support

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help your partner, but there are ways to do so without sacrificing your own needs.

Healthy support might involve:

  • talking about problems to get new perspectives
  • listening to your partner’s troubles or worries
  • discussing possible solutions with them, rather than for them
  • offering suggestions or advice when asked, then stepping back to let them make their own decision
  • offering compassion and acceptance

Remember, you can show love for your partner by spending time with them and being there for them without trying to manage or direct their behavior. Partners should value each other for who they are, not what they do for each other.

Practice valuing yourself

Codependency and low self-esteem are often linked. If you link your self-worth to your ability to care for others, developing a sense of self-worth that doesn’t depend on your relationships with others can prove challenging.

But increased self-worth can increase your confidence, happiness, and self-esteem. All of this can make it easier for you to express your needs and set boundaries, both of which are key to overcoming codependency.

Learning to value yourself takes time. These tips can set you on the right path:

  • Spend time with people who treat you well. It’s not always easy to leave a relationship, even when you’re ready to move on. In the meantime, surround yourself with positive people who value you and offer acceptance and support. Limit your time with people who drain your energy and say or do things that make you feel bad about yourself.
  • Do things you enjoy. Maybe the time you’ve spent looking after others has kept you from hobbies or other interests. Try setting aside some time each day to do things that make you happy, whether it’s reading a book or taking a walk.
  • Take care of your health. Caring for your body can help your emotional well-being improve, too. Make sure you’re eating regularly and getting enough sleep each night. These are essential needs that you deserve to have met.
  • Let go of negative self-talk. If you tend to criticize yourself, challenge and reframe these negative thought patterns to affirm yourself instead. Instead of “I’m no good,” for example, tell yourself “I’m trying my best.”

Identify your own needs

Remember, codependent patters often begin in childhood. It may have been a long time since you stopped to think about your own needs and desires.

Ask yourself what you want from life, independently of anyone else’s desires. Do you want a relationship? A family? A specific type of job? To live elsewhere? Try journaling about whatever these questions bring up.

Trying new activities can help. If you aren’t sure what you enjoy, try things that interest you. You might find you have a talent or skill you never knew about.

This isn’t a quick process. It may take weeks, months, or even years to develop concrete ideas about what you really need and want. But that’s OK. The important part is that you’re thinking about it.

Consider therapy

Codependent traits can become so entrenched in personality and behavior that you might have a hard time recognizing them on your own. Even when you do notice them, codependency can be tough to overcome solo.

If you’re working to overcome codependency, Biros recommends seeking help from a therapist who has experience working with recovery from this complicated issue.

They can help you:

  • identify and take steps to address patterns of codependent behavior
  • work on increasing self-esteem
  • explore what you want from life
  • reframe and challenge negative thought patterns

“Continuing to place your focus outside of yourself puts you into a position of powerlessness,” Fabrizio says. Over time, this can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which can contribute to depression.

Codependency is a complex issue, but with a little work, you can overcome it and start building more balanced relationships that serve your needs, too.

What Makes a Relationship Healthy?

If you have or want a romantic relationship, you probably want a healthy one, right? But what’s a healthy relationship, exactly?

Well, it depends.

Healthy relationships don’t look the same for everyone since people have different needs. Your specific needs around communication, sex, affection, space, shared hobbies or values, and so on may change throughout life.

So, a relationship that works in your 20s may be nothing like the relationship you want in your 30s.

Relationships that don’t align with more traditional definitions of a relationship can still be healthy. For example, people who practice polyamory or ethical nonmonogamy might define a healthy relationship somewhat differently than people who practice monogamy.

In short, “healthy relationship” is a broad term because what makes a relationship thrive depends on the needs of the people in it.

But a few key signs do stand out in flourishing relationships.

What it looks like

“One thing healthy relationships largely share is adaptability,” says Lindsey Antin, a therapist in Berkeley, California. “They adapt to circumstances and the fact we’re always changing and going through different phases in life.

Here’s a look at some other hallmarks of healthy relationships.

Open communication

Partners in healthy relationships typically talk about the things going on in their lives: successes, failures, and everything in between.

You should be comfortable talking about any issues that come up, from things that happen in everyday life, such work or friend stress, to more serious issues, such as mental health symptoms or financial concerns.

Even if they have a different opinion, they listen without judgment and then share their perspective.

Communication goes both ways. It’s important you also feel that they’ll voice their own concerns or thoughts as they come up.

People in nonmonogamous relationships may place even more value on emotional check-ins and frequent communication about what’s happening with other partners.

Trust

Trust involves honesty and integrity. You don’t keep secrets from each other. When you’re apart, you don’t worry about them pursuing other people.

But trust goes beyond believing they won’t cheat or lie to you.

It also means you feel safe and comfortable with them and know they won’t hurt you physically or emotionally. You know they have your best interests in mind but also respect you enough to encourage you to make your own choices.

A sense of yourself as a separate person

Healthy relationships are best described as interdependent. Interdependence means you rely on each other for mutual support but still maintain your identity as a unique individual.

In other words, your relationship is balanced. You know you have their approval and love, but your self-esteem doesn’t depend on them. Although you’re there for each other, you don’t depend on each other to get all of your needs met.

You still have friends and connections outside the relationship and spend time pursuing your own interests and hobbies.

Curiosity

One key characteristic of healthy, long-term love is curiosity.

This means you’re interested in their thoughts, goals, and daily life. You want to watch them grow into their best self. You’re not fixated on who they used to be or who you think they should be.

“You hold flexible mindsets about each other,” Antin adds.

Curiosity also means you’re willing to consider or talk over changes to your relationship structure if aspects of your existing relationship become less fulfilling. It also involves realism. You see them for who they truly are and care about that person, not an idealized version of them.

Time apart

Most people in healthy relationships prioritize spending time together, though the amount of time you spend together can vary based on personal needs, work and other commitments, living arrangements, and so on.

But you also recognize the need for personal space and time on your own. Maybe you spend this time relaxing solo, pursuing a hobby, or seeing friends or family.

Whatever you do, you don’t need to spend every moment together or believe your relationship suffers when you spend some time apart.

Playfulness or lightheartedness

It’s important to make time for fun and spontaneity when the mood is right. If you can joke and laugh together, that’s a good sign.

Sometimes life challenges or distress might affect one or both of you. This can temporarily change the tone of your relationship and make it hard to relate to each other in your usual ways.

But being able to share lighter moments that help relieve tension, even briefly, strengthens your relationship even in tough times.

Physical intimacy

Intimacy often refers to sex, but not always. Not everyone enjoys or wants sex. Your relationship can still be healthy without it — as long as you’re both on the same page about getting your needs met.

If neither of you have interest in sex, physical intimacy might involve kissing, hugging, cuddling, and sleeping together. Whatever type of intimacy you share, physically connecting and bonding is important.

If you both enjoy sex, your physical relationship is most likely healthy when you:

  • feel comfortable initiating and talking about sex
  • can positively handle rejection
  • can discuss desires
  • feel safe expressing your interest in more or less sex

Healthy intimacy also involves respecting sexual boundaries. This includes:

  • not pressuring partners about sex or specific sex acts when they say no
  • sharing information about other partners
  • discussing sexual risk factors

Teamwork

A strong relationship can be considered a team. You work together and support each other, even when you don’t see eye to eye on something or have goals that aren’t exactly the same.

In short, you have each other’s back. You know you can turn to them when you’re struggling. And you’re always ready to offer support when they need you.

Conflict resolution

Even in a healthy relationship, you’ll have occasional disagreements and feel frustrated or angry with each other from time to time. That’s completely normal. It doesn’t mean your relationship is unhealthy.

What matters is how you address conflict. If you can talk about your differences politely, honestly, and with respect, you’re on the right track.

Partners who address conflict without judgment or contempt can often find a compromise or solution.

Relationship red flags

Your relationship should contribute to a sense of fulfillment, happiness, and connection. If you tend to feel more anxious, distressed, or unhappy around your partner, your relationship may be struggling.

Signs of unhealthy relationships can vary widely, so this list isn’t all-inclusive. But it may help point out some possible issues.

One of you tries to control or change the other

“We are never in control of changing another person,” Antin says.

If you’re concerned about a specific behavior, you should feel comfortable enough to bring it up. It’s OK to express your feelings and ask them to consider making changes. But it’s not OK to tell them what to do or attempt to control their behavior.

If they do something that really bothers you and you can’t accept it, the relationship may not have long-term potential.

Your partner doesn’t respect your boundaries

Boundaries can come into play across your relationship, from respectful communication to privacy needs. If you set a boundary and they push against it or pressure you to change it, that’s a serious red flag.

Maybe you’ve said, “I need personal space when I get home from work. I’m happy to see you, but I need to de-stress before any physical affection.”

But they continue to come up to you right when you get home, trying to kiss you and pull you into the bedroom. When you say no, they apologize and say “they just can’t help themselves.”

You might brush this off as a sign of affection and keep restating the boundary, hoping they’ll get it eventually. But their behavior shows disrespect for your needs.

You don’t spend much time together

Relationships often develop when people enjoy each other’s company and want to spend even more time together. Life events can sometimes get in the way of your time together, but these changes are usually temporary.

Your relationship might be struggling if you consistently see less of each other without a clear reason, such as family difficulties or more responsibilities at work.

Other warning signs include feeling distant with each other or relieved when you aren’t together. You might even try to find excuses to avoid spending time together.

The relationship feels unequal

Healthy relationships tend to be fairly well balanced. You might equally share finances, or balance out a lower income by running more errands.

But relationship equality can also relate to intangible things, such as affection, communication, and relationship expectations.

Periods of inequality can happen from time to time. One of you might temporarily lose your income, struggle to help with chores because of illness, or feel less affectionate due to stress or other emotional turmoil.

But if your relationship regularly feels unbalanced in any way, this can become problematic.

They say negative or hurtful things about you or others

There’s nothing wrong with showing concern when your partner does something that worries you. But in a healthy relationship, partners generally take care to express their feelings in helpful, productive ways.

It’s not healthy to constantly criticize each other or say intentionally hurtful things, especially about personal choices, such as food, clothing, or favorite TV shows. Criticism that makes you feel ashamed or bad about yourself is generally unproductive.

Also note how they talk about others. Your relationship with each other could seem perfectly healthy, but if they use hate speech, slurs, or make discriminatory remarks about others, consider what this behavior says about them as a person.

You don’t feel heard in the relationship

Maybe you don’t feel heard because they seem disinterested when you bring up a problem or share something that’s been on your mind. Or you might have a hard time sharing your opinion or talking about serious issues because you worry they’ll just brush you off.

Miscommunications can happen, of course. But if you do talk through an issue and they seem receptive but don’t make any changes or seem to have completely forgotten what you talked about by the next day, that’s also a warning sign.

You’re afraid of expressing disagreement

Partners should always feel safe to have their own opinions, even when this means they disagree. If your partner responds to your (different) viewpoint with dismissal, contempt, or other rudeness, this often suggests they don’t respect you or your ideas.

If you find yourself censoring everything you say because you worry about their reaction, or feel like you’re “walking on eggshells” every day, as Antin puts it, it may be time to seek professional help.

If you fear physical or verbal abuse, talk to a therapist as soon as you can. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and family for additional support, too.

You don’t feel happy or comfortable around your partner

For many people, key relationship goals include increased happiness and life satisfaction. If you feel uneasy or unhappy all the time, the relationship may not be meeting your needs.

This can happen even when you’re both putting effort into the relationship. People change over time, so feeling dissatisfied and trapped doesn’t necessarily mean either of you have done anything “wrong.” You may have just become different people who no longer fit well together.

Disagreements or discussions don’t go anywhere

Healthy conflict resolution typically leads to solutions or compromise. Maintaining a relationship is an ongoing process, so you might not work everything out right away. But you usually feel good about your conversations afterward. You usually see some progress.

It’s generally not a good sign when you find yourself talking in circles or about the same issues all the time. Maybe there’s never any improvement, no matter how much you discuss something. Maybe they eventually just shut you out.

Tips for building a stronger relationship

If some (or several) of the relationship red flags struck home, couples counseling might be a good step.

“Couples therapy is about two people arriving to work on themselves,” Antin says. Getting help doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you want to work at improving, for yourselves and for each other.

But even the healthiest of relationships can sometimes use a little extra work. Here are some tips to make sure things stay on the right track.

Embrace each other’s differences

“They might be ambitious, while you’re more of a homebody,” Antin says. “But this is a good dynamic, since one of you can initiate activity or go out and adventure, while one of you enjoys quiet time and keeps the home fire burning.”

Consider their perspective

“Be curious about the way they do and see things instead of trying to get them to see things your way,” Antin recommends.

Solve problems as a team

“Work together to solve problems, instead of making each other the problem,” Antin says.

Ask for what you want, and be equally ready to listen to their desires

You may not always agree, but that’s all right. You’re two different people, after all. Being able to find a compromise is key.

Try something new together

If your relationship seems stale or like it’s going nowhere, try taking it somewhere to see what happens. A change of scenery can sometimes change your perspective.

Talk about your goals and dreams

This can help you reconnect and make sure you still share similar hopes and values.

The bottom line

A shared love of spelunking and a mutual fondness for Indian food might have helped you meet your partner, but these factors have little to do with keeping your relationship healthy over time.

At the end of the day, you should trust each other and feel safe together. You should believe in your ability to learn and grow together.

If you’re worried about your relationship or believe it’s not as strong as it used to be, trust your instincts and explore what these feelings mean. A therapist can help offer guidance on when more effort might help and when it’s time to move on.

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