10 Toxic Communication Tendencies in Romantic Relationships

Unhealthy patterns of interactions in romantic relationships almost always include communication difficulties.

In her book Toxic People (1995), Jillian Glass described a relationship dynamic in which one or both people intentionally or unintentionally undermine, disrespect, or put down the other. In couples, these kinds of communication tendencies are often associated with cycles of painful fights or even breakups followed by dramatic reconciliations, making for a very tense, chaotic, and unstable foundational connection.

Toxic patterns of interaction can have negative psychological consequences for those in the relationship. For example, in a sample of 457 former and current romantic partners of people with psychopathic traits recruited from support-group websites, Forth and colleagues (2022) found noteworthy emotional consequences of being in a romantic partnership with someone who has a tendency to act in intentionally mean, impulsive, and harmful ways.

More specifically, being in a relationship with someone who has toxic tendencies was associated with trauma responses (e.g., hypervigilance, obsessive thinking, reliving events), symptoms of depression and anxiety, biological consequences (e.g., difficulty sleeping), and guilt or shame.

Here are 10 common ways people communicate in toxic, highly dysfunctional romantic relationships:

  1. Direct put-downs: Comments that intentionally try to make someone feel bad about who they are as a person. This is often reflected through using labels that cut someone down and label them with a negative light, like calling them “stupid” or “a loser.”
  2. Targeting vulnerability: Capitalizing on a partners’ insecurities and vulnerabilities in a mean-spirited way. For example, during a heated argument, saying, “You’re still just as insecure and jealous as you’ve always been—your ex was right about you.”
  3. Intentionally lying: Being blatantly dishonest with a mate. Lying inherently erodes trust in a relationship, making it hard to stay connected when dishonesty is discovered.
  4. Passive-aggressive messages: Nonverbally communicating one message but verbally stating the another. For example, when asked how a person is feeling, they may respond by saying, “I’m fine. Everything is good,” even though it’s clear that they’re angry, sad, or generally upset.
  5. Gaslighting: Intentionally trying to make someone doubt their perspective or sanity. For example, to make someone doubt their choices, a partner might say, “You’re just insane. Your feelings are flat-out wrong.”
  6. Stonewalling: Cutting off contact, communication, or even physical touch to punish a mate. Here, it’s the lack of contact and communication that’s harmful.
  7. Deflecting responsibility: Explaining away unacceptable behavior, being defensive, or refusing to see your role in conflict (even if it’s a small one). Instead of owning disrespectful commentary, for example, a person may say, “I only acted that way because I love you so much; you know I never meant to hurt you.”
  8. Disrespectful non-verbal cues: Body language, vocal intonation, eye contact, and/or other non-verbal cues that indicate dismissal and disapproval. Although a person may not say something directly disrespectful, they can communicate disregard, discontent, and disinterest very easily without words.
  9. Emotional aggression: Screaming, shouting, and highly emotionally volatile interactions. Big blow-out fights lead people to say mean things not just in content but in tone—it’s not only what is said but how it’s said that can be problematic.
  10. Contempt: Coming from a place of superiority with an extreme disregard for a person because they are “less-than.” For example, saying something like, “I’m a much better catch than you—you’re lucky that I’ve put up with your crap this long.”

The Naked Truth

Romantic relationships, marriages, and long-term connections can be really hard—it’s normal to have some ups and downs. That said, if you find yourself in a toxic pattern of communication with your mate that’s characterized by blaming, name-calling, disrespectful dialogue, or contempt that is damaging your physical, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing, it also may be time to move on.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D., ABPP

Note: This content is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. I cannot respond to personal requests for advice over the internet. Best on your continued journey


Image Source: geralt/Pixabay

Forth A, Sezlik S, Lee S, Ritchie M, Logan J, Ellingwood H. Toxic Relationships: The Experiences and Effects of Psychopathy in Romantic Relationships. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol. 2022 Nov;66(15):1627-1658. doi: 10.1177/0306624X211049187. Epub 2021 Oct 6. PMID: 34612077; PMCID: PMC9527357.

Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Exposed to a diversity of cultures and lifestyles from an early age, Dr. Cortney was intrigued by the ways cultural and environmental conditions affected the psychological well-being of individuals, groups, and even whole societies.


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