11 Subtle Differences Between A Toxic Relationship Vs. One That Just Needs Work

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If your relationship is going through a rough patch right now, it might cause you to wonder, "is my relationship toxic, or does it just needs some work to move past a few specific issues?" In both situations, relationships are likely to be rife with arguments, they might not be very fun, and they won't necessarily feel healthy.

But there are some key differences to watch out for. "A truly toxic relationship is different than a rough patch when you notice that behaviors are ... destructive on a rather consistent basis, despite attempts at rectifying them," clinical psychologist and relationship expert, Dr. Danielle Forshee, tells Bustle. "Additionally, a relationship is toxic when an individual is unable to accept responsibility at any time, compared to a rough patch, where they accept responsibility sometimes."

In toxic relationships, one or both partners are more likely to be unwilling to change, and there will probably be unhealthy dynamics that won't go away, as a result. But if a relationship simply needs work, both partners will be down to make the effort, and changes will occur. They'll be aware of what's wrong, and will figure out ways to fix it. And they will do so in a kind, understanding, and patient way.

Relationships are difficult, and many go through rough patches, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're all toxic. Here are a few ways experts say it's possible to tell the difference between something toxic, and something that's still worth fixing.


The Relationship Is Still Growing And Changing

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In healthy relationships, any time a problem crops up, both partners will be willing to figure out a solution, and make a change. With toxic relationships, however, that rarely happens. And things can become stagnant as a result.

"The truest and biggest sign of a toxic relationship is showing no remorse for hurting your partner. The second biggest sign is showing remorse but not changing the behavior or working to change the behavior that is damaging," licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert Dr. Dori Gatter, PsyD, LCPC, tells Bustle.

The moment one or both of you refuses to change something negative in the relationship, is the moment it becomes toxic.


You're Both Willing To Learn How To Better Communicate

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Learning how to communicate effectively with each other will probably be a lifelong learning process. And that's OK. It's only when you stop trying to communicate that things can go south, and rough patches may not resolve.

"All couples will have some issues and places where they feel stuck and fight," Dr. Gatter says. "We tend to have the same arguments over and over again without coming to a satisfying outcome. Feeling frustrated and not knowing how to reach your partner can start to build a feeling of resentment and we often pull away, shut down, or fight as a result."

But as long as you're willing to move past it, be on the same team, "and work on changing behaviors then this can be a healthy relationship," Dr. Gatter says.


There's An Underlying Fondness For Each Other

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Even through tough times, healthy couples will still have that chemistry that brought them together in the first place. Sure, they might be arguing. Yes, they might be disagreeing. But they'll still feel that special spark between them.

"During a therapy session I am looking for signs of fondness and appreciation for one another underneath the hurt feelings," Julie Espinoza Malm, MA, LPC, of Psychotherapy Innovations, P.L.C., tells Bustle. "If this criteria is met, it is clear that the couple is going through a rough patch and likely just needs to have a safe space to talk out their wants and needs to find a solution."

With toxic relationships, that fondness won't likely exist, either due to apathy, anger, or other underlying issues. In this situation, seeing a couples therapist can come in handy, as they can offer an outside perspective, and help you figure out the difference.


Arguments Are Fair And Calm

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The key to figuring out whether a relationship is toxic or not isn't the absence of arguments, but rather how a couple argues. Do you yell and scream and throw insults? Or do you hear each other out?

"Ways in which you manage conflict is something that is fixable," Dr. Forshee says. "When both partners are able and willing to point the finger at themselves at times, and not always at their partner," things can remain healthy. But if not, that's when toxicity can seep on in.


Problems Are Out In The Open

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If a couple is simply going through a rough patch, they'll likely be actively working on it. And this is what sees them through. "Talking about the hard stuff, all the way through to the other side, brings you closer and makes your relationship stronger," relationship coach Ken Blackman tells Bustle.

Compare this to a couple who deceives each other, withholds information, misdirects, etc., which Blackman says are all toxic traits. "This is where I draw a hard line," he says. "Either you change your mind about this behavior, right now and permanently, or the relationship is going to end."


The Issue Hasn't Become A Long-Term Pattern

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Sometimes, it takes a while for a couple to learn how to communicate, sort out of their issues, and create a healthy foundation for their relationship. There will, however, be slow progress in that direction.

This is very different from toxic relationships, where things are bad — and they stay that way. "Consider if the toxic behavior is a pattern or just isolated incidents," therapist Julie Williamson, LPC, NCC, RPT tells Bustle. "If it's isolated incidents, those can be talked through and new habits created. A pattern of toxic behavior may indicate characteristics of a mental health issue." And one that may negatively impact a relationship, until the person seeks treatment.


There Aren't Any Mind Games Going On

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One thing that's super toxic? Gaslighting. As Dr. Forshee says, "Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where one person is targeted and they engage in tactics that result in questioning your own memory, perception, and sanity."

And this is not something that happens in a relationship that is simply going through a rough patch. "This is extremely detrimental to a relationship because it is not about love, it is about power and control," she says. "For example, if you confront your partner with something you’re concerned about, or something that you didn’t like that they did, they will offer evidence to show that you are wrong, or to make you question your own memory." Since this tactic is often inherently emotionally abusive, it may be best if you leave this relationship, or seek help from a professional or a loved one in leaving it.


There's Plenty Of Trust & Healthy Boundaries

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It's important in a relationship to spend time apart and focus on what matters to each of you, individually. But this is way different than one or both partners focusing solely on themselves.

"If your partner only cares about themselves, how [the relationship] makes them feel, what you can do to make them happy ... then this is a sign of a toxic relationship problem that can't be solved," Diana and Todd Mitchem, relationship coaches at Enarilove, tell Bustle.

With all problems, you can always try to talk about it and fix it. But if someone isn't willing to put effort into a relationship, it isn't likely to go anywhere, and it may be best for you to move on.


You're Both Able To Apologize

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Nothing screams "toxic" quite like a partner who can't apologize, or accept when they're wrong. So take note if you notice this pattern in your relationship.

"All relationships involve ups and downs and everyone makes mistakes," Jonathan Bennett, relationship and dating expert at Double Trust Dating, tells Bustle. "Healthy relationships involve both sides admitting fault when it’s appropriate and then forgiving. Refusing to apologize or accept an apology over common disagreements and fights is a toxic control tactic."


They Don't Resort To Childish Tactics

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Again, communication is everything when it comes to telling the difference between a healthy relationship, and one that's toxic. So be on the lookout for childish things, like a partner who dishes out the silent treatment.

"If your partner constantly shuts down communication in a relationship, then it’s a sign of toxicity," Bennett says. "This can be done through more subtle ways like 'the silent treatment' or running away to a bar when an issue needs to be resolved. The only way for a relationship to be healthy is to keep the lines of communication open and not let problems fester to the point of resentment."


It's Not Affecting Other Areas Of Your Life

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When a relationship is toxic, its effects will likely bleed over into other areas of your life. So be on the lookout for struggles outside of your love life.

"Is your work or school suffering? Are you isolating from friends/family to avoid sharing about your life? How is your sleep and other general day to day routines faring?" asks Malm. "If any of these areas or more are being impacted then it would be wise to look more closely at the health of your relationship."

While it can be tough to tell at first if a relationship is toxic, or it just needs work, it often becomes easier to spot true toxicity once you know what to look for. You can also bring these issues to your partner's attention, and try to work on them as a couple. But if they aren't going away, and things have possibly dipped into emotionally abusive or controlling territory, it is best to do all you can do to move on.