Articles by Jacqueline McDiarmid, Break ups, Couple's counselling, Mental Health

Am I in a toxic relationship?

Many people ask me this question when they see me for either individual or couple relationship work.

Or it’s this question that brings them into the counselling space. They have a feeling they are in a toxic relationship but they are not quite sure – and perhaps not sure how to get out of it.

A toxic relationship is not the same as a bad or disconnected relationship. Many couples struggle with communication or connection issues. Many couples also struggle with intimacy. Or parenting issues. They can be difficult or sad relationships, but not necessarily toxic ones.

A toxic relationship is any kind of relationship that is harmful, unsafe and potentially dangerous to the people in it.

If you are in a toxic relationship, you are at risk of psychological injury.

If you’re in a relationship with a toxic person, you can easily lose perspective. You can wonder whether it’s you who is somehow at fault or behaving badly. I’ve had clients in this situation tell me they feel as if they are going mad. Therapists sometimes refer to toxic behaviour as “crazy-making stuff.” It drags people away from reality and normal standards. And it makes a toxic relationship particularly hard to get out of – or manage.

I see toxic relationships in my family work as well as my couple work. I have noticed there are generations and themes of toxic communication and behaviours in the families. Cut offs, violence, verbal and emotional abuse, bullying to name a few – passed from one generation to the next.

Sometimes people find themselves in toxic relationships with friends and colleagues. These can sometimes be as devastating and damaging as a toxic relationship with an intimate partner.

But how do you know if you are in a toxic relationship?

There are the obvious signs like physical abuse, violence of any sort, someone flaunting infidelity or rape. There are also less obvious behaviours that indicate toxicity. I consider the following as likely indicators:

  • Continuous arguments that include things like punching walls, throwing plates or other forms of violence.
  • Sexual intimidation.
  • A pattern where a couple threaten each other with separation, make up and then threaten separation again – repeating this cycle over hours, days and weeks.
  • Cut offs that are followed by contact again through abusive and aggressive messages via social media, text messages and phone calls.
  • Constant belittling of a partner – or family member, friend, or colleague.
  • Behaviour that is controlling, possessive and jealous. Don’t mistake this behaviour for love. It’s not.
  • Isolating behaviour – where a person seeks to isolate another from loved ones and support.
  • Lies and deceit.
  • Stalking – this includes secretly recording an argument or conversation.
  • Drama and conflict – I have an idea that a relationship might be toxic if somebody brings in their phone to show me pages and pages of abusive messages they have received from their partner or family member or friend.
  • Poor boundaries – people who seek conflict with others at inappropriate times like the middle of the night or in work places. And those who involve everyone they can in all the details of the toxic relationship.
  • Name calling – it’s actually not okay to ever call someone names.
  • Continuous suicidal/self harm attempts which stops somebody from removing themselves from the relationship out of fear the other person will die or what they might do to another person.
  • Emotional exhaustion after spending time with the toxic person.

Sometimes I see couples where both people are perpetrating the toxic behaviour. They have become used to the drama within the relationship and although they may report they are unhappy, they have not genuinely attempted to leave or change.

Other times I see a couple where one person is clearly a perpetrator – usually controlling and emotionally abusive. Their partner may have an idea that something a little more sinister is going on but they can’t quite put their finger on it.

And then I see individuals who really don’t know how to manage toxic family members, friends or colleagues. Or don’t know how to get out of a toxic relationship.

It’s tricky work because by the time a person, couple or family reaches me the behaviours are so deeply entrenched, this toxic behaviour has become their “normal”. I’ve seen people who are scraping the barrel with poor self-esteem and lack of confidence, and are still wondering whether there’s something wrong with them.

There are often casualties in a toxic relationship. And those casualties can be children.

If you think you’re in a toxic relationship, but aren’t quite sure, answer these questions:

Are you happy when you are with this person? Do others comment that your relationship seems to be a constant drama? Or have friends or family distanced themselves from you? Or said they are sick of hearing the same story? Does your gut tell you your problems are more than just typical relationship distress?

What should you do if you think you are in a toxic relationship?

This is where I blatantly promote couples counselling, relationship counselling of family counselling. This is because the vast majority of people in a toxic relationship find it difficult to get out of it (or manage it) without professional help.

Here’s how you can benefit from seeing either a couples counsellor or relationship counsellor:
  • A relationship Counsellor or Therapist will support you to make the right decision regarding the toxic relationship.
  • Therapy and counselling will help you recover and make sense of what has happened to you.
  • Counselling will help you re-build your confidence and self esteem.
  • Counselling will help you to recover from mental health issues which are common for a person who has been in a relationship with a toxic person.
  • Couples counselling will help those couples who are willing to change their toxic behaviour.
  • Individual Therapy and counselling will help you to work out your part in the toxic relationship so you can make better decisions going forward.
  • Individual Therapy and counselling will help you recover from the loss of the toxic relationship – yes loss. You can be in a toxic relationship and still have deep love for that person so the grief will be very real.
  • A relationship counsellor will help you to manage a healthy relationship going forward. Sometimes I find people struggle with an empty feeling after leaving a toxic relationship because it has been all they have known for years and it’s been all-consuming.
  • A relationship Therapist will help you with strategies to manage toxic people around you especially if they are family members.

If you think you or someone you love is in a toxic relationship, make an appointment with an experienced couples counsellor or relationship counsellor. If you are located in the Eastern Suburbs or City of Sydney, book one of our experienced relationship Therapists at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists – this is exactly the type of work we do and we can help you as a couple, a family or an individual.

If you don’t respect yourself enough to do it for your own sake, do it for your children (or your children’s children), or family members who love you and care about you.

Being in a toxic relationship is no way to live. Nobody deserves the damage it can cause. But with help and support, you can have relationships that are healthy – and feel good about yourself and life.


About Jacqueline

Jacqueline has been in private practice for more than two decades, helping individuals, couples and families.  She has extensive experience in couple and family therapy and is considered a specialist in these areas.

In her clinical practice, she has helped people deal with complex trauma, affairs, complex mental health issues, eating disorders, adolescent behavioural problems (including self-harm and suicidal ideation), behavioural issues in young children which are impacting parents and families, relationship issues and post-separation work.

Jacqueline works with many different dynamics: couples, parents, families with young children, same-sex couples, foster/adopted families, families with teenagers and also adult families.  She is particularly interested in helping parents of children with behavioural issues, or with diagnosed conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, ASD and so on.

Although Jacqueline’s work is supportive and friendly, she will challenge her couples and families to make the necessary behavioural changes, to repair relationships and to move towards healthier communication styles in the future.

Jacqueline’s style is direct and fast paced and she is known for quickly getting to the heart of the matter.  Clients report that they feel safe and understood with Jacqueline.

Qualifications and Professional Membership

Jacqueline has a Masters in Couple and Family Therapy (UNSW). She has a Bachelor degree in Counselling and Human Change, and a Diploma in Psychotherapy and Counselling.

Jacqueline is a Clinical Supervisor for Counsellors and Therapists. She lectures in couple and family therapy at Masters and Post Graduate level, and is currently Head Lecturer for the Couple and Family Therapy course (Masters) at the Jansen Newman Institute.  She has been a Lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and Sydney University, and continues to guest lecture at other tertiary institutions.

Jacqueline is also the Director of the Couple and Family Training Centre where she runs regular professional development workshops and seminars for Therapists, Counsellors, Psychologists, Social Workers and Health Industry Workers who are looking to gain skills in this specialist area.

She is a Clinical Member of the Family Therapy Association of Australia and a Clinical Member of PACFA.

“Thank you for seeing me today. Your help with all our family issues and all your advice has been invaluable.
I don’t know how other families do it, without a Jacqueline in their lives.” – Anna (43) step-mum and mum to four children.

If you feel as though you could benefit from talking with a Therapist please contact  The Sydney Couple and Family Specialists on 02 8968 9397 or email

Call us today on 02 8968 9397.

Sign up today to get tools and strategies to build your relationship

Call us Today Book FREE Consultation