Identifying a toxic relationship

Do you have a constant feeling of anxiety around your partner? Are you walking on eggshells?  Do you look for excuses to explain their behaviour? You know that deep down something is wrong, but you can't quite put your finger on it.


Maybe you fear that you are in a toxic relationship with a narcissist, or that there is emotional abuse?

What is narcissism?

The two types of narcissism are grandiose and vulnerable. Grandiose narcissists describe a person with an exaggerated view of themselves. Some people love to be the centre of attention and they want everyone they meet to believe that they are fantastic.

Most people will believe that the narcissist is truly witty, intelligent, and caring but behind closed doors, they are the opposite. They also have a privileged sense of themselves. This might mean that they feel that other people should go to great lengths to satisfy their requirements. The usual societal rules do not apply to them, and they will argue with anyone that tries to say otherwise. 

Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, usually have a childhood of neglect or abuse and their narcissistic behaviour might serve to protect them from feeling inadequate as well as a need to feel as though they are special. This means that they might argue that they are ‘right’ in every situation or blame you for everything that goes wrong.  Admitting their faults would make them vulnerable so there is a need to be on the defensive to appear correct.

A narcissist will struggle to empathise with those around them. They might do a good impression of someone who understands your emotions, but emotional empathy is entirely different from cognitive empathy. They will quickly disregard other people’s feelings as ‘not right.’  

If you are in a relationship with someone that constantly tells you that your feelings are unjust or that you shouldn’t feel that way, then this can leave you feeling confused about your true feelings. You might begin to push down what you truly feel. They do not understand (or they refuse to acknowledge) the effect that their behaviour will have on other people. Narcissism is on a spectrum; at the highest end is narcissistic personality disorder and at the lower end are people with traits of narcissism.  

What are the red flags of narcissism?

Let’s take a look at some red flags to enable you to understand what might be happening in your relationship.

Stonewalling or the ‘silent treatment’

Stonewalling is a behaviour where your partner refuses to engage in discussions or in any conversation with you.  They might use terms like, “End of discussion” or “I’m not talking about this with you again.”  This can make you feel shut down and is designed to feel like a punishment in this situation.  

Stonewalling is not the same as taking time out to think about a situation which we all need to do from time to time.  It is a complete dismissal of you.  In healthy relationships, there might be times when communication is difficult because one of you is upset.  Again, this is not the same as stonewalling; stonewalling is a deliberate intention to upset you.  It is a way to shut you down by a refusal to engage with you.


There might be a pattern of breaking up and getting back together with the narcissist.  Each time you break away from your partner and their hurtful, confusing behaviour they suck you back in by saying everything that you want to hear and showing you how much they love you.  When they have you back the pattern repeats again.


This is a form of manipulation and control that can make you feel as though you are going crazy. Gaslighting makes you question your reality or your perception of reality. The narcissist will do this by denying their actions, blaming you and lying. Over time you begin to doubt yourself and become confused.  

Phrases like, “that is not what I said or did.” Or “You definitely did not say/do that.”  Can make you question what you really said or did, which leads to doubt and confusion.  This erodes your sense of self.  If you find that you are constantly second-guessing yourself, being told that you are ‘too sensitive or too needy’ then these might be signs of gaslighting.

Intermittent reinforcement

This is a conditioned response where the narcissist decides when they will withhold or give you love and affection. This is a cycle of giving and withholding which can leave you feeling unstable, confused and longing for love. They might confuse you by showering you with gifts and putting you on a pedestal only to ignore you the next day.  You might be frequently wondering what you have done wrong and feeling upset by their actions.  You begin to settle for anything and feel as though you don’t deserve to be treated any better


Do you feel like you are being blamed for everything? How about feeling guilty and you aren’t sure why? Do you find yourself constantly apologising for your actions or who you are? The narcissist refuses to take any responsibility for their actions. Even decision making will be placed upon your shoulders in order for the blame to be placed with you if things don’t go their way.

Here are a few examples of blame:

  • It’s your fault our son failed his exams. If you had given him more discipline he would have passed.
  • It’s your fault I’m moody and down. Your constant nagging and demanding make me this way.
  • It’s your fault we don’t have any friends.
  • It’s your fault I don’t talk to you.  Everything that comes out of your mouth annoys me.
  • It’s your fault I emotionally shut down.
  • It’s your fault I’m not happy.

Ending a relationship with a narcissist

Ending a relationship with a narcissist is not easy.  If you are the one to end the relationship it can feel like a huge rejection to the narcissist and one that they won’t take lightly.  Rejection brings up feelings of inadequacy or low self-worth.

If you have just ‘escaped’ a toxic relationship then I want to tell you that you are courageous, strong, and resilient.  You might not feel strong right now, but it takes great strength to leave a toxic relationship.  Counselling can help you to feel your way through the fog and to begin to make sense of what has happened to you.

Talking with a therapist can help you to bring back a sense of who you once were.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a registered member of BACP with a level 7, Msc in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am qualified to work with many issues which include but are not limited to: emotional abuse, trauma, relationship issues, anxiety, depression, substance mis-use, boundaries, self-esteem, work/life balance and life changes.

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