The ‘Big 4’ signs of a toxic marriage: When should you leave one?

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If your spouse tries to control what you do, is unfaithful, makes you feel guilty, constantly criticizes you — or causes you physical or emotional pain — you may be in a toxic marriage, experts warn.

Staying in a toxic marriage can affect your self-esteem, as well as your physical and mental wellbeing. 

Melissa Hunter, a licensed professional counselor and former family law mediator from Aurora, Colo., says the most obvious sign of a toxic marriage is that your spouse treats you disrespectfully.

“This can show up in the form of belittling you, talking over you, being dismissive of your wants, needs, and opinions, ignoring you, talking poorly about you to others, to name a few,” says Hunter, who counsels people with relationship challenges and helps them to establish healthy boundaries or leave their relationships. 

If you are in a toxic marriage, there are steps you can take to leave or to salvage the marriage if you believe it can be fixed. 

Here's what you should know:

What are the signs of a toxic marriage?

How do you spot a toxic relationship? Toxic relationships or marriages and unhappy marriages are different.

A toxic marriage goes beyond being dissatisfied in your marriage. Amira Martin, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of MA Therapy in Brooklyn, N.Y., says toxic marriages are lacking the overarching support that makes people feel safe, loved, and valued. 

“To make matters worse, their time and energy is often being fed into their toxic marriage, which can feel like a consistent emotional drain,” Martin says.

Martin points to these common signs of a toxic marriage: 

1. One person is controlling and making all of the decisions — about where to live, whether or not to have children, how many children, who handles which household duties, etc. 

“Making decisions in a marriage is about sharing power,” Martin says. “When one party consistently makes all of the important decisions on their own and the other simply follows, it's likely there is a significant power imbalance in the relationship.”

2. Intimacy is used as a bargaining tool, rather than a time to connect or build closeness. One or both parties might withhold intimacy — physical sex or emotional — unless they get what they want from the other person. 

For instance, one partner might make the other person feel guilty for spending time with friends or try to isolate them from family members by acting mad or distant. 

3. Dishonesty that goes beyond occasional white lies — like lying about major financial issues, job struggles, and relationships outside of the marriage.

“If you can't rely on your partner, who you are trusting with your mind, body, and many other aspects of your life and well being, then you cannot possibly have a healthy marriage,” Martin says. 

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The ‘Big 4’ signs of a toxic marriage

Lynda Smith, PhD, LCPC, LPCC, LPT, and board-certified sex therapist has identified the ‘4 As' of a toxic relationship.

  • Adultery — emotional, physical, financial cheating
  • Addiction — drugs, alcohol, porn, gambling, spending
  • Abuse — physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial
  • Agendas

“Couples struggling with the 4 As are more likely to divorce than the non-4 As, which include: lack of communication, growing apart, and boredom,” says Smith, who practices out of Boise, Idaho. “While some signs of a toxic relationship are obvious, others can be harder to detect: disrespect, gaslighting, controlling behavior, lacking empathy, selfishness.”

For the couples involved, a toxic relationship feels isolating and fearful, says Dr. Emily Stone, PhD, LMFT-S. “A toxic marriage will be one where one or both partners do not feel safe to be able to communicate wants or needs without repercussions. Those repercussions might be emotional, physical or mental. In a toxic marriage, one or both partners do not feel like they can have a life or relationships outside of the marriage.”

Check out Katie Hood's Ted Talk about how to tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy love. Hood is the CEO of the One Love Foundation, which aims to end relationship abuse by educating young people:

Is it OK to remarry after divorce?

Other toxic marriage signs 

These are some other warning signs of a toxic marriage, according to Katina Tarver, a certified mediator and mental health counselor based in Houston. 

  • ​Abuse of all kinds — mental, physical and emotional
  • Monitoring social media, phone activity, and emails
  • Name calling or insulting without remorse, even under the guise of “joking around”
  • Shifting blame when confronted about toxic behaviors 

What happens in a toxic marriage?

Rachel Fishman Green, Esq., a divorce mediator and attorney also based in Brooklyn, says a good way to evaluate whether you have a toxic marriage is to compare your marriage to the principles of the “Four Horsemen” by psychologist and author John Gottman. 

His approach predicted whether a couple would divorce with 91% accuracy, based on whether a couple did these things during a fight:

1. Criticism directed at the person overall, rather than a specific position, habit or action. Fishman offered this example: 

“You are so selfish. You never think of me or anyone else.” vs. “Could you text me when you will be home? I start to worry when you’re more than an hour late.”

2. Contempt/negative feelings toward the other person and “hitting below the belt.”

Example: “Of course you feel like you got nothing done. You are the least efficient worker I have ever seen. You are always late and so disorganized. It’s agonizing to live with you.”

3. Defensiveness when things go wrong and making sure all blame falls on the other person’s shoulders. 

Example: “Did you call our insurance agent to talk about lowering our rate? Of course you didn’t, even though you knew I was too busy to do it.” vs. “Oh, I knew you would be busy, too.  I’ll do it now.”  

Fishman says that in a healthy marriage, each spouse accepts some responsibility when things go wrong and acknowledges their spouse’s perspective, making it easier for them to return the favor down the road.

4. Stonewalling your spouse — in other words, tuning him/her out or not responding and engaging in evasive or distracting behavior during an argument. 

Fishman says stonewalling is the result of the other three fighting behaviors.

“It’s impossible to evade the criticism and contempt of your spouse, so you have to tune him/her out,” she says.

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How do you deal with a toxic marriage?

Martin says the most important thing you can do in a toxic marriage is to take care of yourself first. 

“No matter how difficult your spouse or how unhealthy and toxic your marriage, you have some well being, value, and purpose outside of that toxic marriage,” Martin says.

She suggests:

  • First and foremost, getting out of an abusive or dangerous situation
  • Scheduling time to be social each week and spending time with friends and family (online time counts) 
  • Keeping a journal to express and validate your thoughts, feelings, and needs
  • Having hobbies you enjoy
  • Exploring a career or educational path you want to pursue
  • Maintaining or improving your physical or emotional health
  • Being honest with yourself, your friends, family, and loved ones about how you are feeling and your concerns within your marriage

“Telling the people in your life who care about you what you are going through does a couple of things. It allows for open and honest feedback, which can give you greater clarity, and it allows you to get the support you need,” Martin says.

If you aren’t in a dangerous situation and think your relationship can be salvaged, Martin suggests:

  • Individual therapy to get the support and clarity you need
  • Couples therapy to work through the issues with your spouse
  • Writing out a plan about how and your spouse will tackle your issues

Once you’ve tried making changes, reevaluate your relationship to see if things have improved. If they haven’t, it may be time to consider leaving the marriage.  

Can a toxic marriage be saved?

Brent Crowson, a licensed professional counselor in San Antonio, Texas, believes unhappy marriages and relationships can be saved if both partners are committed to making changes. However, toxic relationships should end, he said. “And if there is abuse, get out.”

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How do I deal with a toxic husband or a toxic wife?

What do you do when you are unhappy in your marriage or you’re in a toxic marriage?

First, if your relationship is dangerous, get out.

In a toxic marriage, one or both partners never turn toward one another to have needs met — they only turn outward — which makes healing difficult, Stone says. “Often, in a toxic relationship and in an unhappy marriage, there is a dance that has been created between the partners. Each partner knows his or her steps. Changing the dance steps, which are ingrained into their ways of relating, can be incredibly challenging for both.”

Stone's advice:

“Do not deal with a toxic marriage alone. Get help. You do not have to navigate these decisions or changes on your own. If your partner will not go to couples counseling with you, then you can go on your own and get support from a therapist for your own healing.”

For Dani, the relationship flipped from unhappy to dangerous: “It was when he finally tried to hit me after years of wall punching and the like. The love snapped like a rubber band and hell no, in this case, it ain't coming back,” she says. “I ran like hell.”

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What are the effects of a toxic marriage?

Corrie Sirkin, a family law attorney, mediator, and divorced mom from Manassas, Va., says a toxic marriage can have many negative effects on a person, including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and insecurity. 

“Belittling by the person that allegedly knows you the best or loves you the most causes you to question your own sanity, stability, and worth,” Sirkin says.

She says clients who suffered from depression and anxiety have reported that their symptoms greatly improved when they were no longer living with the toxic person and no longer under their control. 

How to leave a toxic marriage

If you’ve decided to leave a toxic marriage, check out our post on how to leave your husband or wife.

If you are in a toxic marriage and you fear for your safety, there are ways to get help. 

If you are in immediate danger, dial 911. You can also contact a local domestic abuse organization by searching for “domestic abuse help near me.” 

You can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 by calling 800-799-7233 or by texting START to 88788.

How to get over a toxic marriage

Getting over or moving on after a toxic marriage takes time, Sirkin says. 

“During a toxic marriage, you have potentially learned coping mechanisms that are not beneficial in healthy relationships,” she says. 

In a toxic relationship, you might have become used to giving immediate responses or justifying behavior to avoid consequences. Learning that you can take your time to think, reason, then respond is important.

Sirkin recommends talking to a therapist to help you get through this transitional period. 

“Even if the marriage or relationship was not healthy, most people will need to grieve the loss of the relationship or life that they thought that they were going to have,” Sirkin says. 

She suggests taking some time to think about what you want in your life after divorce, and prioritizing your needs, including making new friends.  

“Consider any things that you would like to do or try that you didn't because of your toxic relationship,” Sirkin says. “Then, try them or do it! Life is too short and too long to be unhappy.”

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How do I date after a toxic relationship?

Dating again after any relationship can be difficult, but rebounding from a toxic relationship might take more time and healing. Check out my post with 5 tips for dating after divorce and what I wish I knew.  

These Reddit threads also discuss dating after a toxic relationship: 

How do you know if your toxic marriage is worth saving?

Sirkin says it’s difficult for most toxic people to change because they do not believe that there is anything wrong with their words or actions. They believe that the way that they treat other people is “deserved” or even helpful to the other person. This is why Sirkin advises people to leave a toxic marriage.

However, in the rare case that your spouse recognizes his or her toxic behavior and is willing to take steps to change it, your marriage may be worth saving. 

How to end a toxic relationship or marriage

If you are in a toxic relationship or marriage, make a plan for where you are going to live, how you are going to support yourself, and how you are going to get your belongings from the home. Sirkin says it may be helpful to have a friend or family member with you when you inform your partner. 

“Some of my clients have informed their partner during marriage or couples counseling,” Sirkin says.

If you are ending a toxic marriage, she recommends consulting an attorney about your options, especially if you are planning to leave a shared property and if there are children involved. 

If your divorce is uncomplicated and mutually agreed upon, you can also start filing for divorce online. 

Check out our list of the best online divorce papers in 2022, including our No. 1 pick, 3 Step Divorce which has a flat fee, $50 rebate, and outstanding online and live phone customer service. 

3 Step Divorce’s parent company, Internet Brands, has an A+ Better Business Bureau rating.

Start filing for divorce at 3StepDivorce.com >>

What are the signs of a toxic marriage?

Lynda Smith, PhD, LCPC, LPCC, LPT, and board-certified sex therapist has identified the ‘4 As' of a toxic relationship: adultery, addiction, abuse, and agendas.

How do you deal with a toxic marriage?

Amira Martin, a licensed clinical social worker says the most important thing you can do in a toxic marriage is to take care of yourself first.

Can a toxic marriage be saved?

Brent Crowson, a licensed professional counselor in San Antonio, Texas, believes unhappy marriages and relationships can be saved if both partners are committed to making changes. However, toxic relationships should end, he said. “And if there is abuse, get out.”

How do I deal with a toxic husband or a toxic wife?

First, if your relationship is dangerous, get out.

What are the effects of a toxic marriage?

Corrie Sirkin, a family law attorney, mediator, and divorced mom from Manassas, Va., says a toxic marriage can have many negative effects on a person, including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and insecurity.

How do you know if your toxic marriage is worth saving?

Corrie Sirkin, a family law attorney, says it’s difficult for most toxic people to change because they do not believe that there is anything wrong with their words or actions. They believe that the way that they treat other people is “deserved” or even helpful to the other person. This is why Sirkin advises people to leave a toxic marriage.

Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.

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