Does your relationship leave you feeling confused, anxious, guilty, and generally bad about yourself? Grab your hazmat suit - things may be toxic!
One of the most challenging things about toxic relationships is that they can be so dang difficult to spot. Sometimes the only evidence that a relationship is unhealthy is how we are feeling when we’re in it. Feelings like confusion, loneliness, and anxiety can be signs that something is wrong, and they are signs that should not be ignored.
Once you know what to look for, you’ll be better armed to protect yourself from toxic partners.
In this guide, I’ll describe the four phases of a toxic relationship:
I’ll also show you some important red flags to look out for in each phase.
Phase One: Idealization
This is the single most important phase of the cycle. The idealization phase is what hooks people in. It’s also what keeps people in toxic relationships, long after things have deteriorated.
During idealization, you may feel as if you’ve met your soul mate. The emotionally manipulative person works hard to mirror you – your thoughts, feelings, dreams, and values. You may feel like you’ve met your other half. People in this phase say things like, “I’ve never connected with someone like this,” or, “No one has ever understood me like this person does.” They learn your vulnerabilities quickly and reassure you that they’re the answer. This “knight in shining armor” persona can sweep an unsuspecting person off their feet.
To make things even more complicated, targets during this phase are also being love bombed. Love bombing is a term that comes from cult behavior, and it’s a technique that cult leaders use to recruit followers. In an intimate relationship, love bombing consists of over-the-top positive attention. This may look like constant texts, calls, and voice messages telling you how amazing you are. You may receive notes on your car at work, cards in the mail, flowers, and other grand romantic gestures.
The love bomber may also tell you they love you or pressure you for some type of commitment early on. They may start to plan your future together, a technique known as “future faking.” Again, the “sweep you off your feet” quality of this behavior makes you feel special and important… and distracts you from carefully assessing if this new person is right for you.
Make no mistake: This is emotional manipulation. Love bombing is grooming, plain and simple. This is a technique to get a person hooked, and once that happens, things will start to change rapidly. To the target, however, this new person in their life is truly their soulmate, which makes the shift that happens next so hard to understand or accept.
Red flags during idealization: Mirroring, love bombing, moving too fast, future faking
Make no mistake: This is emotional manipulation. Love bombing is grooming, plain and simple.
Phase Two: Devaluation
Fasten your seatbelts, because things are about to get bumpy. In the devaluation phase, the emotionally manipulative person will start to subtly put you down. You may not be consciously aware of this, but you may begin to feel confused, anxious, and bad about yourself. Devaluation may consist of subtle criticism, stoking of jealousy, withdrawal of idealization and attention, and increasing conflict. This is the phase when gaslighting occurs. (Dictionary.com defines gaslighting as manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.)
Here are some examples of devaluation:
Your new partner starts talking about someone at work that has shown a romantic interest in them. When you express insecurity about this, they call you “jealous” or “insecure.”
Your partner puts you down in some way, and when you say it hurt your feelings, they call you “too sensitive” or say that you’re “creating drama.”
Your once-attentive partner suddenly pulls away (love bombing behavior decreases), and you feel like you are chasing them. When you express how you feel, they say you are “too needy” or “too clingy.”
Are you starting to notice a pattern here? The devaluation phase is when the target learns that they are not allowed to express feelings and that they are wrong (insecure, needy, jealous, too sensitive, etc.) for having feelings in the first place. Inconsistency is a HUGE red flag in this phase. If you find yourself having to chase a once-available partner, you are most likely in the devaluation phase of a toxic relationship.
This phase can be quite damaging to targets, because much time and emotional energy is spent trying to recapture that person they first met. Targets often blame themselves, thinking, if only I could be more ____________ (or less ___________ ), then we could have that great relationship again. Unfortunately, no amount of change or work on your part will bring the idealizer back. The person who idealized you was not real – that was just a tactic to get you hooked.
If you find yourself having to chase a once-available partner, you are most likely in the devaluation phase of a toxic relationship.
Red flags during devaluation: Gaslighting, criticism, inconsistency, withdrawal of attention
Phase Three: Discard
This is probably the most devastating part of the cycle, as often the target is literally discarded without a second glance from the emotional manipulator. This can be as callous as someone tossing a used tissue into the garbage can. You may wonder if you ever meant anything to them, and your head may be spinning about how you fell off the pedestal they had you on early in the relationship.
Perhaps by this point you’ve identified your relationship is toxic, and you are the one to end things. If you are the one doing the discarding, the best course of action is to go no contact. This is because emotionally manipulative people will do everything in their power to hook you back in, even if it’s just so that they can be the one to end things.
As if being discarded wasn’t enough, you may find yourself the victim of a smear campaign after the relationship ends. A smear campaign is exactly what it sounds like: The emotional manipulator will viciously retaliate by telling lies and spreading rumors about you. You will be labeled as abusive, crazy, unfaithful, etc. Sometimes they’ll accuse you of all the hurtful things they did in the relationship. They may go so far as to reach out to your friends and enlist allies in their campaign against you. You may be cyberstalked or harassed in other ways.
And just when you think you are finally done with the toxicity… the Hoover begins.
Red flags during discard phase: Smear campaign, stalking, harassment
Phase Four: Hoover
Named for the vacuum, the Hoover phase is when the emotionally manipulative person literally “sucks” you back into relationship with them. This could be a simple text out of the blue, “bumping into” you at the grocery store, or any form of communication designed to hook you back.
Here are some examples of Hoovering via text:
“I miss you.”
“I was just thinking about you.”
“I just heard (insert song here) and thought of you.”
The Hoover may seem innocuous, but do not underestimate the motives of an emotional manipulator. After your devastating discard and the heartbreak that followed, you may feel elated at this renewed interest. You may have hope that you can recapture what you used to have with them. Occasionally a brief idealization phase will follow a Hoover, but more often that phase is completely bypassed, and you find yourself being devalued again. The cycle repeats itself over and over, but there is less of the positive attention each time around. In other words, the Idealization phase becomes shorter and shorter and is ultimately nonexistent.
For this reason, the best course of action at the end of the toxic relationship is to go no contact. No contact is not just about blocking this person from text. It is about completely removing them from your life – text, email, social media, and even shared friends and other contact if necessary. Some targets have even had to block shared friends, as the emotional manipulator may try to reach their target through such people.
No contact protects you from being vulnerable to a Hoover and the never-ending cycle of pain that is sure to follow. To be clear, no contact does NOT mean allowing them to text you and not responding. In this case, you’re still in contact (even though it’s one-way), and they are still exerting emotional influence over you. No contact means NO contact.
Red flags during the Hoover phase: Any form of communication after you’ve attempted to set a boundary that you do not want contact with them.
These phases can last for days, months, or even years. The Hoover stage of the cycle makes it nearly impossible for a target to break free, unless they are deeply committed to going no contact.
If you’ve found yourself in a toxic relationship, it may help to talk to a professional about your situation. You may not be sure if your relationship is toxic, but if you’re feeling confused, anxious, hurt, or generally bad about yourself with your partner, it’s time to get support.