Five signs of a toxic marriage and what to do about it

Unhappy couple in a toxic relationshiop

Just like toxic chemicals, toxic people can make you sick—both physically and mentally. Living in a toxic marriage day in and day out can be dangerous to your health, especially if the level of toxicity rises to physical and emotional abuse. How do you know if your marriage is toxic, and should you try to save it or get out? We discuss common signs of a toxic marriage and share additional insight below.

What is a toxic marriage?

The phrase “toxic relationship” became a part of our social lexicon back in 1995 when Lillian Glass, Ph.D. published the book Toxic People. Glass, a respected authority in the fields of communication and the psychology of human behavior, coined the phrase and defines a toxic relationship as “any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”

While Glass’s definition is accurate (she created the phrase after all), I would add that a toxic marriage can also damage a spouse’s psyche and increase the likelihood of physical harm as the marriage goes on. It’s also worth noting that toxic marriages typically don’t get toxic overnight. We see these marriages continue to get worse over time, and it’s usually easier to either get out or take steps to heal a toxic marriage early on.

What are the signs of a toxic marriage?

How do you know if you’re married to a toxic wife or toxic husband? Are there any bad husband traits or bad wife signs you should look out for? Following are a few signs of a toxic marriage our family law lawyers in Fort Worth TX commonly see in our practice.

No. 1: Your spouse insists on controlling the finances and you.

One of the divorce trends we’re seeing now more than ever is a true division of the household—where one party tries to control every aspect of the marriage. For example, you have a party who doesn’t want to list their spouse on any financial accounts (bank, credit card, investments, etc.) or let them in on any details regarding the couple’s finances (good or bad).

Another big sign of a controlling and toxic spouse is where a party doesn’t want their spouse to visit family members and friends or be involved or engaged with anyone outside of their marriage. That’s where controlling relationships start, which can put people in a very bad situation as things escalate down the road.

Oftentimes, recipients of this toxic behavior acquiesce to shutting loved ones out in order to eliminate immediate conflict with the other party. Unfortunately, that’s the most dangerous thing you can do, because:

  • A. You won’t have a support system to care for you in the event something happens or people who could act as a whistleblower if needed; and
  • B. Financially, you can get crippled, making it very difficult for you to leave the household or get a divorce. Plus, it could also put custody of your children at risk.

No. 2: Chronic, escalating substance abuse.

We often see situations where one party starts out drinking a couple of times a week, which may seem OK at first. Then, the party may have a bad night where they do something stupid. Over time, the alcohol abuse continues to escalate but the other party’s tolerance of the substance abuse keeps getting higher, too, because they’re around the bad behavior all the time.

If they’re in a controlling situation (like No. 1 above), the recipient of the bad or toxic behavior doesn’t have third parties looking in to provide advice or moral support. That’s another reason why controlling people try to eliminate and prevent “outsiders” from seeing the inside of their houses, and where the blame game on family members and friends can come into play.

No. 3: Physical and/or emotional abuse.

When you have one party who is controlling and/or has a substance abuse problem, physical and emotional abuse of the other party often follows. If you’re in a toxic marriage where troubles in your marriage have escalated to physical and/or emotional abuse, there’s no bigger red flag that you have a toxic marriage. You don’t deserve to be a victim of domestic violence and should seek help (for you and your children if you have any) right away.

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-SAFE (7233)/TTY 1 (800) 787-3224 or visit for support and resources.

No. 4: Other forms of bad behavior.

Toxicity builds up over time, and as physical, emotional and substance abuse escalates, so do other types of bad behavior. Bad wife and bad husband signs of toxicity may also surface in the form of criminal implications, debt situations, affairs, strip clubs, spending money irresponsibly and other ways.

No. 5: Struggles with mental health issues.

Being on the receiving end of toxic behavior, month after month and year after year can take a toll on mental health. If you’ve always been a relatively happy person and find that depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, eating disorders and/or substance abuse is becoming a problem for you, it could be the result of stress associated with your toxic spouse’s behavior.

It’s important to note, social media use can make life in a toxic marriage more challenging. If you’re spending excessive amounts of time on social media comparing your marriage to others or relying on social sites to make you feel better, you’ll only end up feeling worse.

How to leave a toxic marriage

If it makes sense for you, consider marriage counseling. All toxic marriages are NOT a lost cause. If both parties are willing to work on the marriage and seek professional help from a family therapist or clergy, the marriage could potentially be saved. Good mental health professionals will try to get to the root cause of the toxicity, including why someone became so controlling or abusive in the first place.

Through therapy, the toxic spouse may be able to heal and become a better human being—but there’s no guarantee. Toxicity is difficult to “cure” and your spouse may not want to change anyway. Even if your marriage can’t be saved, seeing a counselor to help YOU heal and make better choices for your future is a terrific next step.

If you are at risk of physical or emotional danger, take action quickly. Should your safety (and your children’s) be at risk, you should seek help sooner vs. later. If the threat is immediate, call 911. You can also reach out to local women’s shelters or your house of worship for support.

Contact a divorce attorney to discuss the next steps. If you believe your spouse’s toxic behavior is ruining your life, it may be time to get out for good. It’s also very important to meet with a divorce attorney ASAP, so you know what steps to take to protect your assets and keep you and your children safe if family violence is a concern.

Keep in mind, timing is critical during divorce, so it’s almost always best to speak with an attorney before asking your spouse for a divorce. Every divorce is unique, and only your attorney can recommend a strategy that will make sense for your specific case.

Considering a divorce so you can close the book on a toxic marriage?

If the signs of a toxic marriage resonate with you, and you’d like to weigh options for a Texas divorce and child custody, contact us to schedule a confidential case review. During your consultation, attorney Justin Sisemore, founder of the Sisemore Law Firm, will take a deep dive into your case and spell out the strategy he thinks would work best for your unique case.

To schedule your case review now, please call our law office at (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.

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