The #1 Red Flag of a Toxic Relationship

There is one particular glaring red flag that far surpasses any of the other red flags when it comes to determining if you are indeed in a toxic or “pathological” love relationship.

What is a “pathological love relationship?”

A pathological love relationship is a relationship in which you are with a partner with traits of a personality disorder, such as narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, or psychopathy. People in these relationships will suffer inevitable harm because of their involvement with this type of partner. The characteristics of these disorders include a lack of empathy among other damaging qualities (read more about pathology on my blog). Most people find themselves in these relationships without having any idea that their partner has these qualities until later on in the relationship.

This is not your normal unhappy relationship where two people quarrel over things like doing the dishes or how to spend money. These are highly confusing, emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships that can include many other types of abuse (but many will never experience any physical form of abuse).

The biggest red flag: Cognitive Dissonance

There are distinct red flags that you may have seen in your partner and within yourself that indicate you are with a person with a personality disorder. The biggest red flag is what we call “Cognitive Dissonance (CD).” It is the “hallmark symptom” of a pathological love relationship, according to researcher and author, Sandra Brown, MA. Cognitive dissonance is basically a psychological conflict that occurs when you have two conflicting beliefs or attitudes held in your mind simultaneously. This process creates an internal state of anxiety as well as a need to resolve the conflicting beliefs by essentially choosing one side to align with as your truth.

Most survivors of pathological love relationships experience this in the form of confusing thoughts about their partner such as, “I love him/I fear him,” or “I can’t stand to be away from her/I can’t stand to be with her.” They will constantly compare and contrast their memories and experiences with their partner, often struggling to arrive at a decision about what to do about the relationship. Over time, this dynamic strengthens and can destroy a survivor’s sense of self-worth as they begin to feel confusion and shame around their decision to remain with a pathological partner despite the abusive behavior they endure.

Why does cognitive dissonance occur?

Over time, you will begin to witness your pathological partner display a Jekyll and Hyde personality. One moment they may be loving and attentive, and the next moment they may be cruel, abusive, and critical. Their inconsistent behavior creates confusion. Over time, CD progresses through these stages as you question the relationship:

  • You first become confused about who they are, as their behavior is so inconsistent. Is he safe or abusive? Is she my soul mate or my nightmare?
  • You then will progress into confusion about the relationship – Is this relationship healthy or not? Should I stay or should I go?
  • Ultimately, you may experience guilt, shame, and confusion about who you are as a person, asking yourself questions such as Why do I tolerate this? Why can’t I just leave? I am not this kind of person…

Why should you be concerned about cognitive dissonance?

People in healthy but unhappy relationships will experience questions about their relationship but don’t see the Jekyll/Hyde personality in their partner, which means that their questioning will not evolve into cognitive dissonance. CD is a symptom of TRAUMA, and research has shown that people who experience it will begin to suffer the same effects in their brain as someone with any other type of traumatic experience. It is common to experience brain fog, confusion, inability to concentrate or remember things, and to think rational, reasonable, analytical thoughts.

Cognitive dissonance is the reason you get stuck.

When your brain can no longer reason, plan, or organize, it becomes difficult to figure out how to leave a relationship. Furthermore, most people experiencing CD will experience frequent episodes of rumination or obsessive thinking about their partner and the relationship, unable to make a decision about whether their partner is ultimately loving or abusive.

If you are experiencing CD, you need no other red flag to determine whether you should stay or leave a relationship. This is a sign that you are in one of the most damaging types of relationships possible.


CD is a problem that has not gotten enough press. Chelli has a unique gift to be able to explain it in such a way that is easy for all to understand and we appreciate her so much for her skills!! Thank you, Chelli!


Chelli Pumphrey, MA, LPC

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