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13 Toxic Signs of an Unhealthy Long Distance Relationship

Lisa McKay | Updated: October 10, 2023

When you’re head over heals for someone, whether you met online or not. It can be hard to identify even the most obvious signs of an unhealthy long distance relationship.

Is it a ‘one off’ or is it premeditated?

  • Are they tired and busy, or are we getting the silent treatment?
  • Are we being insecure and needy, or are they dishing out passive-aggressive jabs?
  • Are they pointing out genuine issues we need to work on, or are they blaming us to avoid facing up to their own issues?

To help you find out. Let’s analyze the most common red flags in long distance relationships AND what you can do to protect yourself.

signs of being in an unhealthy long distance relationship and how to deal with the toxic red flags pinterest image

What my ‘cheeky’ son taught me about manipulation

If you don’t cook me pizza for dinner, I’m not going to love you anymore.

This announcement came at me last night, delivered by my cheeky preschooler son. He is usually one of the most cheerful, easy-going humans you’ll ever meet. But recently he’s started to work out power-dynamics. And he really likes pizza. So he pulled out the biggest gun in his arsenal—the weapon of withholding love.

Because he’s a child, it didn’t bother me at all. I stayed calm. In fact, I had to work hard not to laugh!

It’s (usually) easy for us to react calmly and lovingly to emotional threats when they are delivered by young children. We know they love us. We know they don’t really mean what they are saying in the moment. And it’s often as plain as day when they are trying to manipulate us.

It’s a very different story when someone we’re dating (or married to) pulls a grown-up version of the same maneuver.

Often we’ll be left confused about what’s going on. Especially when you’re in a long distance relationship, it’s sometimes hard to figure whether they’re being a jerk, or not.

It’s time to recognize whether red flags are at work in your long distance relationship.

Let’s get stuck in!

Common Signs of an Unhealthy Long Distance Relationship

1. Stonewalling

What is stonewalling? Stonewalling is using silence as a weapon or an escape. It’s controlling the situation by refusing to engage—refusing to talk about a particular issue, or just refusing to talk to you at all.

Distance makes this particularly easy to do, because your SO can just stop answering the phone or replying to texts and emails for a while. If you’re on the receiving end of stonewalling, it can drive you crazy with frustration, second-guessing, and self-doubt. It also tends to make you scared of bringing up the particular issue that “set them off” again, for fear of rocking the boat.

2. Ghosting

This is an extreme version of stonewalling and an increasingly common way of “breaking up” with someone you met online.

Ghosting is when someone suddenly cuts all ties and communication with the person they’ve been seeing or talking to. They will block you from all their social media accounts, refuse to answer mail or phone calls, and just… virtually disappear. It’s disrespectful, and cowardly, and totally taking the easy way out.

If this happens to you, it’ll hurt. A lot. But remind yourself that you really don’t want to be with someone who would do this to you, and focus on moving forward.

3. Hanging up

When you’re in a long distance relationship, all you have is the phone or a video connection. Holding those hostage by hanging up on someone is a power play.

4. Stirring up jealousy

If someone’s flirting with other people and making sure you know about about it, that’s a power play designed to make you jealous.

They might deliberately leave ‘likes’ or comments on someone else’s social media profile. Or casually drop a certain name into conversation primarily because they want to make you “wonder” or “keep you guessing”. They may regularly mention how attractive they find a particular celebrity, or habitually bring ex-partners into the conversation.

It can be hard to figure out why someone is doing these sorts of things. But if you’re fairly sure they’re mostly trying to stir up jealousy and make you feel insecure, it’s a power play.

5. Using money to “buy” commitments or behavior

If they offer to pay your bills, or buy your plane tickets for a visit, but they want you to do something in return (e.g., call every night to check in, avoid a certain friend they’re jealous of, send you nude pictures, etc) that’s a controlling power play.

6. Making you feel bad if you’re not ready to be intimate

Sex is a complicated issue in any relationship.

Especially when you meet online, it’s very wise to take it slow and be very careful about sending anyone revealing images.

If they ask for nude pictures or FaceTime sex and make you feel pressured (or bad if you aren’t ready for that) they’re in the wrong. That simple.

7. Making you feel bad if…

While we’re talking about feeling bad… Sometimes you’ll feel bad after a certain interaction because you know you’re in the wrong, or you’re feeling insecure about something.

Other times, however, you’ll end up feeling bad because you’re being pressured in unhealthy ways.

For example, if they start expecting or demanding that you return emails and texts within a couple of minutes. Or they need you to call multiple times a day just to “check in” and let them know what you’re up to, they are manipulating you.      

8. Threatening to end the relationship unless…

Look, if they’re threatening to end the relationship unless you get treatment for a gambling, drug, sex, or alcohol addiction, they’re not being jerk.

If they’re threatening to end the relationship unless you do (insert: send nude photos, send money, call every single day, cut all contact with certain friends, etc) they are almost certainly trying to see how much they can control you.

9. Blaming you for…

This power play often occurs when your partner feels defensive about something. Let’s take cheating as an example. If you are worried your partner may be cheating and you try to bring it up with them, they’re likely to feel defensive.

If your partner is not cheating on you, they may understandably feel defensive when approached on this topic. However, people who are cheating can also react defensively and use distraction and blaming as a tactic when they are confronted.

For example, they may strongly deny any wrongdoing and dismisses your concerns. They may:

Bottom line? Blame is often a toxic trait.

10. Shaming you for…

Does your significant other habitually criticize you, ridicule what you do or say, or make you feel like you’re dumb or an inconvenience?

These tyrannical power plays are designed to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, and make the other person feel powerful or better about themselves.

Beware. All of the power plays on this list are serious warning flags in a relationship, but this is among the worst of the lot. You do not want to be with someone who often puts you down and triggers feelings of shame.  

11. Expecting you to be constantly available and responsive

We all love it when we send an email or a text and get an answer back straight away. When you’re in a long distance relationship, however, it’s easy for that natural desire for contact and quick responses to morph into expectations and then demands.

How does this become a power play?

Well, this can be a subtle (and not always an intentional power play). For example, your partner might start to get upset and angry if you don’t answer a text or call immediately. You may begin to feel you need to be responsive and available to avoid upsetting them. They may not intentionally be trying to manipulate you, but you are being manipulated nonetheless.

12. Leaving you hanging

We just discussed how it’s not reasonable to expect someone to always pick up the phone when you call, or to answer every email or text immediately. People have lives and responsibilities (and moods) and sometimes they’re just not in a state or place to be able to answer you straight away.

The flip issue to this, though, is leaving someone hanging. It is deliberately and habitually making them wait for a response.

For example, if they know they can see when they’ve read a message or a text, but they deliberately don’t respond right away, that’s just making you sweat. If this happens often they’re probably on a power trip, or they’re reacting because they feel like they you are being too needy and smothering them. Either way, something needs to be discussed.

Another way this power play shows up is if your partner constantly misses scheduled phone or video call dates. It means they’re leaving you on the back burner, and not making you a priority. It’s rude, and it often means they’re not really that invested in the relationship.

13. Stringing you along

If your long distance ex keeps popping back into your life (or inbox, as the case may be) they may be using you to make themselves feel good.

What do I mean?

Well, many people secretly want their ex’s to still want to be with them, even if they themselves don’t want to be in the relationship anymore.

So after a break up, it can be tempting to stay in touch your ex, especially if you were the one that broke things off. Knowing there are people out there who find you interesting and attractive is a huge ego-boost.

But purposefully sticking around like this for your own selfish reasons can ruin your ex’s chances to really move on. That’s what can make this a power move.

What to do next & how to protect yourself

So what should you do if you spot one of these long distance relationship red flags (or after it, as the case may be)?

Remember that you are valuable

And while we’re talking about standing up for yourself… Remember that YOU ARE VALUABLE.

You are worthy of love, and of respect.

Reminding yourself of these truths will help you set good boundaries around what is acceptable behavior in your relationship.

If someone you’re in a long distance relationship with is pulling power plays on you or otherwise routinely not treating you well, they are not valuing you as they should. They are not valuing you in the way that will lead to healthy, balanced relationship. In that case, you need to value yourself and seriously consider…

Be prepared to walk away

Always be prepared to walk away from your long distance relationship if they’re not treating you well.

It is not worth staying in a relationship with someone who is not treating you with affection and respect.

You WILL survive. You WILL be better off in the long run.

Speak up

When you spot a power play, speak up. If you let it slide, it is more likely to happen again. And if it happens again and again, it will become a pattern in your relationship instead of a once-every-so-often sort of thing.

So speak up. Let them know you don’t appreciate what they are doing. Share how it makes you feel.

For example:

Whenever I say something you don’t like, I feel like you shut down, stop talking, and push me away. Because we’re in a long distance relationship I can’t reach out and touch you when things get hard.

Words are all we’ve got right now.

When you go silent without telling me anything about why or what’s going on inside your head, I feel upset and insecure. I know it’s hard to talk sometimes, but could you please at least tell me how you’re feeling and let me know you need some time and we can talk about it later?

Don’t censor yourself because you fear a reaction

We all censor ourselves sometimes… and we should! Not every thought we have or every feeling we feel should be given air time. However basic common-sense censoring (along the lines of “that’s not a smart/helpful thing to say”) is not what I’m talking about here.

What I’m talking about is the sort of censoring where you want to say something, but you stop yourself because you’re worried or scared you’ll upset your partner. It’s not saying something you think maybe you should say, because you’re worried you’ll “set them off”.

When you catch yourself feeling this way, say it. It may lead to some uncomfortable moments, but those sorts of moments can build deeper intimacy. And if you do set them off [shrug] so be it. You’ll get to learn how they, and you, handle conflict.

Stay focused on the main point

A common power-play in relationships is to try to shift the focus of an uncomfortable discussion and put the “blame” for something back on your partner.

For example, if you bring up the fact that you’re uncomfortable with certain interactions you’ve seen them have with someone else on social media, they might start talking about how you never seem to be around when they want to chat (the subtext of this diversion, of course, is that you’re not “meeting their needs.”)

It’s easy when this sort of thing happens to allow yourself to get swept along by the sidetrack, and find yourself defending yourself or arguing about something completely different than what you set out to discuss. This is a power play.

To protect yourself from this power play, you can acknowledge that there are additional valid issues to discuss, and let them know you’re willing to come back to those issues later, but then calmly state that you’d like to stay focused on the initial issue for now.

Be brave

These are difficult moments in any relationship. It’s never comfortable when someone you care about is upset, hurt, or flustered. It’s never comfortable when you have to “stand up” to someone you care for and essentially tell them you don’t like the way they’re treating you right now. But be brave.

You can do it. Your relationship will grow stronger and deeper because of your honesty (or it might end, yes, but if it does you’ll be better off in the long run, trust me.) They will respect you for your strength and honesty (even if they don’t like it in the moment.)

Remember…if you don’t speak up, the power plays are unlikely to disappear. In fact, they’re MUCH more likely to start showing up more and more often.

So take a deep breath. Try to stay calm. And stand up for yourself.

You CAN do it.

Now you know the signs, is your long distance relationship ‘unhealthy’?

If you find yourself repeatedly caught up in one of these struggles with someone you’re dating, and calm, rational, non-blaming discussions do not change the relationship dynamics. Then in most cases the wise course of action is to walk away from the relationship.

Hold out for a relationship where you can be strong or vulnerable at different times. Where:

We all have bad days, weeks, and months. So I’m not saying you should ditch your relationship the minute you see one of the power plays rear their ugly head, but do use them as a signal to think hard.

Do you think your relationship is generally headed in the right direction, and is healthy? Do you feel like your partner makes you a better version of yourself… or a different version? Check in with your instincts. Talk to trusted friends.

And then… choose what seems wise, even if it’s not what feels easy or good in the moment.

Lisa McKay author image for bio
Lisa McKay is an award-winning author and psychologist. She is also the founder of Modern Love Long Distance, now a part of Lasting The Distance. Drawing upon her own extensive experience with long distance relationships, Lisa helps couples navigate LDR pitfalls and forge meaningful, enduring connections across the miles.
Fall in love all over again with our FREE 7 day LDR challenge!

Unlock better date nights, deeper communication plus a stronger intimate & emotional connection.

Loved by over 50,000 long distance couples!

We respect your privacy & you can unsubscribe at any time.