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Ignoring the Cracks: Red Flags In Toxic Relationships

“Quayle, look—your face finally cracked,” My boyfriend Paulo greeted me. 

I had just jumped out of the shower. The smell of the jasmine and the cool air was a perfect cocktail for what seemed to be the start of a glorious day, simply being in the moment, feeling grounded on that Saturday morning. I was clean-faced and feeling free in my loose-fitting T-shirt and shorts, ready to take on whatever the day would bring. 

I was just twenty-six years old.

His comment was mystifying, hurtful, and burned into my mind with every mirror I faced, every window I passed by on the street, every glance into my rearview mirror, and every room with terrible overhead lighting. Those sharp words caused self-consciousness to fester inside me and take hold. I couldn’t shake it off, I couldn’t laugh it off, and I couldn’t believe he would choose to say something like this to me.

And yet I didn’t object.

I didn’t retort with my usual “I’ll show you” attitude.

Instead, I was paralyzed by his words.

A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP is a relationship between two people who don’t relate to each other in healthy ways. A relationship with more conflict than is typical or necessary. A relationship in which one person exploits, distorts, or minimizes the perspective and experience of the other person. In this kind of relationship, neither partner is growing or flourishing. Instead, you see hostility, anxiety, uncertainty, victimization, and abuse.  

I was in a toxic relationship for many years, and I know what it feels like to be shamed, blamed, minimized, disrespected, love bombed, and gaslighted.  Although it took me a minute—7,358,500 minutes to be exact—I’ve done the work. I’ve found my freedom. I’m living well. I’m sharing my story to help you find freedom, too.   

An important step is recovery is identifying red flags. Here are some flags that I experienced in my toxic relationship that I hope will help you.  

signs of a toxic relationship

5 Red Flags In Toxic Relationships You Shouldn’t Ignore


Feeling isolated and alone, with no one to counter his criticisms, I decided I would do what I could do to improve my appearance. I desperately wanted to become someone who would be acceptable to Paulo. So I signed up for a membership at a local gym.

One morning I returned home from a workout, glistening and glowing from within, proud of my new commitment. My cheeks were flushed, and my clothes stained by my sweat and determination. And as I walked in the door, Paulo was making lunch in the kitchen. I was aware of my strength peeking through my tight tank top with a glimpse of maybe a one-pack coming through. I secretly hoped Paulo would notice the results of my hustle and would be proud of my newfound strength in the gym.

Glancing in my direction, Paulo flatly said, “Quayle, looks like you’re bulking up.”

He could have said anything else. But he said the opposite of what I thought would come out of his mouth. There was no “Atta girl!” Instead, it was the one thing I hoped I’d never hear. His words burned.

If you’ve been in a toxic relationship, do you remember the first time you were criticized by your partner? Maybe the accusation wasn’t that you were “too old” or “too bulky.” Maybe the barb that flew toward your heart was that you were too fat, too thin, too controlling, too stupid. And I’m going to venture a guess that the first time you heard it certainly wasn’t the last time you heard it.

The first time Paulo took a shot at my appearance, I had no idea how to respond. Maybe you’ve felt some- thing similar. You may have also been stunned into silence, unsure how to answer, wading in disbelief or making excuses for what they “really meant to say.” Or maybe you knew exactly what you wanted to say, but you also knew, intuitively, it wasn’t a safe space to disagree with your partner.

Paulo’s criticism made me critical of myself, and I started to believe I wasn’t enough.


warning signs of a toxic relationship

Not long after we met, when Paulo was still introducing me as his “little sister,” being called Quayle made me feel special. 

But it also did something else. Calling me his “little sister” and also calling me by my last name—the way a boss might address an underling who was underperforming—signaled the power differential that existed between us. As if it needed any reinforcement. I was never not aware of it. I was twenty-six and he was forty-three. I was female and he was male. I was small and he was big. Any stranger passing us, and certainly anyone who’d ever joined us in a conversation, could sense it.

And that’s just how Paulo liked it—him being in control.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but every time he called me by my last name, it chipped away at my security in the relationship. In the beginning I loved it and saw it as a sign that I was on the inside of his circle. I didn’t see how he was grooming me to gradually trust him with this kind of familiarity. He was continually reinforcing the power dynamic between us. He did it when he’d make comments about how young and inexperienced I was. Ironically, he was also doing it when he signaled that I was visibly aging. He did it when he criticized the appearance of my body. Again and again, he chose to wield his words and actions in ways that made me shrink into silence.

And I did. I never spoke up or spoke out at these verbal power plays. I stayed silent.


toxic relationship

Paulo’s backhanded remarks about my appearance weren’t the only reason I had to question whether I was good enough for him.

I began to notice Paulo’s wandering eyes and the ways he engaged with other women. When I’d genuinely and gently inquire about how he had met a particular woman, or what their relationship had been, he’d brush off my careful queries.

Most of my inquiries weren’t poorly received by Paulo. In fact, most of them weren’t received at all. Rather than hearing my concerns, he would ignore them, brush them off, or accuse me of being insecure and crazy. Not acting crazy, just . . . crazy. Was I simply being insecure as he insisted? Or was my natural intuition, that sense in my gut that something was wrong, doing its job? I didn’t know. But I did know that the voice inside my head, whispering that something wasn’t right, was getting louder.

One evening, when everything in our relationship was still intoxicating, Paulo and I were seated outside at a little restaurant in Venice. Our server was fair-skinned with auburn hair. She was lean and about five feet eight inches tall—everything I wasn’t. If I had been out with my girlfriends, I might not have noticed her. But there was something about the looks exchanged between Paulo and the attractive server that made me feel uncomfortable. Their gazes lasted a little too long. If those glances weren’t revealing that this pair had a history, they were absolutely hinting that they had a future.

Really? Right in front of me?

I had to go to the bathroom so badly, but I was afraid to leave them alone. Instead, I crossed my legs. I refused to get up and make room for what surely would have been an exchange of phone numbers on a napkin or on the back of a receipt.

I know now that I should have thrown my water at him. I should have gotten up and said I’d had enough. I should have told him that if he wanted only me, he would have to stop this unacceptable, overt, and disrespectful behavior. But I didn’t know then what I know now.

What I did know then, on some level, was that something wasn’t right. And I’m guessing that you’ve been in similar situations where something inside you—your gut—was telling you that something was off about your partner.

During the course of our relationship, the intuition and gut my parents had instilled in me, through trials and faith, had become hazy. That little voice of intuition had faltered, but it hadn’t been extinguished. And it was still trying to let me know something was wrong.

Maybe you’ve heard that little voice inside, signaling your partner might be involved with someone else. You may have brought it up with your partner and later regretted it. Or you may have sensed it was safer and smarter to silence that voice and suppressed your concern. It’s even possible that you chose to keep your concerns from the friends who love you for fear of making your partner look bad.

If you’re anything like me, you weren’t willing to listen to what that voice was telling you.



We were in Punta Mita, Mexico, on a family vacation with friends, and I had gone scuba diving with my friend’s little boys. I was in my full wet suit with my mask scrunched up on my forehead, the outline of the mask still imprinted on my face, when I saw her from a distance.

Trekking up the beach toward Paulo, pulling the mask off my face, I was certain I looked like a hot mess. Before I spotted Paulo, though, I noticed the raven-haired beauty was standing in the shallow water of the infinity swimming pool, her back to me. Her bright-yellow bikini bottom barely clung to her cheeks as they peeked above the water’s surface. The shape of her body made her the perfect specimen of a woman. 

Picture this: I’m this disheveled, suction-faced girl, stumbling upon my boyfriend in deep conversation with a younger woman who could have been a supermodel. They were standing too close for having just met. I walked toward them, and my heart raced as I dragged my feet through the sand, listening to the squeaks from my soaking wet suit. I could see that Paulo’s charm was on full display. Their flirtatious exchange made me want to run at full speed and wedge myself between them to referee Paulo’s game of pretending to be single.

When I finally reached them, he didn’t even acknowledge me or introduce me.

While I tried to hold it together on the outside, inside I was pissed. I was embarrassed. I was mortified. There was no way I was going to take off that wet suit so that my body could be compared to hers.

 Later that evening in our hotel room, I asked him about the woman.

“Who was that woman you were talking to in the pool?” I inquired timidly.

 Without really answering, he simply said, “Quayle, why are you so crazy? Don’t be so insecure.”

I felt undone when Paulo would flirt with other women.

For him to call me “crazy” was the easiest, most expedient way to dodge any confrontation or conversation. Blaming me was his default.

Within minutes I’d armored up with a smile to share dinner with our hosts and friends, as if I hadn’t just been burned to the ground. As we ate, the Siren—and her fiancé, apparently— were seated just a few tables away. I watched Paulo’s gaze find his way to hers—so obvious, so ruthless. And yet I did nothing while my insides were in full combat gear.

From that day forward, whenever he needed to pull out the “crazy” card, he did it with a derogatory tone that left me wondering if I might actually be crazy. How could the man I loved, whom I had dedicated my life and heart to, whose daughter I’d promised to love like my own, have been so quick to label me crazy and insecure?

When I did gather my courage to bring up a difficult topic, the result was fairly predictable. My concerns were dismissed. They were unheard. The substance of them was never discussed. Instead, I was labeled and blamed. Why? Because if I was insecure, then Paulo didn’t have to take responsibility for his behavior. If I was crazy, then he could dismiss any legitimate concerns I had.


Why Do We Stay? by Stephanie Quayle

I’ve learned that one of the ways we can gather insightful information about a partner is by spending time with them in the presence of the people who know them and care about them. 

I didn’t know Paulo’s family. The relationships I had with his friends were surface-level and guarded. I only had Paulo.

In the absence of relationships with people who knew Paulo well, I saw what he wanted me to see.

I now know how I could have acted differently. I can see how I could have discovered who Paulo was long before I actually discovered who Paulo was. I could’ve pursued opportunities to know people in his family, to build a relationship with his daughter’s mother, to form relationships with the friends who came around. 

That’s a lot of could’ves, I know. But the blessing is that what I didn’t get right back then, I can now share with you so you can spend less time questioning yourself.

When the person with whom we’re in a toxic relationship is the one source of information we have about them, that person controls the narrative. We know only what they tell us. We know only the parts of them they allow us to see. And they can be savvy about what they share.

 As my relationship with Paulo continued, the vibrant, outspoken girl I’d once been became smaller. I lost myself. I shrank. My confident “I’ll show you” attitude was replaced with self-doubt.

And I even began to believe, Maybe I’m the problem.

Sharing my story is a step in my healing journey that continues every day. It’s not over. My hope and prayer is that my book Why Do We Stay? will empower you to take the next step in your journey toward freedom.

signs of a toxic relationship
signs of a toxic relationship

Stephanie Quayle is a Nashville recording artist who tours the world with her music and an entrepreneur with her own record label, Big Sky Music Group. Rolling Stone Country called her “an artist you need to know,” CMT named her as part of its “Next Women of Country” franchise, and she’s appeared on popular programs like The Kelly Clarkson Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. As an independent artist with two Billboard charted singles, “Selfish” and “Whatcha Drinkin ’Bout,” she has repeatedly performed at CMA Fest and the Grand Ole Opry.  The Montana native has teamed up with recognizable brands like Wrangler, Harley-Davidson, Bass Pro Shops, Montana Silversmiths, as well as Lucchese Bootmaker in the creation of her exclusive boot line. Quayle’s latest album On the Edge chronicles her personal experience in a toxic relationship and the healing she’s gone through since—inspiring others and redefining her future. Her book, Why Do We Stay? How My Toxic Relationship Can Help You Find Healing, is on sale now. 

Includes material from Why Do We Stay?: How My Toxic Relationship Can Help You Find Freedom by Stephanie Quayle. Copyright © 2024 Stephanie Quayle. Used by permission of Harper Celebrate.