by Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.
Health consciousness is becoming an increasingly important part of many people’s lives. More than ever before, we, as a society, are paying attention to nutrition labels, fitness, organic alternatives, safe and toxin-free environments, etc.
Yet, many health conscious people don’t realize that the quality of their relationships can be just as toxic to their health as fast food or a toxic environment. In fact, unhealthy relationships can turn into exactly that–a toxic internal environment that can lead to stress, depression, anxiety, and even medical problems. For example, in a long term study that followed more than 10,000 subjects for an average of 12.2 years, researchers discovered that subjects in negative relationships were at a greater risk for developing heart problems, including a fatal cardiac event, than their counterparts whose close relationships were not negative.
Toxic relationships can take many forms: toxic partners, toxic friendships, toxic parent/child relationships, toxic coworkers (see Coworkers from Hell.) But how do you know if you’re in a toxic relationship? After all, no relationship is blissful and conflict-free all the time.
Toxic Relationship Indicators: The answers to these questions can help you determine if your relationship is healthy or toxic.
1) When you’re with [the person], do you usually feel content, even energized? Or do you often feel unfulfilled and drained?
2) After you spend time with him/her, do you usually feel better or worse about yourself?
3) Do you feel physically and/or emotionally safe with this person, or do you feel threatened or in danger?
4) Is there a fairly equal “give and take” in the relationship? Or do you feel like you’re always giving and he/she is always taking?
5) Is the relationship characterized by feelings of security and contentment, or drama and angst?
6) Do you feel like he/she is happy with who you are? Or do you feel like you have to change to make him/her happy?
Now compare your answers to the following characteristics of healthy versus toxic relationships.
Healthy relationships are characterized by compassion, security, safety, freedom of thinking, sharing, listening, mutual love/caring, healthy debate/disagreements, and respectfulness, especially when there are differences in opinions.
Toxic relationships are characterized by insecurity, abuse of power and control, demandingness, selfishness, insecurity, self-centeredness, criticism, negativity, dishonesty, distrust, demeaning comments/attitudes, and/or jealousy.
In short, healthy relationships tend to leave you feeling happy and energized whereas toxic relationships tend to leave you feeling depressed and depleted.
Changing Toxic Relationships
The first step to changing a toxic relationship is to recognize you’re in one. Many people in unhealthy relationships are in denial, even when friends or family members are seeing the danger signs and saying so.
The next step, equally as important, is to believe that you deserve to be treated with respect, love, and compassion. There are many reasons why people stay in unhealthy relationships, but one common reason is underlying low self-esteem that makes some people believe that they don’t deserve anything better. This kind of change in thinking, however, may not come easily and may require professional support from an objective third party, such as a counselor or a life coach.
Once you come to believe that you deserve to be treated differently, the next step is likely to come easier–addressing the toxic behavior when it occurs. When doing this, use “I” statements as much as possible to reduce the likelihood of a defensive reaction. For example, you may want to say something like, “I feel like you find fault in almost everything I do and it makes me feel [fill in the blank]. I (love, respect, care about, etc.) you, and I’d appreciate it if you would stop [fill in the blank].” However, you should only do this if it is safe. (If you are in a physically abusive relationship, this kind of confrontation may not be safe. Before doing anything that risks your safety, you should contact a professional with experience dealing with domestic violence or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for more information.)
Finally, if nothing you do or say changes the toxic behavior, you should consider separating yourself or at least distancing yourself from the source of the toxicity. For partners, this may mean separation (temporary or permanent). For parents and children, this may mean having less contact. For coworkers, this may mean distancing yourself as much as possible. But doing nothing will only expose you to the unhealthy physical and psychological effects of stress and ongoing conflict.
Positive relationships are an important part of the formula for a healthy, well-balanced life. So make sure as you’re planning your health-conscious lifestyle to not leave out this important ingredient.