Relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives, yet we often forget how crucial our connections with other people are for our physical, mental health and wellbeing. Now, our society is more conscious about health than ever before, and we are paying increased attention to nutrition labels, fitness and wellbeing, organic alternatives, toxin-free environments and lots more. And yet, many health-conscious people don't realise that the quality of their relationship can be just as toxic to their health as fast food or a toxic environment. In fact, unhealthy relationship can turn into a toxic internal environment that can lead to stress, depression, anxiety and even medical problems.
We long for connection, and often this longing can lead us to settle for less than healthy relationships. Even worse, we may be so hungry to belong, or desperate to connect that we continue in toxic relationships when they are actually ruining our lives and happiness. It's not the number of friends you have, and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship, but it's the quality of your close relationship that matters.
Can a relationship be toxic? And how would you know?
This is one of the most common reasons for my clients attending therapy. Mental health and healthy relationships go hand in hand; some relationships can affect your health in a similar way to a poison, but unfortunately you won’t have a label to warn you.
Toxic means poisonous, damaging or deadly. A toxic relationship is often characterised by ongoing, mutually destructive modes of relating between partners. Such behaviors can involve jealousy, possessiveness, dominance, manipulation, desperation, selfishness or rejection. However, the most common theme in a toxic relationship involves the partners’ intense draw toward each other, despite the pain they both cause one another.
How can I know a relationship is toxic?
A toxic relationship does not need to follow a certain pattern, with high drama or regular visits from police. If you live with a partner who consistently denigrates and regularly “puts you down”, your relationship has likely become toxic.
The first step is working out whether your relationship has reached a point where your health and life is at risk. Some people will even feel suicidal when they have contact with the toxic person. Often many clients reveal that the relationship with someone they trust is the cause of their distress. Trusting others is important but you should not trust someone that is causing you significant distress. The toxic person may be a parent, adult child, relative, close friend, partner or work colleague.
I believe in ongoing relationships this toxicity could come about at certain times for certain periods - just like eating too much chocolate at certain times. Other relationships are like a dose of salts and you will become ill very quickly. Some relationships, especially those in which there has been violence or abuse, are very poisonous and should be avoided like poison. There are specific, identifiable behaviours that have a toxic effect on relationships:
If you can identify to most of those above behaviours then you may be at risk of suffering health problems in similar way to feeling poisoned. Feeling poisoned may be evident as the symptoms of anxiety and depression. In some cases individuals may suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from their relationships.
How Does Therapy Help?
Whether your goal is to repair your relationship, to leave a toxic relationship, or to mourn a lost relationship, it is important to make an initial decision about whether to:
Many clients will be hopeful in therapy that I will be making that decision for them, but unfortunately all a therapist can do is help you explore both options and support you in whether decision you make.
For many, the option to end the relationship is unthinkable, especially if they have been in the relationship for a long time. This is where being in therapy can be helpful. I have often shared about what it would be like outside the relationship when clients are too scared to think about the idea. Often those that have been manipulated or threatened will have been told by the toxic person that they can never leave successfully. Talking through leaving would be like swallowing a bitter pill. I have seen clients walk out of my practice released from the pain of the relationship by simply taking hold of the option to leave - there may still be challenges ahead but this decision has lifted a weight from them.
Others attend therapy planning to leave and end up deciding to stay. This may occur for example when a parent is forcing their child to separate from their partner. The person may need to re-negotiate the parent-child relationship before dealing with the partner relationship. Being a psychotherapist means that I do not take a side. I will often have an opinion that may differ from the decision made by my client, BUT it is my role to support any decision you made to stay or leave.
"You Survived The Painful Relationship, You'll Survive The Recovery"
Does Leaving Mean Leaving Forever?
Yes and No...
Most toxic relationships will end forever because returning would have life threatening consequences for the individual. Relationships where there was not abuse but conflict, may be renegotiated in another phase of life. This is most common in young adults who have parents that do not support their life choices in religion, sexuality, work, friends or hobbies. Young adults are likely to change what they value several times, and ten years later both the parent and child have changed and a different relationship may be possible.
Across a lifetime the ability to stay or leave toxic relationships is a skill that can be developed over time. The more effective you are are at making decisions to stay or leave, the more it will improve your emotional health. Social support is a key component of any emotionally healthy adult’s strategy to maintain health and wellbeing. If you feel that you or someone you care about might benefit from a consultation around a toxic relationship, my details are here.