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Most of us have experienced some type of toxic relationship. Maybe it’s a partner, friend or family member — but no matter who they are, whenever we’re around them, we’re left feeling like less than our best selves.
Research has shown that the quality of our relationships also impacts our physical health. Rosie Shrout, an assistant professor in human development and family science at Purdue University, says that toxic relationships can cause negative cardiovascular events, increase levels of cortisol, decrease immune response and increase inflammation in the body. Ultimately, a toxic relationship is stressful on the body and mind.
Toxic relationships can occur within various contexts, including romantic partnerships, friendships, family connections, and even professional settings.
Experts contend that we are made stronger or weaker by the relationships we choose. While healthy relationships can be a source of happiness and growth, toxic relationships can have a profoundly detrimental impact on our mental and emotional health. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the different types of toxic relationships in order to recognize and address them effectively.
Controlling relationships can happen with partners, friends and family members, but in all cases, the term refers to one person dominating another. According to Boston-based psychotherapist Angela Ficken, “These relationships involve one person exerting excessive control over the other’s thoughts, actions or decisions. They may manipulate, intimidate or isolate their partner, leading to a loss of individuality and freedom.” Over time, this leads to one member of the relationship being broken down so that they no longer have a voice.
When you’re constantly belittled or demeaned by a partner or friend in an effort to undermine your self-esteem, that’s an emotionally abusive relationship. “It can include constant criticism, gaslighting and emotional manipulation,” says Ficken.
These are relationships that are characterized by two people who rely on each other for their happiness. This can result in an imbalance of power in the relationship, says Ficken, which often results when the two people in the relationship have low self-esteem.
These are relationships characterized by neglect. Emotional neglect is when a person fails to address the emotional needs of a partner, or other relationship. They usually happen within families, says Ryan S. Sultan, an assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “The neglect can lead to feelings of worthlessness and abandonment,” he says.
This happens when a relationship is engulfed with a lot of unnecessary conflict. “These are common in romantic relationships and friendships and are characterized by constant arguments and disagreements, often about minor issues,” says Sultan.
Toxic relationships don’t just hurt in the moment; they have lasting repercussions. “They can lead to adverse mental health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and low self-esteem,” says Sultan.
If you’re in a relationship that isn’t serving you, Sultan says that self-care and protection need to be a top priority. Start by recognizing that you’re in a toxic relationship and then set boundaries. “Establish what you will and won’t tolerate. This can be difficult, particularly with family members, but it’s crucial for your mental health,” he says.
Additionally, reach out for support from friends or a professional because that support can be “invaluable” to both figuring out if your relationship is toxic and providing tips for the next steps if it is. “A professional can provide strategies and tools to cope with the situation, help you rebuild your self-esteem, and, if necessary, guide you through the process of leaving the toxic relationship,” says Sultan.
It’s important to recognize that we are social beings that require the support of others to thrive, and if your relationship isn’t giving you a boost, it might be better to cut the ties that bind you.
If you or someone you know needs help and are unsure where to go, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. You can text them at 88788 — send “START” to make contact. This is a free resource with 24/7 access.
Read More: What Keeps Us in Bad Relationships?