Toxic Relationships

Are problematic relationships a new type of dysfunction? Some mental health professionals have proposed that they be labeled a type of disorder.

By Megan Olden, published on March 1, 2003 - last reviewed on August 8, 2005

In a move that could radically change the definition of mental
illness, mental health professionals have proposed that problematic
relationships be labeled a type of disorder. The next edition of the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the profession's official
handbook, may include relational disorders: dysfunction that arises due
to interpersonal problems.

Michael First, M.D., an associate professor of clinical psychiatry
at Columbia University and editor of the most recent edition of the DSM,
explains that in these disorders the interaction itself is the illness.
"It's traits that combine in a very negative way," he says. "Neither
person is disordered per se."

This conceptual shift is problematic for some researchers,
including Steven E. Hyman, M.D., former director of the National
Institute of Mental Health. "It's a huge philosophical step that I don't
consider warranted," he says. Instead of defining the relationship as
dysfunctional, Hyman says such disorders could be explained as being
present in individuals, but only in specific contexts.

Hyman also worries that the new category could be problematic in
instances of child and spousal abuse.

"Defining a disorder in terms of a relationship instead of an
individual puts a victim of abuse on the same level as their abuser,"
argues Hyman.

Luckily, psychiatrists have some time to wrestle with this issue:
The next DSM is scheduled for publication around 2010.