The poet John Donne once famously said, "No man is an island, entire of itself."

Social relationships are as important to human survival and wellbeing as food and shelter. If you expose normally functioning adults to long periods of social isolation, they will eventually break down physically and mentally, and may even die. Married people live longer than unmarried people, on average. Yet certain aspects of relationships can also have damaging effects. It is possible that living with your parents, hanging out with your friends, or staying married may actually be wearing down your body's resistance to disease.

The four scenarios below illustrate some relationship patterns that research has shown can be harmful to your mental and physical health:

  1. Stressed by Toxic Families

    Do you find yourself having anxiety attacks every time you make your annual trek back East to visit your in-laws? Do telephone conversations with your critical and demanding sister make you so frustrated that you start eating everything in sight? Do you feel drained and exhausted for days after your father and high-maintenance stepmother come to visit? Are you so frustrated with your spouse's sitting on the couch and not helping with the housework that you turn to alcohol to cope? Does arguing with your disrespectful teen over household rules and responsibilities give you a migraine?
  2. Social Pressure to be Unhealthy

    As an adolescent, did you experiment with alcohol and drugs because you wanted to be part of the "in" crowd? Did you and your girlfriends obsess together about being thin and having perfect bodies? Did you bond by doing extreme diets together, making yourselves throw up after eating, or taking diet pills and laxatives to speed up the process? Do you down 6 or 7 drinks every Friday night when you and your friends go out and party, black out, then have a hangover for the rest of the weekend? When you visit your family for the holidays, do you end up gaining 5 or 10 pounds from eating all the cakes and goodies that they cook especially for you?
  3. Taking Care of Everyone but Yourself

    Do you find yourself so tired from taking care of a house full of kids–and your elderly parent or disabled spouse—that you collapse into bed exhausted at the end of the day? Have you given up exercise and healthy eating, and the last time you saw a doctor was years ago? Do you spend all day fantasizing about curling up on the couch at midnight with a bag of chips and a tub of ice cream after doing the last round of laundry? Do you forget to eat, or eat only at the computer because you are struggling to balance your more than full-time job with all of your family responsibilities?
  4. Social Withdrawal and Isolation

    Are you a single parent so busy working and taking care of the kids that you don't have a life of your own? Did you recently relocate away from friends and family because of your own or a spouse's job change and now feel socially isolated? Is your spouse so jealous of or threatened by your friends and family that you hardly ever see them anymore? Do you spend most of your time on your own since your spouse died? Are you so lonely that you feel like nobody would want to hang out with you, so you stop making an effort?


These scenarios illustrate four different ways in which social relationships can be harmful to your health. Well-designed studies have shown that both the amount and the quality of your social relationships can affect many aspects of your health over years or a lifetime. People who are socially connected in large, close, and supportive networks of spouses, family, friends, and community groups may experience strong health benefits, including resistance to disease, improved immune and hormonal functioning, less inflammation, better mental health, and longer lives.

There can also be a downside, however: Toxic relationships; stressful care-taking responsibilities; or social isolation and absence of supportive familial, friendship or community networks can produce chronic stress that wears you down physically and mentally. Your immune system may become suppressed and unable to fight off disease and tumors; you may experience inflammatory responses in vital organs such as your heart and lungs, and your body's hormonal balance may get out of sync. You may experience chronic anxiety, depression, fatigue, or muscle pain. In addition, chronic stress may produce negative emotions that lead to unhealthy behaviors in order to avoid or escape these states. Depending on cultural influences, genes, and your age, you may starve yourself, make yourself throw up after eating, cut yourself, overeat, drink too much, or develop drug, shopping, work, and other types of addictions. Stressful or demanding relationships may preoccupy your mind and consume your time so that you neglect your own health. These direct and behavioral effects may, over months and years, make you more vulnerable to disease and death.

While the behavioral and physiological effects of negative relationships have been known for years, the second scenario above (Social Pressure to be Unhealthy) describes a more recently-discovered process of relationship toxicity: A study published in the July 26, 2011 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, coauthored by Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School and James Fowler of University of California, San Diego suggests that obesity is "socially contagious." Using data from thousands of participants in the Framingham heart study, these researchers found distinct clusters of obese and non-obese individuals. People whose close friends were obese were more likely to be obese, even if those friends lived thousands of miles away. It wasn't just that people ate similar foods together. In fact, the weight of friends and even friends of friends had as strong a relationship to an individual's weight as the weight of their spouses.

People may develop social norms or beliefs about what are acceptable weight and eating patterns. These standards spread through social networks, potentially influencing the behavior of many closely or distantly connected people. Other research has shown that young women who develop eating disorders are also highly affected by their friends' norms and standards about weight control and by exposure to underweight role models. Similarly, the success of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous may be that they provide access to a new social network to replace the one lost by becoming sober. Many people who meet diagnostic criteria for substance abuse or binge drinking do not realize that they have a problem because their friends have similar drinking patterns. They may not even realize that there are other social groups who drink considerably less. (Another example is the extent to which membership in a college fraternity promotes drinking, both as a rite of passage and a bonding mechanism.)

What can you do if you recognize yourself in one of these scenarios? These are just two steps you can take to protect your health:

  • Become Aware of Your Stress Patterns. When you notice yourself feeling stressed or behaving in unhealthy ways, make a record of what was happening just before, who was there, what did they say or do, and what you were thinking and feeling. In this way, you can begin to identify which people and interactions make you feel stressed or likely to overeat, drink too much, or neglect your health.
  • Take Responsibility for Your Own Health. You have a choice whether to go along with or resist social pressure. Realize that you are the one who will have to live with the consequences of unhealthy behaviors. Make a conscious choice to prioritize your own health by avoiding unnecessary overcommitment, prioritizing, lowering your standards about less important things, and resisting social pressure to eat or drink. By taking care of your health, you may actually have a beneficial influence on your friends and family. Seeing your health improve may cause them to reevaluate their own patterns. If people will not accept the new you, you may have to give them time and/or find new friends who will support you in healthy lifestyle and self-care.

Using these strategies, you can begin to build, strengthen, and transform your social relationships and live a happier and healthier life. There is always time to reverse negative patterns and begin new, healthy ones that build on themselves to expand your life and protect your health and happiness. Be patient and gentle with yourself; it takes time to learn new ways of living. At their worst, relationships can hurt you, but at their best, they can motivate you to take the best care of your health so you can be fully present to enjoy the love you have built around you.

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Copyright Melanie A. Greenberg, PhD, 2011. All rights reserved.

Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include links to the original on PsychologyToday.com.

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