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How Do Toxic Relationships Affect Health?

Hint: They are hazardous.

What if relationships came with warning labels so that you could know ahead of time which contained harmful ingredients? If relationships came with warning labels, unless you harbored self-destructive impulses, most likely the label would lead you to pass on initiating or maintaining this toxic relationship. Most of us voluntarily initiate or maintain the majority of our relationships. This is particularly true for intimate relationships; most of us choose who we decide to date and to make a life-partner.

The fact is, the warning signs are apparent; the red flags are flying strong—in most cases within moments of meeting the person. Why, when these choices have the potential to cause much heartache are so many relationships forged and plunged into without thought?

It may have to do with the psychological process of idealization.

Idealization refers to unconscious or semi-conscious desires that develop through a wide variety of pressures—cultural, biological—that influence our idea of the ideal partner. Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, called these “archetypes,” more commonly known as fairytale or folklore models. Think of the Knight in Shining Armor, Cinderella, Prince Charming, and Sleeping Beauty. If you believe these are not present in 21st Century modern America, ask yourself why we are so fascinated with Kate Middleton? Because hers is a Cinderella story. Why are movies filled with action heroes who plunge into great peril to rescue their love? Because of the desire to be the Knight in Shining Armor. Why do some of us wait passively for our Prince to find, awaken, and transform us? It is because of the Sleeping Beauty myth. These influences are so profound in their impact that they can literally psychologically blind you to who the person in front of you really is. We see who we want to see, not who they really are.

In the late 1940s, a psychiatrist by the name of Hervey Cleckley wrote a book called the Mask of Sanity. Cleckley was formulating the traits of the “psychopath.” According to Cleckley, psychopaths looked sane, but behaved insanely in their self-destructive behaviors. As such, they wore the “mask” of sanity. Interestingly, Max, a case example, reveals as much about Max as about his long-suffering wife and her own insanity in choosing him to be her husband. Cleckley tells us that Max is a charmer, glib, funny and filled with outlandish stories of his exploits. He is also a thief, has no loyalty to others, and is a liar. Mrs. Max, whose business is admittedly unsavory, runs a brothel which is routinely sabotaged by Max’s activities. He brings negative attention to her, steals her money, and is consistent only in his lying, stealing, and unfaithfulness. Yet, Mrs. Max remains at his side, ever loyal. Max exhibited many warning signs right from the start, but Mrs. Max turned a blind eye because he was her Prince Charming—rescuing her from boredom with his escapades.

Unfortunately, people don’t come with FDA nutritional labels warning us of their toxic ingredients. How then do we understand and minimize psychological blinders?

Don’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry. When we shop when we’re hungry, we’re the most vulnerable to making impulsive junk food purchases. Similarly, don’t go “shopping” for an intimate relationship when you’re emotionally hungry. That is when you are likely to pick up a junk relationship. No, we’re not labeling people as “junk;” but, the fact is the Maxs and Maxines are bad for us. You will succumb to their influences when you are psychologically hungry, as they have an attractive package. You will be susceptible to their slick “advertising” when you make choices based on emotional hunger: loneliness; feeling impatient; thinking if not now, it will be never.

Turn the box over and look before you buy. Conduct a “nutritional” assessment of the person and what type of relationship you would have with that individual. What healthy ingredients are there: loyalty, trustworthiness, kindness, loving, generosity? What unhealthy ingredients are present: superficial charm, inconsistency, easily angered, unfaithful, judgmental?

Look for the warning label. Nutritional labels on food and other products warn us of toxic ingredients. Before you buy the product, you know whether ingesting it may be harmful to your health. Some people too will have a number of toxic ingredients in their disposition that characterizes them as a hazardous individual to be involved with. Or, the ingredients they have may be the very ones for which YOU are allergic to (think of people with peanut allergies).

No one is perfect; neither you nor the other person. What we’re saying is: be aware of the traits of the individual who could be toxic to you; be aware of how much fairytale influence is at work in your choice and decision. Choosing someone to have an intimate relationship with based on archetypical influences means riding an emotional roller coaster. Remember, no one can live up to the fairytale models—not even the idealized British Royals, movie stars, and other celebrities. Ultimately, relationships carry the power to be rewarding or destructive. Choose wisely and you will live well.