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The Hidden Health Hazards of Toxic Relationships

Being around a toxic friend, partner, or co-worker can do real damage.

Our society is more health conscious than ever before. We are paying increased attention to nutrition labels, fitness opportunities, organic alternatives, toxin-free environments, and more.

And yet even many health-conscious people don't realize that the quality of their relationships can be just as toxic to their health as fast food or a toxic environment. In fact, unhealthy relationships may contribute to a toxic internal environment that can lead to stress, depression, anxiety, and even medical problems.

In a long-term study that followed more than 10,000 subjects for an average of 12.2 years, researchers discovered that subjects in negative relationships were at a greater risk for developing heart problems, including a fatal cardiac event, than counterparts whose close relationships were not negative.

Toxic relationships can take many forms—toxic partners, toxic friendships, toxic parent/child relationships, or toxic coworkers, to name just a few. No relationship, of course, is blissful and conflict-free all the time. How do you know if you're in a toxic relationship? Your answers to these questions can help you figure it out:

  1. When you're with the person, do you usually feel content, even energized? Or do you often feel unfulfilled and drained?
  2. After you spend time with him or her, do you usually feel better or worse about yourself?
  3. Do you feel physically and/or emotionally safe with this person, or do you ever feel threatened or in danger?
  4. Is there a fairly equal "give and take," or do you feel like you're always giving and he or she is always taking?
  5. Is the relationship characterized by feelings of security and contentment, or drama and angst?
  6. Do you feel like he or she is happy with who you are, or do you feel like you have to change to make him or her happy?

Now compare your answers to the following characteristics of healthy and toxic relationships:

  • Healthy relationships are characterized by: compassion, security, safety, freedom of thinking, sharing, listening, mutual love and caring, healthy debates and disagreements, and respectfulness, especially when there are differences in opinions.
  • Toxic relationships are characterized by: insecurity, abuse of power and control, demandingness, selfishness, insecurity, self-centeredness, criticism, negativity, dishonesty, distrust, demeaning comments and attitudes, and jealousy.

In short, healthy relationships tend to leave you feeling happy and energized. Toxic relationships tend to leave you feeling depressed and depleted.

Changing Toxic Relationships

The first step to changing a toxic relationship is to recognize you're in one. Many people in unhealthy relationships are in denial, even when friends or family members can see the danger signs and have told them so.

The next step, equally important, is to believe that you deserve to be treated with respect, love, and compassion. There are many reasons people stay in unhealthy relationships, but one common one is underlying low self-esteem that makes some people believe that they don't deserve anything better. This kind of change in thinking, however, may not come easily, and may require professional support from an objective third party, such as a counselor or a life coach.

Once you come to believe that you deserve to be treated differently, the next step—addressing toxic behavior when it occurs—becomes easier. When doing this, use "I" statements as much as possible, to reduce the likelihood of a defensive reaction. For example: "I feel like you find fault in almost everything I do and it makes me feel [fill in the blank]. I (love/respect/care about) you, and I'd appreciate it if you would stop [fill in the blank]."

(Note: You should only do this if it is safe. If you are in a physically abusive relationship, this kind of confrontation may not be safe. Before doing anything that risks your safety, you should contact a professional with experience dealing with domestic violence or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for more information.)

Finally, if nothing you do or say changes the toxic behavior, consider separating yourself or at least distancing yourself from the source of the toxicity. For partners, this may mean temporary or permanent separation. For parents and children, this may mean having less contact. For coworkers, this may mean distancing yourself as much as is feasible. But doing nothing will only expose you to the unhealthy physical and psychological effects of stress and ongoing conflict.

Positive relationships are an important part of the formula for a healthy, well-balanced life. So make sure your health-conscious lifestyle doesn't leave out this crucial ingredient.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Dr. Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).

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