Toxic relationships: A serious threat to mental health.

Toxic relationships makes you feel unsupported, misunderstood, degraded, or attacked. On the most basic level, any relationship that makes you feel worse rather than better over time can become toxic.

Toxic relationships can occur in almost any setting, from the playground to the boardroom to the bedroom. You might even have to deal with toxic relationships among family members.

A toxic relationship is one in which your well-being is jeopardized in some way—emotionally, psychologically, or even physically.

Because every aspect of life involves some type of relationship, the characteristics of those relationships are important factors influencing mental and emotional health. That truth is corroborated by the fact that one’s mental and emotional health have a significant impact on the quality and characteristics of relationships. A simple binary approach to categorizing relationships as good or bad obscures the actual behaviors that occur, causing people to frequently minimize or overlook entirely dangerous and destructive relational dynamics that jeopardize mental, physical, and emotional health.

“Toxic relationships are hazardous to your health and will kill you.” Stress shortens one’s life. A broken heart can be fatal… Arguments and hateful speech can land you in the ER or the morgue. You were not meant to live in a frenzy of dreadful, panicked fight-or-flight that leaves you exhausted and numb with grief. You were not meant to live as if you were animals, tearing each other apart… Seek help or flee before it is too late for your own precious and beautiful life, as well as the lives of those around you. This is your alarm clock!”

Here are some indicators that you are in a toxic or harmful relationship:

  •  You don’t think you’re good enough. You have the feeling that nothing you do is quite right and that you are constantly trying to prove your worth. You are constantly looking for approval from others.
  • You are unable to be yourself. You have the impression that you must walk on eggshells and monitor everything you say and do. You believe you must think twice before speaking because certain topics are off-limits, and you believe you must act or behave in a certain manner. You’re hesitant to bring up the subject because you’re unsure how the other person will react.
  • The other person criticizes you.
  • You have the impression that you are the issue. The other person does not accept responsibility for their actions and instead blames you. They blame you for any issues or difficulties in the relationship.
  • You begin to withdraw from activities and from people in your life.

Relationships that involve physical or verbal abuse are unquestionably toxic. However, there are other, more subtle signs of a toxic relationship, such as:

  • You give more than you receive, leaving you feeling undervalued and depleted.
  • You constantly feel disrespected or as if your needs are not being met.
  • Your self-esteem suffers as time passes.
  • You feel abandoned, misunderstood, denigrated, or attacked.
  • After speaking with or being with the other person, you feel depressed, angry, or tired.
  • You accentuate each other’s flaws. For example, your competitive friend brings out a spiteful competitive streak in you, which is unpleasant.
  • You are not your best self when you are around the person. For example, they may bring out your gossipy side, or they may seem to bring out a mean streak in you that you don’t normally have.
  • You feel like you have to tread carefully around this person in order to avoid becoming a victim of their venom.
  • You devote a lot of time and emotional energy to cheering them up.
  •  You are always at fault. They flip things around so that things you thought they did wrong are now your fault.

Types of toxic relationships

Toxic relationships are not limited to romantic relationships. They exist in families, the workplace, and among friends—and they can be extremely stressful, particularly if the toxicity is not effectively managed. Not every toxic relationship is the result of both parties’ actions. Some people are simply toxic to be around because they drain your energy through negative behaviors such as constant complaining, critical remarks, and general negativity.

Narcissists and Sociopaths
Some people, particularly narcissists and sociopaths, thrive on the attention and admiration of others. In their quest for superiority, narcissists feel compelled to outdo others and make them feel “less-than.” Because they truly believe they never make mistakes, narcissists are notoriously bad at admitting fault. In fact, seeing themselves as less than perfect is personally threatening to them.

It’s not always clear whether toxic, narcissistic people are aware of what they’re doing. However, if their behavior consistently makes you feel bad about yourself, you’ll need to distance yourself from this person, or at the very least accept that if the person must be in your life, you’ll need to be on your guard.  

This change in your behavior will not change them, but it will help to reduce the stress associated with dealing with them. The most important thing is to protect yourself from emotional abuse when interacting with them:

  •  Remind yourself that you will not change them, and confronting them will only elicit more rage without resolving anything.
  • Put some distance between yourself and them.

Accept that if the person must be in your life, you must be vigilant.

If the problem is proximity and it’s a coworker, consider making a good excuse to have your desk moved. “I’m right under an air vent that bothers me,” for example, or “I could get more work done if I weren’t right next to the printer.” If the person approaches you to complain, try referring them to a supervisor and then return to your work calmly. You may have to do this several times before they catch on.

Family and Friends
It’s likely to be more difficult with family and friends, because there may be no easy way to remove the toxic person from your life.
If you have a toxic friend, you may simply need to spend less time with them. If you’re concerned about offending them, spread out your visits over several months so it’s less noticeable (though they may still notice).
When the toxic person is a family member or close friend, it may be possible to encourage that person to seek therapy, which is frequently required to address the underlying issue that is causing the toxicity.

Too Common

  • In a single year, nearly 1.5 million high school students in the United States are physically abused by a dating partner.
  • In the United States, one in every three adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far outnumbers rates of other types of youth violence.
  • One in every ten high school students has been hit, slapped, or otherwise physically harmed by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • One-quarter of all high school girls have experienced physical or sexual abuse.
  •  Approximately 70% of college students report being sexually coerced.
  • Why Focus on Young People?
  • Girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 have nearly triple the national average for intimate partner violence.
  • Violent behavior typically begins between the ages of 12 and 18.
  • The severity of intimate partner violence is often greater in cases where the pattern of abuse was established in adolescence.
  • About 72% of eighth and ninth graders are “dating”.

Long-lasting Effects

  • Violent relationships in adolescence can have serious ramifications by putting the victims at higher risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and further domestic violence.
  • Half of youth who have been victims of both dating violence and rape attempt suicide, compared to 12.5% of non-abused girls and 5.4% of non-abused boys.

Dating Violence and the Law

  • Eight states currently do not include dating relationships in their definition of domestic violence. As a result, young victims of dating abuse often cannot apply for restraining orders.
  • New Hampshire is the only state where the law specifically allows a minor of any age to apply for a protection order; more than half of states do not specify the minimum age of a petitioner.
  • Currently only one juvenile domestic violence court in the country focuses exclusively on teen dating violence.

Lack of Awareness

  • Only 33% of teens who were in a violent relationship ever told anyone about the abuse.
  • Eighty one percent of parents believe teen dating violence is not an issue or admit they don’t know if it’s an issue.
  • A teen’s confusion about the law and their desire for confidentiality are two of the most significant barriers stopping young victims of abuse from seeking help.

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