Do you have an inkling that one of your nearest and dearest might not be good for you? Our experts tell us what happens when our relationships turn sour
You’d be hard-pushed to find someone who hasn’t had a toxic relationship at some point in their life. Whether it was a romantic partner, friend or even a family member, ask the question and there’s probably someone who springs to mind. Left to fester for too long toxic relationships can breed resentment and make you feel emotionally drained. But why do so many of us find ourselves in one? We turned to the relationship psychologists to ask more about why we get caught up in them.
If you’re an intuitive person, then you’ll probably know when someone is draining your positive energy. “The impact of a toxic relationship on our physical and mental health can be significant,” says psychotherapist and relationships expert, Neil Wilkie (relationshipparadigm.com). “Research from the University of Utah shows the physical effects of having a toxic person in your life can include poor sleep, a higher risk of heart problems, high blood sugar levels and blood pressure, obesity, a weakened immune system and even organ damage. The impact on mental health is more insidious and a toxic relationship can create insecurity, poor self-image, unhappiness, depression, reduced energy and mental fatigue. This is because the stress we experience being in that relationship puts us into fight, flight or freeze mode.”
Becoming caught up in a toxic relationship can happen to the wisest and smartest people. The key to dissolving them is to become aware of your own patterns of thinking. “The first step is to bring awareness to any blind spots that may be causing us to play down the toxicity of a relationship,” explains Nicky Clinch, integrative counsellor (nickyclinch.com). Ask yourself:
“Once we shine the light on those blind spots, the next steps are to bring compassion to these wounds,” says Nicky. “The most powerful way to let go of toxic relationships is to heal the parts of ourselves that needed them in the first place. When we do this, we create a change in our behaviour.”
If you know you’re in a toxic relationship, you have three choices: dissolve the relationship, resolve it, or continue to put up with it. “If you’re feeling that dealing with it is too difficult; ask yourself what will the future be like if you carry on,” says Neil. “If your toxic relationship is with your partner, then separation might ultimately be the best long-term solution, particularly if your partner is being controlling or abusive. However, if you separate without trying to resolve it then you will carry unhelpful patterns of behaviour into future relationships.” A key thing to deal with in a toxic relationship is communication. “This starts with an open and honest conversation where you can both share how you are feeling and what you both want to have happen. Create the space to have this conversation and calibrate where you both feel you are. Talk about your feelings rather than events that have happened and try and remove blame by introducing sentences with ‘I feel’ rather than ‘you don’t’. Agree to just one step that you are both going to take to improve on one priority you both share.”
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, has five ‘red flag signs’ that you might be in a toxic relationship.
1. Your boundaries aren’t being respected – boundaries are vital in a relationship because they act as guidelines for how you want to be treated. Setting and maintaining boundaries ensures that the relationship is both respectful and caring – and that you’re both able to get your needs met.
2. You feel like you’ve ‘lost’ yourself – a toxic relationship will drain you of energy. If you’re feeling less and less like yourself, this should be seen as a red flag.
3. You feel as though you can’t exist without each other – this is a warning sign of codependency. For a healthy relationship, it’s important for partners to have a life outside of the relationship.
4. You’ve lost touch with friends and family – maybe they complain about how much time you spend talking to your brother on the phone, or they refuse to hang out with your friends. A controlling partner will attempt to isolate you from the people close to you to make you more reliant on them.
5. The relationship is physically or emotionally abusive – if there has been any physical violence, it’s imperative that you leave the relationship as soon as possible. Emotional abuse (shouting, swearing, name-calling, manipulation etc) can be equally damaging – leaving invisible psychological and emotional scars long after the relationship has ended.
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