Toxic Relationships: A Serious Threat to Mental Health

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

 

One of the most critical choices a person can make is with whom to be in relationship; the second most critical is with whom not to be in relationship.

Because every facet of life involves relationships of some type, the characteristics of those relationships are significant factors that influence mental and emotional health. The correlate to that truth is that one’s mental and emotional health also vitally influence the quality and characteristics of relationships. A simple binary approach to categorizing relationships as good or bad masks the actual behaviors that occur and causes people to often minimize or overlook altogether dangerous and destructive relational dynamics that compromise mental, physical, and emotional health. More descriptive relationship labels like co-dependent, abusive, and toxic pull the covers off, reveal hurtful behaviors for what they really are, and prepare people to face their relational reality so that changes can be made. Telling a woman that she’s in a ‘bad’ relationship with her fiancé doesn’t create the same urgency as helping her see that the emotional manipulation and physical aggression she’s experiencing is abuse. Saying to a male friend that his relationship with his girlfriend is ‘not healthy’ isn’t as powerful as showing him that constant deception, intensifying arguments, and guilt-tripping is toxic at the root. The toxic label is perhaps the most difficult for people to accept.

A mother who gets a throbbing headache whenever she has to deal with her daughter, anticipating the often-irrational pushback she will get in response to even the simplest request or comment, and who knows that what she is experiencing with her daughter seems beyond the pale of normal developmental friction between a parent and child will nonetheless bristle at any suggestion that this relationship with her daughter has become toxic.

Toxic relationships can be hard to define and in some ways, toxicity can be in the eye of the beholder. It’s not necessarily a checklist, but psychologists like Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter, an author and blogger at PsychologyToday.com, acknowledge common traits and behaviors: abuse of power and control, demandingness, self-centeredness, negativity, criticism, dishonesty, demeaning comments and attitudes, and jealousy. It is perhaps most helpful to understand toxicity in relationships as a combination of behaviors that is both caused by and results in toxic thinking and toxic emotions of those involved. Arguably the most devastating thing about toxic relationships is that they trap victim and perpetrator (and in many cases, the people involved play both roles at various times) in a cycle of stress and negativity that feels impossible to escape and over time conditions the players to accept the situation and not even try to get out. Toxic relationships cause feelings of low self-worth, helplessness, fear, anxiety, depression, insecurity, paranoia, and even narcissism.

Sound mental health is more important than ever. When asked in an interview to identify the reason for the breakdown in the black family, Gil Robertson, IV, author of Where Did Our Love Go: Essays on Love and Relationships in the African-American Community, answered, “Mental health. African-Americans need a BIG mental health break. We have been through so much in this country and continue to go through debilitating challenges every day. It’s no wonder we are where we are today in terms of social numbers.”  Relationships that compromise health and family stability can no longer be tolerated, and this applies to marriage and other romantic relationships, friendships, work relationships, and family members. This warning from Bryant McGill, a United Nations-appointed Global Champion and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is timely and worth heeding:

“Toxic relationships are dangerous to your health; they will literally kill you. Stress shortens your lifespan. Even a broken heart can kill you…Your arguments and hateful talk can land you in the emergency room or in the morgue. You were not meant to live in a fever of anxiety; screaming yourself hoarse in a frenzy of dreadful, panicked fight-or-flight that leaves you exhausted and numb with grief. You were not meant to live like animals tearing one another to shreds…For your own precious and beautiful life, and for those around you — seek help or get out before it is too late. This is your wake-up call!” 

The hardest thing about ditching or changing a toxic relationship is knowing how—what to do. Sophia Nelson who is a journalist, speaker, and author, reveals her own struggles in this area in her book, The Woman Code: 20 Powerful Keys to Unlock Your Life. She talks about her dysfunctional upbringing with an alcoholic father and how she was affected by her family environment of “rancor, violence, anger eruptions, disrespectful language, hiding emotions” and verbal abuse. There came a time when she realized that she had taught her family how to treat her by tolerating that environment, and she knew to preserve her health and experience the type of life she wanted, she had to remove some people from her life. She offers five concrete actions to take to have loving, non-toxic relationships[1]:

Set boundaries—treat yourself with respect and let others know that drama and people who constantly deplete you will be cut off

Determine your Life Code—ask and answer for yourself questions about core values and beliefs and insist that people in relationship with you honor those values

Know how people resolve conflict—every relationship has conflict but know what others’ styles of conflict management will be toxic for you because they never offer resolution and/or will leave you with the entire mental and emotional burden of the conflict

Relate to people who speak your “love language”—people who won’t offer you what you need in the ways you need it will leave you feeling unfulfilled and unacknowledged

Be guided by your faith/spiritual beliefs—many faiths teach forgiveness and treating others how you would want to be treated; the companion belief is that you don’t tolerate treatment from others that is contrary to how you treat yourself

 

An affirmation for the journey to healthy, life-giving relationships[2]:

I only engage in relationships that are healthy for me and that means relationships that honor, esteem, and respect who I am, not just what have, what I look like or what I can do. I am responsible for setting the standard for my treatment and do not tolerate any unloving acts. I am love and I enjoy loving relationships.

 [1] Adapted from The Woman Code: 20 Powerful Keys to Unlock Your Life, Sophia Nelson, Revell, 2014.

[2] 9 Keys to Finding Healthy Love Even if You Have no Idea Where to Find it, Zara D. Green and Alfred A. Edmond, Jr.