A Guide to the Psyche.
Sometimes relationships, instead of joy and peace, bring discomfort and anxiety.
From the outside, it may seem like you have a great family or couple, but from the inside, a very different picture emerges. We tell you what a toxic relationship is in this new edition of The Mental Health Guide.
What it is.
Toxic relationships are those in which a person experiences negative feelings - anxiety, fatigue, insecurity, uncertainty, and sometimes even fear. They can be caused by a variety of actions of the partner - manipulation, lies, hurtful jokes, devaluation, jealousy, unsolicited criticism, ignoring the needs, gaslighting, threats.
Not only romantic relationships can be toxic, but also friendships, work or family relationships: the same feelings arise in a child next to a manipulative parent, and in an employee - in a team where it is customary to criticize each other, not shy in their expressions.
There is no scientific definition of a toxic relationship, the expression came from pop psychology. In 1995, psychologist Lillian Glass, in her book "Harmful People Around Us. How Do We Fight Them?" used the word "toxic" to describe a relationship that lacks mutual respect, cooperation and support, and one partner tends to suppress the other. Over time, the new meaning of the word has caught on because of the accuracy of the comparison: problems in relationships are often not obvious, but continue to have harmful effects, like toxic substances.
There are no clear criteria by which a relationship can be unequivocally called toxic, either. Usually, psychologists advise to base on their own feelings: if you personally do not like the behavior of the person, the relationship with him toxic for you.
In this case, your understanding of what is permissible in communication may differ significantly from what others consider acceptable. Even if a couple of your friends made a habit of mutual sarcastic remarks, you are the same remarks from your partner may hurt and upset. Especially since, as American scientists found out, just one harsh word can increase the activity of the amygdaloid body in the brain, which is responsible for the formation of feelings of fear and anxiety.
Abusive relationships are sometimes called the most severe stage of a toxic relationship, but there are still differences between the two. Whereas anyone can behave toxically, albeit unintentionally, from time to time, the abuser acts consciously or at least semi-consciously. He realizes that he is suppressing his partner, and he reaches an extreme degree of influence - physical and emotional violence. Another important trait that distinguishes abusive relationships from toxic ones is the imbalance of power that makes it difficult for the victim to leave.
Conflicts and misunderstandings happen from time to time in any relationship, but don't immediately write it off as toxic because of it. An important sign of a toxic relationship is that the person feels bad in it all the time or most of the time, and the good moments are just lost among the negativity. If you often hear phrases like this, it's worth wondering if you're in a toxic relationship:
- "I'm not going anywhere with you unless you change."
- "Come on, it's just a joke! You're overreacting to everything!"
- "Who's texting you? Since you won't show your phone, do you have something to hide?"
- "It's either going to be my way or we're breaking up."
- "Don't give me a hard time!"
- "You look like a circus performer."
- "As usual, you do everything wrong!"
Why do they occur?
Because of mental disorders. It is known that people with certain personality disorders - narcissistic and antisocial - tend to create a toxic atmosphere in relationships and collectives. These disorders are characterized by selfish behavior, manipulation, excessive control over other people's lives, and a lack of empathy - all things that make relationships toxic.
Because of character traits. Selfishness does not always mean narcissistic personality disorder, and a person with a lack of empathy will not necessarily have an antisocial disorder. Sometimes it's just personality traits - persistent traits that also show up in behavior, but not as pronounced as in disorders.
Because of hypersensitivity. Rudeness, injustice, criticism and conflicts affect the emotional state of hypersensitive people most severely. They overreact to their own feelings, the world around them, and their relationships with others. Therefore, the bar of toxicity is lower for them, and the consequences of such behavior are more severe.
Hypersensitivity is not just a character trait, but a property of the brain: such people's brains process external stimuli very carefully and, according to some researchers, have a more developed insular lobe. It is responsible for self-awareness and plays an important role in our perception of events and formation of emotions.
Because of incompatibility. As Lillian Glass wrote, sometimes a relationship between two people who don't fit together becomes toxic. For example, when two people who like to keep everything under control meet. Or a sharp-tongued joker and a person who is painfully sensitive to humor.
What are the dangers
First of all, a toxic relationship affects daily life - moods are damaged and self-esteem is diminished. But like toxic waste, toxic relationships have delayed negative health effects - depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, which usually manifest themselves after several years of constant discord.
Years of observation of married couples have found that people who have difficulty communicating with their spouses have an even higher risk of depression than those who are single.
Toxic relationships are not only harmful to mental health, but also to physical health. People in toxic relationships are more likely to suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, they have worse wound healing and more often exacerbate chronic diseases. American scientists found that older women had stronger symptoms of arthritis and type 2 diabetes after fighting with their partners. In addition, many people try to drown out negative emotions from relationships with alcohol and overeating.
What to do
Step 1: Recognize the problem. The danger of toxic relationships, like poisonous substances, may lie in their invisibility. If a person is used to ignoring angry jokes time after time, or explaining total control by ordinary concern, he may not understand where the insecurity and anxiety comes from. Consequently, he will not begin to address the problem.
If you agree with several of these statements, it may indicate that the relationship is toxic:
the relationship does not bring me joy and peace of mind; on the contrary, I am uneasy around this person.
2 This person constantly ignores my needs and requests, and if I openly state them, I face devaluation.
I only get approval and praise when I do something for this person.
I have to change my behavior and adjust to the person so that I am not the target of their ridicule and insults.
Step 2: Voice your displeasure. Sometimes people behave toxically without any intention, and the feedback from you will let them know that it makes them uncomfortable to be around. Feel free to point out toxic behaviors, but use more verbs for facts and fewer adjectives for evaluation. Instead of "you're toxic," it's better to say "you forgot about my request, and it upset me."
Step 3: If the person doesn't change his or her behavior, keep communication to a minimum. Ending a toxic relationship can be difficult, especially when it comes to parents and other close relatives. But you can try to communicate with them only when necessary.
Clinical psychologist Sherry Campbell, in her book "Toxic Relatives. How to stop their influence on your life and save yourself" advises to use the technique of "heart-to-heart contact": when communicating carefully watch your words and reactions.
Both topics of conversation and emotions should be superficial, positive, pleasant and mostly focused on the relatives themselves. Take an interest in their affairs, walk away from heated topics, don't argue, but at the same time don't forget that this is a kind of a performance. This way you will not get involved in toxic communication and avoid self-blame - don't berate yourself for making concessions to family members who make you uncomfortable.
It is also a good idea to meet with toxic relatives as infrequently as possible - only at common family gatherings or major events, and all the rest of the time to avoid them diligently. Campbell explains that such behavior is intended for self-protection and differs from deliberate ignoring, which is used for manipulation and punishment. So you should not blame yourself for refusing to communicate with relatives: it is a logical and natural consequence of their actions, not your whim.
But if the relations bring you only suffering, and especially if they risk to turn from toxic to abusive, there is only one way out - to break them off.
Step 4: Find ways to deal with the consequences. Recovering from a toxic relationship can be difficult, and sometimes you even need the help of professionals. But it is still worth trying to help yourself.
There are many ways to turn a relationship into a toxic one, so you have to find the right "detox" method for each one. For example, if you are often faced with criticism and nagging, engage in an increase of self-value - make a list of all your achievements and positive reviews that you have received from other people. Encourage yourself even for small achievements - you will see that you can praise yourself for many things.