How to Deal With Toxic Relationships

SalFalko (Creative Commons)

“To some, marriage is a word. To others, it’s a sentence.” I’m not speaking autobiographically here, but we’ve all experienced relationships and friendships that seem more like a stay at Alcatraz. Toxic relationships are genuinely a serious concern, not only to your psyche but your health. And in a world where fewer people are getting married, the consequences of toxic relationships may very well be a public health concern.

We should start with a definition of a “toxic relationship”. Psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter offered these symptoms: insecurity, abuse of power and jealousy. Even if you’re not sure about where your relationship falls, she says, you can always ask yourself questions like these:

  • -When you’re with the person, do you usually feel content, even energized? Or do you often feel unfulfilled and drained?
  • -Do you feel safe with them?
  • -Is there and equal “give and take” in the relationship?

Bottom line: “Do you just feel bad when you’re with this person?”

If you find yourself answering “yes” to these questions, then it may be worth seriously re-evaluating the relationship. In addition to the expected heartache, people in “negative relationships” may experience major weight gain, according to one study which followed couples over a period of 12 years.

We’ve all been in fights with our significant other –  it’s normal – and when they happen on a regular basis we try to find some sort of outlet for comfort. The problem is that increasingly, this outlet is stress eating, which can lead to weight gain and a host of related physical issues. It’s not all physical; other studies have linked depression to negative relationships, whether it’s a romantic partner or a friend.

So you decide to end your toxic relationship, what next? First, some may feel heartbroken and depressed. One important factor in a post-breakup is the degree to which you can own your decision. When we are in post-breakup mode, the tendency is towards inertia and apathy; hence the stereotypical image of a post-breakup Saturday night: sweat pants, Ben & Jerry’s, and late-night television.

The best anti-depressant, however, is often being active: countless studies show that exercise can be a great mood-lifter. The therapeutic approach of behavioral activation is structured around research which indicates that partaking in the activities and experiences they once enjoyed can help people break through the anhedonia of depression.

In some cases, break-ups can actually be positive. When pro-golfer Rory McIlroy broke up with tennis-player Caroline Wozniacki after their wedding invitations went out, both were obviously hurt.  But both immediately went on to have career-changing victories, McIlroy won the PGA and Wozniacki fought her way out of a career slump. It’s something that happens more than you’d expect, in a process that USP’s Jonathan Fader described to NY Mag as “clearing the mental deck,” and it’s the biggest indicator that the relationship was toxic.

When you are ready to get back into the harrowing world of dating, it’s obvious you need to find a positive and healthy relationship. It may seem difficult but it’s a simple as teamwork: Respect each other and solve problems together. Once you’ve established that great relationship, it’s a short time before you’ll be cuddling with your partner or hanging out with your friends having fun, thinking “Why didn’t I do this sooner?!”.

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Photo: SalFalko (Creative Commons)