The New Year is fast approaching, which means a fresh start for us all. And while standard New Year’s resolutions—from toning up to eating clean—are often wise, there’s one personal pledge that often goes overlooked: Removing ourselves from relationships that bring us more worry and pain than solace and joy. (Just think of Auld Lang Syne playing in the background, “Should old acquaintances be forgot, and never brought to mind?”)
As a naturopathic doctor, I take a holistic tactic to health, and believe that genuine well-being can occur—and endure—only when one is physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally aligned. And yet often—too often—I work with clients who are incapable of seeing how their emotional stability directly impacts the state of their health. Alternatively, they may feel emotionally sound but be involved in a relationship that’s wreaking havoc on their equanimity and is therefore affecting the way they eat, sleep, exercise, work and more. Indeed, studies show that unhealthy relationships can trigger a host of health problems, including heart disease and even strokes, while the ongoing stress of living with, loving, or working with someone toxic may lead to decreased immunity and a greater chance of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
Have you ever wondered how, in a world of 7.8 billion people, you—and I—have chosen the partners and friends we have? And yet a glance at the statistics demonstrates that relationships, and the entire appeal of them, are essential. As social creatures, whose ancestors’ survival depended on tribes, we need other people for companionship, friendship and, even to this day, survival—social isolation and loneliness, for one, significantly increase one’s risk for premature mortality. For six million years (ancestrally speaking), humans have formed interpersonal relationships, and countless cultural anthropologists can attest to the fact that humans around the globe create systems of social dynamics that allow individuals and groups to thrive.
“Thriving,” however, is key here, and can be found only if the dynamics are healthy—it takes more than one person to create and sustain a functional or dysfunctional relationship, after all. And if those dynamics are significantly off, you may experience a range of adverse effects, from depression and anxiety to a propensity to fly off the handle.
With this in mind, and with the new year impending, now is the time to take stock of your relationships and see if it might be time to say goodbye to any of them.
What Are Toxic Relationships?
Anyone who has ever loved knows this: Relationships can be difficult to navigate at times. Whether that relationship is with your romantic partner or sibling, your parent or your best friend, you know it isn’t always sweet. Arguments are normal, and rough patches are common.
But as true as this may be, another sort of relationship experiences more turmoil and distress than those average bumps in the road. Known as a “toxic relationship”—a term communication and psychology expert Dr. Lillian Glass said she coined in her 1995 book, Toxic People —this connection is “any relationship (between two people who) don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.” The difference between a toxic relationship and a healthy relationship rests in how—to say nothing of if—those challenges are handled. In a toxic relationship, apologies are rare, one person completely ices out the other after a disagreement, promises are seldom kept, minor differences in opinion turn into major arguments, truths are hidden from each other—and these are just a few examples from a pool of many.
How Do I Know If I’m in a Toxic Relationship?
What I said above may sound familiar. It might also sound like something from which you’d run. But while abusive relationships are clear-cut, toxic relationships are a bit murkier and harder to discern.
A few questions to ask yourself as you contemplate the relationships in your life:
- Do negative moments outweigh the positive ones?
- Are your basic needs being met?
- Do you feel that you constantly have to work for approval?
- Has the relationship stopped bringing you joy?
- Does interacting with the other often leave you feeling drained, sad, angry or anxious?
- Do either of you blame each other for your emotions?
- Do you feel emotionally safe with the other person, or are you afraid to speak up?
- Do you feel manipulated or controlled?
- Do you, or the other, maintain a relationship scorecard—meaning, does one or the other keep track of how many mistakes the other has made and who is more indebted to the other?
- Do you, or the other, make ultimatums? For example, does your partner say, “I can’t be with someone who is mad at me all of the time” rather than “I feel that you may be angry at me—can we talk?”
- Have you noticed any harmful shifts in your mental health, self-esteem, work performance or personality due to relationship dynamics?
- Have other friends or family members voiced their concerns about your relationship? (Because the signs of a toxic relationship can be subtle, it’s important to listen to the worries your loved ones have.)
What Should I Do If I’m in a Toxic Relationship?
First: Consider seeing a licensed psychologist. I have always been amazed by psychologists because they spend their time analyzing the psychodynamics in people. As someone who prizes math and chemistry—whose life passion has been based on limits, quantities and often solutions—I’m fascinated by a different type of doctor: Those who work with emotions.
Emotions, after all, are ineffable. Words cannot entirely capture the emotions of love or hate or joy or grief. They are intangible things, lacking those concrete, scientific edges I like so much. The world of the psyche is full of mystery and swirling, nebulous shapes and frequencies. Yet, psychologists can effectively work in the abstract sphere of emotion, where they guide, shape and lead a person to healthier relationships and ultimately a better quality of life.
While everyone’s situation is unique, psychologists, I believe, would argue that one principle holds true across the board: You cannot love someone else until you love yourself first. When you think of yourself in derogatory terms—if you criticize and demoralize yourself on a regular basis—there’s a good chance that you have normalized such talk to the point that a toxic relationship feels like the status quo. At the same time, if you believe that you are undeserving of genuine love, compassion and respect, you may sell yourself short and remain in a relationship that takes a toll on your capacity to live healthfully and well.
What this means, of course, is that the answer rests in you. The healthier you are psychologically, the healthier your relationships will be. You can neither change nor control other people; you cannot make other people what you wish them to be. You can, however, change yourself. And all change begins with awareness.
The first step towards altering or walking away from a toxic relationship is getting clear about your psychological tendencies and the type of people you tend to attract and accept in your life. Have you historically been around and with people who don’t serve your highest good? Are they more depleting than invigorating? Do you have unresolved trauma that is preventing you from being present, and flourishing, in your relationships?
On a more specific level, are you frequently drawn to narcissists? Peer at yourself lovingly but objectively and ask yourself, “do I have symptoms of a codependent personality, such as low self-confidence, hazy boundaries and problems with intimacy?” Are you more of a rescuer and caretaker instead of someone who’s enjoyed relationships of mutual support? Or do you take on the characteristics of your partner, family member, friend or colleague? (This is vital to consider. As Henry Cloud, PhD, points out in his article How to Gracefully End a Bad Relationship, “when we spend time with people who have bad attitudes, bad habits or chronic bad moods, we dramatically increase the odds that we will suffer from these, too—a phenomenon called ‘social contagion.’”)Remember, there is no blame here, only the acknowledgement that a particular person or relationship is causing you pain and may no longer suit you.
Next, consider what you do want in a relationship—an exercise that will help you see where yours may be lacking. Do you honor open, clear and consistent communication—inarguably, one of the most fundamental aspects of a healthy relationship? Do you prize affection and generosity? Do you aim for healthy conflict resolution?
Finally, in addition to loving yourself, ask yourself if you adore who you are when you are with this person, for as Anne Tyler sagely wrote in The Accidental Tourist, “It is not how much you love someone, but who you are when you are with him.” Do they provoke your angrier side? Does interacting with them often lead to self-destructive behavior? Have you adopted damaging habits and behaviors of theirs that have pulled you away from your ideal self and ideal life? The best relationships are those that highlight the best parts of ourselves—empathy, resilience, determination, success, happiness, you name it—and lift us up.
Following this, if you believe that the person with whom you have a toxic relationship is capable of listening to your needs, have a frank, kind, but firm, conversation with him or her. Curate what you want to say ahead of time, and replace accusatory statements (“You did”) with “I” statements (“I feel”). A good therapist and counseling can help you create tools and practices that will allow you to move towards a solid, beneficial relationship.
If, however, the toxicity in your relationship is due to a mismatched pairing or, after a careful assessment, is not worth the amount of mental, emotional and physical anguish it has caused you, by all means, give yourself permission to walk away. Whether you choose to let the relationship fade away on its own or to be forthright is wholly up to you. A conversation can help you confront your fears—it can also be cathartic—just as it might help the other realize his or her blind spots. And if the discussion doesn’t go well? It’s all the more reason to believe that you made the right decision. January 1st is all about starting anew, and finding the happiest, healthiest you.
Click here to buy Dr. Laurie Steelsmith’s books, Natural Choices for Women’s Health, Great Sex, Naturally and Growing Younger Every Day: The Three Essential Steps for Creating Youthful Hormone Balance at Any Age.