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Unhealthy Relationships: Symptoms and Side Effects

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Our society has become more health-conscious than ever, and nutrition, fitness, organic products, and eco-friendly practices are granted greater consideration. Still, many don’t seem to realise that dysfunctional relationships can be just as detrimental to our health as fast food and pollution.

You may have heard that having close relationships promotes well-being and increases life expectancy, which is generally true. But not when those relationships are unhealthy as anyone who’s been through a difficult divorce or had to deal with back-stabbing friends can attest.

Although unhealthy relationships can take many forms – partners, friendships, parent/child dynamics, or co-workers. Let’s focus on unhealthy relationships in couples.

How do you know if your relationship with your partner is unhealthy? Let’s look at some of the signs:

Symptoms of unhealthy relationships

  • Intensity and volatility. If you’re with someone that routinely expresses extreme feelings or display’s over-the-top behavior, it can get quite overwhelming. This is especially true if they seem to want to rush things along and reach a level of intimacy you’re not yet comfortable with. A person who is volatile – has intense and unpredictable reactions – can make you feel confused and frightened, like you need to walk on eggshells around them. This can become even more harmful if they seem obsessive about wanting to be in constant contact or resort to yelling and threats.
  • Possessiveness. Jealousy is a normal human emotion, and we tend to look at it as a sign that our partner has strong feelings for us. But when jealousy becomes unhealthy, it turns into possessiveness. They’ll accuse you of things you didn’t do, lash out and try to control your schedule and who you spend time with. 
  • Manipulation. Manipulation can often go unnoticed since it has to be subtle to work. As a rule of thumb, someone is trying to manipulate you when they don’t recognise that your feelings are just as important as theirs, and they attempt to convince you to do things you’re not comfortable with or try to influence your perception. A common tactic is guilting. They’ll try to blame you for how they feel as if it’s your job to make sure they’re happy at all times. They’ll often try to make you feel bad for things you didn’t cause or can’t control, and sometimes they’ll threaten to do things that are self-destructive because ‘you’re hurting their feelings’ by not doing what they want to do or because you want to leave the relationship.
  • They belittle or sabotage you. Belittling is in itself a form of sabotage. They might say things or do things that make you feel bad about yourself. Sometimes they’ll play it off as a joke and shift the blame on you for not having a sense of humour or being too sensitive. Over time, they’ll start to make you feel like you are not smart enough or capable enough to make your own decisions, and you should let them. They can also start rumours or talk behind your back in order to hurt your relationships with those in your inner circle, which brings us to our next point.
  • They try to isolate you. If your partner tries to keep you away from your extended family and friends, this is another sign that you are in an unhealthy relationship. It might be subtle at first. They’ll just ask to spend more time together, but later they’ll start demanding that you break ties with certain people they might feel threatened by. They may try to make you question your own judgement and say that they only want what’s best for you, and X person is a bad influence. This is another attempt to gain control and make you more dependent on them.

These are just some of the signs that you’re in an unhealthy relationship. The best way to decide if your relationship is hurting you is to pay attention to how you feel. A healthy relationship is based on mutual respect and good communication. It should bring you more happiness than stress. Although no relationship is a constant state of blissful harmony, you’ll want to pay attention to the signs, so you can prevent the effects a stressful relationship has on your health.

Side effects

  • Chronic stress. Unhealthy relationships can become a source of chronic stress. A 2003 study published in the Physiology and Behavior Journal showed that unhappily married couples are worse off in terms of general health than their unmarried counterparts. Likewise, a 2005 study showed that this stress can spill over into the rest of your life, including your career. The researchers measured the cortisol levels and blood pressure of 105 middle-aged people of both sexes and found that those dealing with marital strain had higher levels of cortisol in the morning and higher blood pressure in the middle of the workday. If your relationship is causing you chronic stress, the best way to address it is as a couple. Of course, to engage in a productive conversation, you may first need to take a break and practice self-care. You can turn to natural stress-relief options such as the ones from OrganicCBDNugs.com, rely on family and friends for an objective perspective and comforting words, or consult a psychotherapist. Even if your partner is not open to the idea of couple’s counselling, you can still benefit from going to a few sessions by yourself.
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease.  As you might expect, high blood pressure and cortisol levels over an extended time will increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease.  A long-term study that examined more than 10,000 people for an average of 12 years showed that those in dysfunctional relationships had higher chances of developing heart problems.  Another 2007 study monitored the health of 9,000 men and women and found that those who reported having “adverse” relationships had 34% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease even when factoring for weight and social support. 
  • Mental Health. Chronic stress stemming from negative behaviors such as criticism and hostility in relationships has also been linked to poor mental health. A study showed that single people tend to have better mental health than those in turbulent relationships and other studies also showed that too many break-ups are worse than staying single.

Peter Wallace has been an advocate for mental health awareness for years. He holds a master’s degree in counselling from the University of Edinburgh.

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