20 Ways a Relationship Can Hurt Your Mental Health

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Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship

The people with whom we spend the most time often end up exerting a powerful influence over our perceptions. This can sometimes be a good thing, but it's no wonder that an antagonistic partnership can have marked effects on our mental health. We spoke to experts and looked to studies to examine behaviors that characterize emotionally harmful or abusive relationships, and looked at how they can negatively impact one's mental or even physical health.

Related: 20 Mistakes to Avoid in a New Relationship

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Feeling Consistently Stressed

A sure way to know something's wrong is when you or your partner feels the relationship itself has become a source of stress, says Kory Floyd, a communications professor at the University of Arizona whose research focuses on affection. "But whether it's in an established relationship or a really new one, it's easy to ignore those signs," he says. "They can be a wake-up call that maybe we've been neglecting a relationship and it needs some care." One proven way to minimize stress is through positive physical contact.

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Causing Stress-Induced Physical Symptoms

Some common physical symptoms of stress include headaches, upset stomach, chest pains, sleep disturbances, teeth-grinding, and a general sense of low energy. If you notice yourself experiencing these symptoms frequently in relation to a partner, there's probably something wrong that needs fixing. And even if you determine that your stress is derived from other factors, there's still a risk it could drive a wedge in the relationship if those feelings go unacknowledged.

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Creating Problems With Avoidance and Denial

If one starts dreading their interactions with loved ones, they're liable to start avoiding them. "We don't like to think about the fact that our marriage or relationship might be distressed," Floyd explains. "Most of us are inclined to take the path of least resistance, and that's to not confront something that's going to require our energy and effort to change unless we have to." This may prevent immediate conflict, but ignoring issues for too long can take a toll on both partners and just end up amplifying problems down the road.

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Getting Trapped by 'Gaslighting'

Gaslighting, in this case, means when you perceive a problem, but your partner is not only unwilling to confront it, but also actively denies or fabricates excuses to act as though it doesn't exist. This form of committed denial — especially from someone we're close to — can easily get inside one's head and cause us to question our perceptions. According to Floyd, the best solution is to trust your instincts and be brutally honest with yourself about the relationship — even the parts that wound your ego — whether your partner's ready to do the same or not.

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Lowered Self-Esteem

When something is wrong in one of our close relationships, it can be hard not to feel like the problem is a reflection of who we are. This internalization can tap into deeply-held insecurities, even when unwarranted. Insecurity can also be compounded to disastrous results if partners have a tendency to project their dissatisfaction onto others, causing both sides to come out of a conversation feeling worse about themselves.

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Triggering Irritable or Mercurial Behavior

One of the most common emotional reactions to stress, whether from within a relationship or outside of it, is becoming uncharacteristically testy and agitated, especially with the people we hold closest. Outbursts can be prompted by attempts to address the underlying problem, largely out of sheer defensiveness to avoid taking blame.

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Inciting Combativeness

Unresolved issues can manifest in negative behavior like counter-attacking our partner over perceived slights. Floyd advises partners overcome their egos and truly contemplate the merit of the others person's complaints. Research has shown the best way to avoid a destructive cycle of anger and retribution is to simply stop engaging in it.

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Experiencing an Unequal Give and Take

Every relationship is about accepting and providing support to the other person. It's a bad sign when one partner starts providing too little and expecting too much in return. This can mean one person's needs for understanding and social affection — what psychologists call the "need to belong" – aren't being met, contributing to dissatisfaction as the problem continues.

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Becoming a Victim of Domestic Violence

Most of these relationship problems can be addressed in a productive manner depending on the situation, but even talking about one's dissatisfaction may be unsafe when the relationship has become abusive. If this is the case, make sure to consider personal safety first and seek professional assistance through the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Domestic violence is not only damaging physically but emotionally as well, contributing to low self-esteem, self-doubt, and even suicidal thoughts.

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Triggering Anxiety

The prolonged stress of a stagnant relationship can cause anxiety, keeping us perpetually on edge and worrying. "When the state of a relationship or a relationship process fuels worry about the future, safety, or finances, it's highly likely to contribute to symptoms of anxiety," Floyd says. "Usually, this won't cause the spontaneous development of a diagnosable anxiety disorder, but it can certainly cause the manifestation of what are called "sub-clinical" symptoms.

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Creating Social Anxiety

An understanding relationship can have a positive effect on people suffering from social anxiety by encouraging them to come out of their shells. A possessive relationship, however, can worsen social anxiety if a significant other makes their partner feel guilty or deficient when they interact with people outside the relationship. Left unchecked, this kind of anxiety can lead to neglecting responsibilities or other relationships, as well as all the destructive, mind-altering effects of prolonged solitude.

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Fueling Depression

If worry about the future is what fuels anxiety, a sense of hopelessness is the main contributor to symptoms of depression, including sluggishness, disengagement, and lack of motivation. According to Floyd, relationships that challenge our sense of value and self-worth — like a partner or family member who habitually minimizes our contributions — are most likely to fuel depression.

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Causing Social Withdrawal

According to Floyd, a common symptom of depression is social withdrawal, which differs from social anxiety in that it's motivated more by apathy toward social situations than fear. And if the only relationship we do maintain is with a partner who emotionally or physically abuses us, our depression and hopelessness may kill any motivation to seek out more positive influences in a vicious, isolating cycle.

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Developing Co-Dependence

Co-dependence refers to partners who habitually validate one another's behaviors or beliefs to a harmful extent. Floyd say this dynamic can apply not only to excessive drug and alcohol use, but also to psychopathologies or ways of thinking that both partners share. "So [if] you have two depressed spouses or two anxious spouses, it can be easy for them to enable each other to the point that they become almost comfortable in their symptoms," he explains.

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Instigating an Eating Disorder

If someone is self-conscious about their body image already, a relationship that makes them feel worthless may contribute to the development of an eating disorder, as can the feelings of isolation associated with abusive or uncommunicative relationships. On the other hand, compulsive eating, like drug use, can become a passive-aggressive coping mechanism for otherwise unaddressed stress in our work and home lives.

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Causing Sleep Disturbances

There's a strong, research-established link between our sense of physical and emotional distress and our ability to rest well. A consistently stressful relationship can often end up cutting into our sleep by making it difficult to stay or fall asleep in the first place. The effects of missing sleep are many and hard to make up for, including impaired memory, trouble concentrating, moodiness, clumsiness, weight gain, and weakened immune response.

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Creating a Distorted Sense of Reality

Consistent gaslighting, denial, or other forms of dishonesty in a close relationship are bound to affect one's sense of reality. "We tend to see reality, [to a large degree], as the people we care about see it because that's where we get validation of our perceptions," explains Floyd. "When that perception is distorted by poor mental health and/or relationship processes that maintain that, then not only is that flawed perception sustained, it's ingrained. It becomes more difficult to question or challenge even when we should." Hence why victims of an abusive relationship can be so hesitant, if not outright hostile, when people outside the relationship contradict their distorted beliefs when trying to help.

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Triggering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In especially significant cases of emotional and/or physical abuse, a relationship can even cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as one tries to overcome the fears, insecurities, and sense of false reality their partner may have instilled in them. These symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, uncontrollable thoughts, and severe anxiety incongruous to the situation at hand.

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Broken Heart Syndrome

When an important relationship comes to an end, it can sometimes cause such emotional devastation that it manifests in a psychosomatic physical condition called broken heart syndrome. Symptoms mimic a heart attack with shortness of breath and chest pains, but are triggered by a flood of adrenaline and other stress-response hormones rather than cardiac arrest. The condition is rare, but most common in postmenopausal women and people already suffering from anxious or depressive symptoms.

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Intensifying Existing Issues

Any kind of "toxic" relationship can become a major stressor worsening whatever mental health issues we're already struggling with, whether it's depression, anxiety, social phobia, addiction, or something else entirely. While it's important to have loved ones to look to for support, research shows staying in a bad romantic relationship tends to be worse for our mental state than having no relationship at all.

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A Note on Relationships

Just because some relationships end in heartache, anxiety, and other distressing issues, it doesn't mean they're not worth pursuing in general. Floyd is careful to note that positive relationships can do a great deal to make us feel less isolated and protect us from some of the same mental health concerns. "Having good relationships is one of the most significant keys to mental health," he says. "The connection between our relational life and our mental health is enormously strong in both directions."

With that in mind, if any of these problems or resulting symptoms sound familiar, dedicate some time and energy to addressing those issues in the relationships you want to maintain, and respectfully distancing yourself from those you deem unworthy of the emotional labor required to fix them.