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.
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 PhD communications professor at 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.
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.
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.
GETTING TRAPPED BY 'GASLIGHTING'
TRIGGERING IRRITABLE OR MERCURIAL BEHAVIOR
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.
BECOMING A VICTIM OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
CREATING SOCIAL ANXIETY
CAUSING SOCIAL WITHDRAWAL
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.
INSTIGATING AN EATING DISORDER
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.
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.
TRIGGERING POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER
BROKEN HEART SYNDROME
INTENSIFYING EXISTING ISSUES
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.