How to identify toxic relationships

Mental Health

Are toxic relationships bad for your health?

When is a relationship unhealthy? We speak to an expert to find out how to recognise one and step back.

Jo Hartley
May 2019

Relationships can be very good for us. Personal connections can improve our health, happiness and wellbeing. But that’s not the case for bad or ‘toxic’ relationships.

Poor relationships can be with anyone – from friendship circles and workplaces, to families and romantic partners. Many studies have shown that bad relationships can actually make us sick, negatively impacting on our psychological and physical wellbeing.

Research by the University of California Los Angeles found that healthy adults who had negative social experiences had increased levels of inflammation. Over time, this may increase your risk of depression, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (plaque in your arteries), heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

Experts have also found that friendship traits such as betrayal, peer pressure, passive aggression, promise-breaking and competition, can all negatively affect our mental health.

But it’s not just our interactions with these toxic relationships that can be unhealthy. Other people’s lifestyles can impact us too.

According to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, lifestyle habits can circulate among friends. Researchers found that people were 171% more likely to become obese if their close friends fell into this category.

So, now we know how bad they are for us – how do you know when a relationship you have is toxic, and what can you do about it?

Picking up on the clues

Simply put, "a bad friendship doesn’t add value to your life,” says psychologist Dr Marny Lishman. “Whether it’s personal or professional, there are a number of signs when a relationship’s bad for you."

Dr Lishman says common signs are someone:

  • putting you down
  • controlling or manipulating you
  • being passive-aggressive
  • giving you no credit for achievements
  • having little or no regard for your boundaries.

"You’ll usually feel worse after spending time with this person," says Dr Lishman. "Your confidence and self-esteem will also take a hit."

"Usually our intuition works it out early on in the relationship, but for many reasons we tend to ignore it."

Communicating your feelings

Intuition is our body’s way of picking up and flagging things that aren’t right or may be a threat to us. It’s difficult to describe, but listening to your intuition or ‘trusting your gut’ can open up the chance to question and act on things.

"It may mean communicating your feelings to this person early on in the relationship," explains Dr Lishman. "If they’re receptive and change their behaviour as a result, then this is healthy."

"If they make you feel bad, don’t listen or don’t respect what you’re trying to say, then it’s likely their behaviour will continue, and so it might be a good time to call it quits," if you can.

It’s not always possible to completely avoid someone, so as well as communicating your concerns and needs, Dr Lishman recommends putting boundaries firmly in place. This can be hard as it involves knowing yourself well enough to know what you will and won’t put up with.

Consider things like how much you want to tell that person, how much time you’re happy to spend with them, and what sort of things you enjoy doing with them versus things you don’t.

If unsure of a relationship’s benefits, ask yourself: what does this friend offer me? Can I trust them? Do I feel bad after being with them?

Dr Lishman suggests you talk to other friends or family members about the relationship. "Having your support people ready will help you through this."

"Often when things get difficult in toxic relationships, getting out of them can be hard, as toxic people can be quite manipulative and force you to back down," he advises.

You may want to talk to a psychologist to develop some strategies to increase your assertiveness and confidence.

Ways to end a toxic friendship

  • Stop responding readily to communication and start declining their invitations.
  • Stop commenting on their social media posts or 'unfriend' or 'unfollow' them.
  • Be honest and talk to them about how you feel. If you find it difficult to talk about, or feel intimidated by them, consider writing them a letter.
  • Slowly pull back and remember to put your needs first.

When romance turns toxic

Relationships Australia manager Valerie Holden says that unhealthy romantic partnerships can involve feeling unsafe, ignored, threatened, controlled or belittled.

"Issues can be resolved if there’s a desire [to do so on both sides], but it’s important to reflect on the situation first," says Holden. For example, ask yourself exactly what you’re feeling and how you feel your partner is behaving.

If children are involved, there are other considerations when it comes to unhealthy partner relationships.

"Children will watch you and learn about respect and conflict resolution," says Holden. "If they’re watching toxic relationships play out, think about the messages they’re receiving".

"If you’re able to walk out of a toxic relationship and have a healthier, happier life, this is much better for your children. Children are better off with 2 healthy, loving parents who are separate, than together and constantly fighting."

Holden notes that counselling and support through services such as Relationships Australia can help.

If you feel unsafe for any reason, call the national 24-hour hotline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.

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