9 Ways Your Relationship Can Be Toxic to Your Health
Last Updated: Apr 26, 2017
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The Hollywood rom-com fairytale does not exist. Every relationship has its ups and downs, as anyone in a healthy, committed partnership will admit. However, there is a definite line between a bumpy patch and a relationship wrought with pain and negativity. While numerous studies show that a supportive relationship can be good for your health -- from adopting healthier behaviors to just living longer in general -- the constant stress from a toxic entanglement can attack your health in ways you may not have realized. Read on to see how an unhealthy relationship can impact your overall well-being.
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SUPPRESSED IMMUNE SYSTEM
Dr. Timothy Loving, professor and founder of The Loving Lab, researched the negative effects of a long-term toxic relationship on the immune system. His team looked at the way couples talked about disagreements. “Couples who are more hostile, more negative or more critical of one another or [are in] situations where one partner tends to withdraw from the other show signs of having weaker immune function.” Regarding patients stuck in toxic relationships, Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a leading psychologist and author of the upcoming relationship book, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?,” has also noticed changes in the body. “It happens biologically,” she says. People in toxic relationships “get sick more than people who are in healthier relationships.”
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Stress and negative emotions play a part in a person’s overall decline in heart health. A recent Michigan State University study found a 34 percent increase of heart problems for people involved in a toxic relationship, and a University of Copenhagen study found two-thirds of people in constant conflict died 11 years sooner than those that didn’t have conflictual relationships. These findings were backed up in another recent study on coronary artery disease or stroke in women in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Dr. Kiarri Kershaw, Ph.D., M.P.H., of Northwestern University found that women who were ranked high in social stress had poor heart health in many instances, being 12 times more likely to develop coronary artery disease, 14 times more likely to experience a stroke and five times more likely to develop coronary artery disease
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INCREASED RISK FOR DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
People in stressful relationships have more anxiety and depression than people in loving and supportive relationships, according to Dr. Mary Ann Mercer, marital counselor, author and co-founder of PositiveLifeAnswers.com. Indeed, Dr. Durvasula has noticed that the fallout of an unhealthy relationship can include diminished self-esteem, which often results in depression and anxiety. “If we’re in a relationship that’s not working well, we tend to devalue ourselves -- and when we devalue ourselves, we don’t take care of ourselves,” she says. Depression and anxiety can then lead to a host of physical conditions, making us prone to disease and chronic inflammation.
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AVOIDANCE OF PREVENTIVE HEALTH CARE
In her clinical practice, Dr. Durvasula has also noticed patients so distracted and anxious by their relationship problems that they stop taking care of their own health. That can mean not going to the doctor regularly, not taking their medications or even exercising regularly. “People will delay doctor appointments because they may always be fighting,” she says. “When you have relationship problems, you tend to be living in chaos. And that chaos has people putting off appointments that keep you healthy.”
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Many people turn their turbulent relationships into emotional eating, often looking to high-carb, high-calorie foods that have low nutritional value, even when they’re not hungry. Of observations she’s made in her own practice, Dr. Mercer says, “What I’ve found is that when people let go of their health or gain weight, it’s a sign of conflict in a relationship. People start eating because it’s a passive-aggressive way to deal with a problematic mate.” If things progress and emotional eating goes undiagnosed or untreated, it can lead to obesity and even food addictions.
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“Fighting with your partner isn’t just bad for your relationship, it also takes a toll on your mind,” says Dr. Mercer. “There are lots of studies that show chronic health issues over time if you’re in a relationship that has conflict.” One of those chronic issues is a hormonal imbalance called adrenal fatigue, which can occur when the stress hormone cortisol consistently floods your system. Living in a combative atmosphere can trigger an adrenaline-producing, fight-or-flight response, and behind that response are overworked adrenals that aren’t able to properly regulate the release of other hormones. In her book “The Hormone Secret,” Dr. Tami Meraglia writes, “Excess cortisol has been shown in studies to suppress the immune system, increase blood sugar and create inflammation.”
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Dr. Mercer has also noticed that people who come in for therapy often mention sleep problems. “What we find out is the more conflict in the daytime, the more stress they have. Their mind is working a mile a minute,” she says. “What I call relationship insecurity, or worry, is associated with poor sleep patterns. Sleep problems are a trigger from worry as well as anxiety.” Recently the Independent reported on research that indicated averaging less than six hours of sleep per night increases the risk of early death, not to mention a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease.
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TOXIC ENABLING PATTERN
When people don’t feel good about themselves they tend to choose partners that keep them in an unhealthy, enabling pattern. This can mean choosing a verbally abusive partner or one that drinks heavily or uses drugs. These types of relationships create patterns that make it harder for the healthier partner to break free. A study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism came to this conclusion: “Heavy-drinking spouses may be more tolerant of negative experiences related to alcohol due to their own drinking habits.” Which means that two people with a drinking habit are more likely to fall into a downward spiral together as they both enable those unhealthy patterns.
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Dr. Mercer mentions the correlation between cancer and negative mindsets, but cautions that it does not mean a toxic relationship can be the cause of cancer, which is often linked to systemic inflammation. “Correlation studies [show that] people with emotional states such as being negative and pessimistic and down in the dumps all the time tend to have increased chances for heart disease and cancer,” she says. Mercer points out that while a person could have that type of disposition regardless of their relationships, the events in a person’s life can also influence his or her outlook. Indeed, a 2011 UCLA study found that negative social interactions are associated with pro-inflammatory cytokine activity, which impacts the immune system’s response to things like infection, cancer and sepsis.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do any of these health effects surprise you? Have you ever been in a toxic relationship? What is your advice for lessening the health impacts? Tell us in the comments.
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