Can a relationship be poisonous – and how would you know?
This is one of the most common reasons for my clients attending therapy. Mental health and healthy relationships go hand in hand; some relationships can affect your health in a similar way to a poison, but unfortunately you won’t have a label to warn you!
The first step is working out whether your relationship has reached a point where your health and life is at risk. Some people will even feel suicidal when they have contact with the toxic person. It is often a revelation for many clients that the relationship with someone they trust is causing their distress. Trusting others is important but you should not trust someone that is causing you significant distress. The toxic person may be a parent, adult child, relative, close friend, partner or work colleague.
I believe this is on a continuum and that some relationships could be classified as a “sometimes” relationship, and just like eating Tim Tams you should limit your intake. Other relationships are like a dose of salts and will have you become ill very quickly. Some relationships, especially those in which there has been violence or abuse, are very poisonous and should be avoided like asbestos or cyanide. Here are my tips on working out whether a relationship is poisonous and harmful:
- When you are away from this person for an extended period of time (like a holiday) do you feel the emotion of relief?
- When you return do you feel the emotion of dread upon thinking about coming back to the relationship?
- When you are with the person do you feel like your life is threatened in some way? Sometimes past trauma can have lasting effects even if currently there is no violence. This is common within parent and child relationships.
- Do you have physical symptoms like a pounding heart, sweating or feely shaky when they are around?
- Do you have strong emotional symptoms like feeling worthless, scared, grief, fear or have thoughts of ending your life?
If you answered “yes” to most of those questions then you may be at risk of suffering health problems in a similar way to feeling poisoned. Feeling poisoned may be evident as the symptoms of anxiety and depression. In some cases individuals may suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from their relationships.
Can a Toxic Relationship Cause a Mental Disorder?
Yes it can! One of the most effective forms of treatment for Depression is IPT – Interpersonal Psychotherapy. IPT theory supports that role conflict is one of the big 4 causes of Depression. To resolve “role conflict” it is important to make an initial decision about whether to:
- STAY – Renegotiate the relationship; OR
- LEAVE – Terminate the relationship.
How Does Therapy Help?
Many people will be hopeful in therapy that I will be making that decision for them, but unfortunately all a therapist can do is help you explore both options and support you in whatever decision you make.
For many, the option to terminate the relationship is unthinkable, especially if they have been in the relationship for a long time. This is where being in therapy can be helpful. I have often shared about what it would be like outside the relationship when clients are too scared to think about the idea. Often those that have been manipulated or threatened will have been told by the toxic person that they can never leave successfully. Talking through what leaving would be like can be like swallowing an antidote. I’ve witnessed clients walk out of my office released from the pain of the relationship by simply taking hold of the option to leave it.
Others attend therapy and plan to leave and walk out deciding to stay! This may occur for example when a parent is forcing their child to separate from their partner. The person may need to re-negotiate the parent-child relationship before dealing with the partner relationship. Being a psychotherapist means that I do not take a side. I will often have an opinion that may differ from the decision made by my client, BUT it is my role to support any decision made to stay or leave.
Does Leaving Mean Leaving Forever?
Both yes and no. Most very poisonous relationships will end forever because returning would have life threatening consequences for the individual. Relationships where there was not abuse but conflict, may be re-negotiated in another phase of life. This is most common in young adults who have parents that do not support their life choices in religion, sexuality, work, friends or hobbies. Young adults are likely to change what they value several times, and ten years later both the parent and child have changed and a different relationship may be possible.
Across a lifetime the ability to stay or leave toxic relationships is a skill that can be developed over time. The more effective you are are at making decisions to stay or leave, the more it will improve your emotional health. Social support is a key component of any emotionally healthy adult’s strategy to maintain health and wellbeing. If you feel that you or someone you care about might benefit from a consultation around a toxic relationship, my details are below.
Author: Vivian Jarrett, B Psych (Hons), MAPS, MAICD.
Vivian Jarrett is the Clinic Director at Vision Psychology in Mt Gravatt and now M1 Psychology at Loganholme. She is passionate about providing high quality psychology services to Australians from all walks of life.
To make an appointment with Vivian try Online Booking – Loganholme or Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.
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- Weissman, M. M., Markowitz, J. C., & Klerman, G. L. (2007). Clinician’s Quick Guide to Interpersonal Psychotherapy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.