Relationships are tricky enough to navigate under the best of circumstances because, after all, love is a complicated emotion. Sometimes, relationships can be dysfunctional and toxic, and recognizing the lasting effects doesn’t always happen quickly enough. These types of relationships involve a lack of support or respect, are filled with conflict, and involve at least one partner who seeks to undermine the other.
According to Psychology Today, toxicity in a relationship can come in many forms. This can include physical abuse, name calling, lying, gossip, and other abusive behavior. A toxic relationship can be personal involving a family member, friend, or intimate partner, or it can be professional and involve a co-worker or boss.
Regardless of the nature of the relationship, this relationship can be detrimental to both long-term emotional health and physical health. Read on to find out about the ways in which a toxic relationship can do damage to your body, and how you can work towards healing after leaving such a relationship.
A toxic relationship can lead to high blood pressure
Research shows that stressful relationships can contribute to increases in blood pressure and lead to long-term high blood pressure. So, if you have ever blamed your spouse for bringing up your blood pressure, a study reported in 2016 might add weight to your claim.
As part of the study, researchers from the University of Michigan looked at how stress from a bad marriage can affect spouses over time. They used blood pressure as their main measure by examining whether partner’s blood pressure increased when they felt stressed and also how blood pressure responded when they saw their spouse stressed. Additionally, the researchers wanted to see if there any differences between husbands and wives.
What they found was the male study participants were more severely affected by the stress their partners experienced. Researchers noted that blood pressure increases were higher and more frequent in accordance with the amount of negativity in the relationship. Significant increases in blood pressure were most evident when the couples were interacting with each other.
A toxic relationship can lead to chronic stress
A healthy relationship should help you manage stress and make you feel like you have a safe space and partner in the world. But an unhealthy one filled with chronic stress can wear down your mental and physical health. In fact, chronic stress can promote or worsen pretty much every health issue you can think of, including immune system health, thyroid health, and mood disorders.
Research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that humans have adapted to chronic stress through a response called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). CTRA is a type of gene expression linked to low immunity and inflammation (the body’s response to threats like viruses and bacteria). Events like social isolation, grief, traumatic stress, and relationship stress send CTRA into action.
Chronic stress, or rather the causes of it, like being in a toxic relationship, need to be addressed sooner rather than later. This is because mental and physical health issues will become more difficult to treat the longer you continue to deal with chronic stressors.
Toxic relationship stress can cause high levels of inflammation throughout the body
Tensions and conflicts in a toxic relationship can leave the body in a constant state of "flight or fight." But this response is mean to be a short-term adaptive one, not one you deal with on a daily basis. When the body is constantly in this mode, it is not sending signals to your body for it to function correctly. Chronic episodes of flight or fight eventually send inflammation levels soaring, leading to severe health problems over time, according to Harvard Health.
A 2014 review in the journal Psychological Bulletin explained that stress significantly alters the immune system and promotes inflammation. As part of their review, the report’s authors looked at research on life stressors and social stressors involving conflict, threat, isolation, and rejection. They found these types of stressors led to elevated levels of proinflammatory protein markers.
The Psychological Bulletin review also examined a study in which couples were asked to engage in social support interactions and hostile marital interactions. The couples who had high levels of hostility exhibited the highest increases in inflammation. Inflammation wasn’t as profound, however, during the social support interactions.
A toxic relationship can increase your risk for depression
Relationships are important because they keep people connected. And people in positive relationships tend to be happier and healthier and have fewer mental health problems compared to people who don’t have these types of support systems. The number of connections you have isn’t as important as the quality of those connections, according to the Mental Health Foundation. So, being in a toxic relationship can be more damaging than being single.
Research shows the risk for major depressive disorder (MDD) is greatest when there is an interpersonal loss associated with social rejection. A large study highlighted in a Psychological Bulletin review studied 7,300 community-dwelling adults who experienced life events known for leading to depression. The events that stood out were those related to long-term threats like humiliation, danger, loss, and entrapment — which can all be characteristics of a toxic relationship. The researchers concluded that these of events are key risk factors for MDD, and the more stressors a person experienced, the higher the risk for developing MDD.
A toxic relationship can shorten your lifespan
Meaningful relationships play a part in your health and happiness. Interestingly, they also affect your longevity — that is, they improve your chances of living longer because they can buffer out the things that generally cause you to age prematurely, like stress and unhealthy eating.
One study reported in 2016 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences aimed to determine how social relationships could affect psychological well-being as people age. Here, researchers combined data from four large national surveys that examined how social relationships impacted health across the human lifespan.
After reviewing two decades’ worth of research, the researchers determined there were causal links between social relationships and mortality. Links were associated with social integration, social strain, and social support. The links were strongest in adolescence and middle age persisting into old age. The people experiencing social stresses were more prone to stress-related diseases and inflammation as they aged. The researchers concluded these findings are strong evidence for promoting intervention towards improvements in life expectancy.
A toxic relationship can cause you to gain weight
Weight gain and relationship problems seem to go hand in hand. Healthy relationships foster wellbeing and contentment, which can make losing weight and keeping off easier. However, if you are in a relationship filled with toxicity and constant conflict, you will be too busy dealing with the weight of those problems that you won’t be able to concentrate on anything else.
One study found that people who were unhappy in their closest relationship were more likely to gain weight and have a higher risk for obesity-related conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure (via Psychology Today). The study participants were asked to rate certain aspects of their closest relationship at four different time phases of the study. They were also given body mass index measures at the beginning and end of each phase interval. By the time the study was over, researchers had data from 8,000 people over an 11-year period. The findings showed that dysfunctional relationships could indeed contribute to weight gain. The researchers also determined that study participants who were initially overweight at the start of the study were most affected.
A toxic relationship can affect your heart health
Everyone’s life seems to have people-related stress in it. But when it comes to intimate relationships filled with major intense and prolonged strains, the heart can suffer. In fact, there have been numerous studies showing that emotional stress could raise blood pressure, according to a study published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Over time, these physical effects can lead to heart damage.
Conversely, a happy relationship can actually help your heart health. A 2017 study from the American Heart Association found that unmarried people were more likely to die from a heart attack or cardiovascular problem than married people. Additionally, a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science revealed a "significant increase in risk for early death among separated/divorced adults in comparison to their married counterparts."
Researchers believe that improved heart health and outcomes exist because happy relationships promote positive outcomes. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah, told the American Heart Association that a supportive partner can encourage healthy habits, like exercising or scheduling doctors’ appointments.
A toxic relationship can cause you to seek out conflict in other relationships
What all toxic relationships, regardless of the nature, have in common is that they will cause you to sacrifice current and future relationships. This is because people learn by experience, and a toxic relationship can become so familiar that you will continue to seek out similar ones, according to Psychology Today. And because being in a toxic relationship can become so normal to you, you may stop recognizing what healthy behavior looks like. You may even start to see negative in everything — from loved ones who truly care for you to simple things like the weather.
This matters because your psychological well-being is tied to the quality of the other relationships in your life beyond the toxic one. And research shows support and acceptance from loved ones can help you to deal with the effects of adversity (via American Psychological Association).
Toxic relationships destroy your self-esteem and confidence
While you may wish this not to be the case, your self-esteem and confidence can depend on the person you are in an intimate relationship with. After all, relationships do impact our emotional health and most importantly, how we feel about ourselves.
The main reasons why relationships influence self-esteem and confidence is because human beings have a real need to belong and to feel loved and accepted. Research has shown what happens when that need to goes unfulfilled. One study reported in 2014 by the journal PLOS One found that low esteem coupled with reduced emotional differentiation (identification and recognition of emotions) was a toxic combination when it came to social rejection.
In a toxic relationship, the need for love and acceptance is manipulated. This can lead to huge consequences for how you feel about yourself and your confidence in your abilities. Conversely, your time would be better spent with people who enjoy your company, support your talents, and embrace your uniqueness in ways that promote healthy self-esteem and faith in your abilities.
A toxic relationship can drain you emotionally
A toxic relationship can leave you drained emotionally, and these feelings have a huge impact on your well being. Dr. Tricia Wolanin, a clinical psychologist, shared with Insider that this occurs when you start worrying about fixing your partner’s problems and not caring for your own well-being.
"Their issues become our issues and we want to fix them," the psychologist explained. "These thoughts may ruminate in our heads. We may find we are continually offering support and care to ensure they are feeling heard and have someone to lean on. Comparatively, we may find that they cannot offer this type of support to us."
In addition to the emotional burden of a toxic relationship, incessant fighting with your partner can be equally draining. A relationship should energize you; if you are consistently bogged down by negative feelings, it is time to make some changes. Figure out what you need so that you can remove the toxicity and regain control of your life.
This psychological process can cause you to ignore red flags in a toxic relationship
Toxic relationships can be particularly insidious as they can cause you believe that the way you are being treated is normal. When you are mistreated by someone that says they love you, it distorts your idea of what a healthy relationship looks like. And although a toxic relationship is typically full of red flags, we tend to ignore these through a psychological process called idealization. According to Psychology Today, "idealization refers to unconscious or semi-conscious desires that develop through a wide variety of pressures — cultural, biological — that influence our idea of the ideal partner."
It is important to be aware of how the traits and behaviors of a toxic person can be harmful to you, though. After all, relationships have the power to build us up or tear us down. Choose wisely when you bring new people into your life and learn to distinguish positive and supportive people from those who want to bring you down.
A toxic relationship makes you feel physically miserable all the time
People in toxic relationships may deal with body aches, frequent colds, problems with breathing, and anxiety attacks. This is because a toxic relationship can keep you up at night, cause you to make unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices, and even lower your immune system defenses.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, chronic stress wears down the body’s defenses leading to a variety of physical symptoms. Physical symptoms of stress may include dizziness or a general feeling of being "out of it," aches and pains, headaches, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, a racing heart, extreme exhaustion, upset stomach, and shaking or trembling.
A toxic relationship can leave you prone to illness because emotions have a powerful effect on your health. Often, the physical symptoms of a toxic relationship go away once you have left that relationship. But symptoms, like anxiety or a more sensitive stomach, can persist. They come down to general health, age, and low long you dealt with the causes of such symptoms (via Insider).
A toxic relationship can worsen symptoms of chronic illness
A toxic relationship can worsen chronic illness, a study out of the Penn State Center for Healthy Aging confirmed. According a press release, researchers working on this project found that arguing with a partner could make symptoms of physical conditions, including arthritis and type 2 diabetes, more severe. The researchers observed pain and other symptoms increase in study participants who were fighting with their partners.
"It was exciting that we were able to see this association in two different data sets — two groups of people with two different diseases," Penn State study’s lead researcher Lynn Martire, a professor of human development and family studies, explained. However, marital tension isn’t tied to disease. Rather, she revealed, "It’s a measure you can get from any couple. It suggests to me that looking beyond the illness, to improve the overall quality of the relationship might have some impact on health."
It is important to heal after a toxic relationship
After leaving a toxic relationship, it is normal to practice self-blame and reminisce on the good times, forgetting the toxicity that existed. In those moments, it is important to remember the reasons you left.
According to social worker Jillian Williams of the Cleveland Clinic, it takes time to heal from an emotionally abusive relationship. She suggested journaling feelings, avoiding self-blaming as best you can, cutting contact with the toxic person, reflecting on what normal looks like, learning to trust again, and prioritizing well-being. Williams also stressed the value of seeking professional help. A therapist can help you navigate life outside of the toxic relationship. Therapy can also help you to rebuild self-confidence and identify what you can learn from the experience.
Lastly and most importantly, surround yourself with people who truly care about your well-being. Meet a friend for coffee, call a sibling to vent, or spend the night at your parents’ house while you adjust to being alone again. Remember: You don’t have to go at this alone.