To most people, being healthy generally means striving for balanced eating and consistent fitness. But it’s important to remember that a healthy lifestyle includes healthy relationships, too. Studies show that being in unhealthy relationships can cause a number of health issues like heart problems and even strokes, and the chronic stress associated with toxic relationships can lead to serious diseases, an impaired immune system, and depression. In short: unhealthy relationships make unhealthy people.
The definition of what constitutes an unhealthy relationship might be different from what you assume. “An unhealthy relationship is one in which there is no real connection—or a very poor connection between partners,” says prominent couples therapist Gary Brown, Ph.D., LMFT, FAPA. “At worst, it is a relationship that suffers from either malignant neglect or chronic high-conflict.”
Generally speaking, “Unhealthy relationships are the result of basic needs not being met; feeling threatened or unsafe with your partner; poor communication; and a general lack of real love and emotional intimacy,” says Brown.
But just like most things in life, relationships are not black and white. Love is complicated. Sometimes we are in love with people who treat us like crap (I’m looking at you, me in my early twenties), and sometimes we’re simply in a relationship that’s well past its expiration date. If you are unsure if you’re in a toxic two-some, here are some helpful ways to know if it’s time to upgrade your love life.
1. You have unresolved issues.
Brown says an easy indicator you’re in an unhealthy relationship is if conflicts never seem to get resolved—the same complaints and arguments continue to happen a regular basis. Are you constantly getting into arguments about who should initiate sex? Do you keep fighting about his work schedule after he missed date night for the umpteenth time? Does she never seem to listen to you when you express how uncomfortable her relationship with her ex makes you feel? While disagreements are to be expected, there should be an emphasis on gaining a deeper understanding of your partner’s complaints or needs. If the arguments are less about understanding and more about “winning” or dominating over your partner, this might indicate your relationship needs re-evaluating. (P.S. Here’s The Science Behind Make-Up Sex)
2. You’re afraid to speak up.
On the other hand, you don’t want to avoid conflict altogether. Studies show arguing with your partner is actually healthy, and suppressing your anger can definitely result in resentment or deterioration of the relationship over time. If you find yourself constantly in the “I’m fine” camp when clearly things are not fine, you may be afraid to speak up when something bothers you for fear of setting your partner off. Two words: not healthy. (Related: 8 Common Communication Problems in Relationships)
3. You feel unsafe (in any way).
One of the most obvious and crucial ways to tell your relationship is unhealthy is if your feeling of safety is compromised. While physical safety is paramount (you and your partner should never be violent or physically intimidating one another), emotional safety is also crucial. For example, “when you are trying to have a discussion with your partner, they berate you, call you names, tell you that you’re stupid, belittle you, and/or publicly ridicule and shame you,” says Brown. Phrases like “your opinion doesn’t matter” or “you aren’t smart enough to talk about this (subject),” or any other attempt to diminish your self-worth are clear signs your relationship is toxic.
4. You’ve drastically changed.
Relationships should encourage growth and self-betterment, but they should also involve two people who love and accept each other without ridicule. If a person’s personality or lifestyle changes dramatically, especially in a short period of time, “it means that one partner is essentially surrendering their own sense of self, and subjugating their own needs in order to please their partner and avoid any confrontation when they have a legitimate difference of opinion,” says Brown. Examples of this could include (extreme) changes in your look or style to please your partner, abandoning your passions, or deferring to your partner’s views and opinions in excess. (Related: Becoming a Vegetarian for My Boyfriend Was the Worst Decision Ever)
5. Nearly all of your friends and family disapprove.
I’m not talking about your father having unrealistic expectations for his baby girl. I mean, almost all of your friends, family members, and colleagues ask “why are you dating this sleazebag?” Love is powerful, and it can blind us from noticing red flags or major issues. If the people you love most are concerned about you or don’t approve of the person you’re dating, it’s worth examining.
6. You feel manipulated or controlled.
Essentially, manipulation is using various tactics (like threats, isolating a partner from friends and family, and/or gaslighting) as a means of control over another person. This can lead to serious health effects for the person being controlled, like depression, anxiety, and distrust of others. Does your partner threaten to leave if you don’t do “X, Y, or Z?” Have you noticed, since the beginning of your relationship, that you have become more and more isolated from friends and family? Does your partner expect you to ask permission to go out or spend money? If yes, these are highly controlling patterns that could be damaging to your mental and physical health.
What to Do If You Think You’re In an Unhealthy Relationship
If you feel that you may be in a toxic relationship and you want out, there are several options. Try reaching out to a trusted loved one or friend who can help you start the process of moving forward. There are also several hotlines and organizations that can help you if you feel your safety is at risk.
If you are committed to staying together, it is definitely possible to work through these issues if you and your partner are willing to do the work. “If the two of you generally like one another and are aligned in your life values…then it is certainly possible that your relationship may be salvageable,” says Brown. Reach out to a trained couples counselor or therapist who can offer tools and practices to better your communication and habits. And remember: No relationship is worth your mental and physical health. You don’t have to settle for less.