It could be your parent, a sibling or colleague that's making you ill
The damaging effects of unhealthy relations on our mental health
“Being bullied is a contributory factor to a plethora of physical and psychological damage.” Photograph: iStock
It could be your parent, a sibling, a son or daughter or in-law that is making you ill. Or perhaps a friend, neighbour, person at work or partner is intruding on your psychological territory.
Research has shown that people who have positive and supportive relationships are healthier and live longer. In a review of 148 studies, it was found the influence of social relations on the risk of death are comparable to smoking and alcohol consumption. Healthy relationships buffer against stress and boost emotional well-being.
Social connectedness can also foster a healthier lifestyle by being encouraged to exercise, quit smoking, eat healthier and emulate good habits. A positive support network helps ease the pain of significant life events such as loss, illness and traumatic experiences. Screen interactions do not provide the same benefits and, in fact, contribute to insecurities and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
So what characterises a healthy relationship?
It involves two people in an authentic dynamic who emotionally support each other and provide practical help, as needed. They communicate well, trust each other, are thoughtful and share healthy activities. On a basic level, you feel emotionally and physically safe. Each party is there for the joy, but also the suffering. There is mutual respect, trust and a ‘give-and-take’ ethos. The best of you is brought out in a vibrant dynamic and you can be yourself, warts and all.
Boundaries have been settled into that suit each person’s need for time spent together and apart. Good friends may not be able to see each other for a while, but it picks up with ease. Having a laugh, sharing a zany sense of humour and enjoying banter are other positive indicators of close bonds. Each person cuts some slack if the other is in turmoil or just off form.
In the workplace, research shows that having a good friend there increases job-satisfaction and staying power. Positive working relations influence well-being, performance, productivity and eases work-related stress.
On the other hand, relational stress can trigger psychological ill health and aggravate existing mental-health conditions. Each person brings a unique, history, personality, set of values and communication style to the table. An unhealthy relationship can wreck your head, sap your energy and consume you so much you miss out on all the positive relations you have. Those around you become fed up hearing the details over and over again. Another serious side-effect is that prolonged exposure can chip away at your sense of worth.
So what are the symptoms of a dodgy dynamic?
A lack of respect is characterised by name calling, being overly critical of and putting down the other person. Breaches of trust, false promises, lack of communication and over-dependence are other indicators. Jealousy, possessiveness, controlling behaviours and manipulation may feature. Arguing not only impacts the duo, but those around them and high levels of conflict are linked to depression and low self-esteem.
Being bullied is a contributory factor to a plethora of physical and psychological damage. Constantly being let down by the other person, repeated negative behaviours or too much drama is emotionally draining. Negativity and moaning can have an adverse effect on your own mood. Know-it-alls, competitors, boasters and ‘all about mes’ can irritate and bore.
So how can you get out of an unhealthy relationship?
It starts with you. The first step to exiting and getting into better dynamics is to work on yourself. Take stock and uncover what your vulnerabilities are. Perhaps you need to be more assertive and work on your self-esteem. Are there patterns? Identify what are your issues and what are not? Learn from it and review your selection process.
Assess if the relationship is good for you, what are you getting from it and are there any of the above symptoms present. Ask for feedback from others and explore what you are hanging on for. So many people stay in relationships that are not good for them because there is a history, or it is family, or because they fear confrontation and change.
People may endure toxicity for what they perceive is best for the children, financial reasons or the fear of being alone. Others live in the shadow hoping for change. Sadly, some people may be so worn down, their resources have diminished. It takes strength to leave, so accessing support, therapy and positive outlets can help. Write or reflect on what keeps you holding on.
Healthy boundaries involve verbal, physical and psychological layers and help keep a healthy distance and not get sucked in. Don’t fake it. If talking hasn’t worked or is not an option, step right back. You can connect with people on different levels from your inner circle outwards and maintain easy connections with twice-a year-lunch buddies or Christmas card people.
At weddings, funerals and Christmas, people often feel obliged to spend time with that tricky ‘other’. Develop protective strategies such as sitting apart, staying for a short period or spending that period abroad.
Step out of the ring and unhook yourself from constant arguing. You could write out your piece, talk it through in an adult way, then let it go calmly. Going in circles does neither party any good. Mediation or relationship counselling may work to salvage or exit in a healthy way.
While talking helps, obsessing about the other person is mentally exhausting. Explore options and chart an action plan instead. You don’t want to take your boss or colleague home to bed with you (emotionally).
No man is an island but if people are weighing you down, you may feel like going to one. Inter-relational skills, assertiveness, self-esteem and conflict resolution need to be promoted from a young age at home, in schools, in sports and all interactional settings.
The people in your life often reflect your self-esteem, so look closely at yourself, then at those surrounding you.