Although every relationship has challenges, and can be very difficult at times, challenges and difficulty do not automatically signify that these relationships are toxic. Toxic relationships have specific dynamics and themes that, when taken together, can compromise the health of not only the couple, but also the individual. Some are bi-directional, where the abuse goes both ways, and some unidirectional, where one side is abusive towards the other. Either way, they are harmful.
And although most of us think of romantic relationships when talking about toxic dynamics, any type of relationship could be toxic. That with parents, siblings, children, friends, colleagues, supervisors, employees, and even with clients.
Unfortunately, many people do not even know they are in a toxic relationship. They only hear about that term when searching for answers about why their partner is acting so strange, or why they feel so tired and sad, or why their relationship isn’t working.
In this article, we will outline the different signs that you may be in such a relationship, how it could be affecting your health, and what steps to take to begin your recovery journey.
Some of the signs we’ll list below are overt and extreme, while others are more subtle and covert. Either way, you’ll need to use your judgment here. Just one episode of physical abuse is enough to leave a relationship, even if other signs are not present. At the same time, if there was just one outburst of verbal disrespect, you may want to consider the context as well as the overall pattern of the relationship to determine if it’s a cause for concern.
More often than not, a toxic relationship will manifest a combination of some of the signs, and usually in a gradual progression rather than from the start. That’s what makes it a little tricky to spot.
Most of us slip up once in a while. We could say something unwholesome in the heat of the moment. But we apologize and ensure not to repeat that behavior again. In a toxic relationship, boundary violations and disrespectful behavior are on repeat, even after many apologies and promises to change. In some cases, apologies aren’t given at all.
Disrespect can also be more covert. For example, instead of verbally abusing someone by belittling or insulting them, some people just won’t do what they agreed to do, like being on time or calling when they said they’d call. If this is repeated often enough, it’s another form of disrespect and can make you feel like you don’t matter. People who love and respect you will make an effort to show you that you matter.
Most of us think of romantic infidelity when we hear the word betrayal. And it’s true that it is a particular kind of betrayal that can be especially painful. It can also put you at risk of sexually transmitted infections. But betrayal can come from anyone. A boss that consistently favors a less qualified colleague over you for work projects and promotions. A friend that shares private information about you to others. A family member that always leaves you out of family gatherings.
A common theme in toxic relationships, especially those that involve betrayal, is dishonesty. Dishonesty can be outright lying or it can be lying by omission. Either way, if you do not get the full picture about a situation that involves and affects you, it makes it difficult for you to make the best decisions for yourself. This, especially when done repeatedly and intentionally, is a form of abuse.
Gaslighting is not just lying, it is lying with a twist in the narrative that places the blame on you. For example, you find some money has gone missing and suspect it’s your sibling, but when you confront them, they not only deny it, they imply that it was you who spent the money and didn’t realize it. Or your partner flirts inappropriately at work events and blames you for being insecure. This not only shifts the focus from their behavior to your reaction to their behavior, but it also makes you doubt your own memory and logic. If repeated enough, you could end up doubting your sense of reality.
Speaking of money, some toxic relationships are riddled with financial abuse. This happens when one person violates either spoken or unspoken agreements about how to manage shared resources. For example, it’s common that a cheating spouse will not only betray their partner romantically, but also use household funds to spend on the affair.
In many damaging relationships, people find themselves less and less connected to their friends and loved ones. The reason this happens is two-fold. First of all, you might feel embarrassed to tell others what’s going on, especially if you don’t feel ready to leave the relationship. They may pressure you to leave or make a change, and you don’t enjoy needing to defend or explain yourself. The second reason is that it may actually be the other person making it difficult for you to keep those connections. They might be talking badly about your loved ones, instilling doubt about their intentions, or outright asking you to make a choice between them.
The other person’s temper may be so volatile that sometimes you aren’t able to tell whether what you’re doing will please or irritate them. Their emotional state and even personality might change so drastically that you associate them with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This unpredictability makes it difficult to know what to say or do, so you end up walking on eggshells. You tread so lightly, make yourself so small, and rarely ever ask for what you want, just to avoid conflict and emotional upheaval.
Healthy relationships are mutual and reciprocal. Each person finds it important and valuable that the other gets what they want and need within reason. In a toxic relationship, you may find yourself never asking for what you need, and having to give up previous needs as well. At the same time, the other person seems entitled, and even demanding, that their needs and desires are prioritized.
Emotional abuse can constitute all of the above. But it could also come in the form of silent treatment, emotional withdrawal, stonewalling, blame-shifting, humiliation, and mind games. The result can be a feeling of being unsafe, unloved, and even unworthy. It can gradually erode your self-esteem, without you even noticing.
With such painful dynamics, it’s a wonder anyone could stay in a toxic relationship for any amount of time. Yet, that’s more common than most people think. And it doesn’t only have to do with practical reasons, such as depending on a job with a tyrannical boss in order to pay your rent. In a lot of cases, people stay in these relationships out of their own accord. And it’s generally due to what’s called intermittent reinforcement.
If the relationship was bad 100% of the time, it becomes easy to leave. Nothing enticing to keep you there. But once in a while, the other person shows some aspect of themselves that you do enjoy. They are generous, kind, loving, light-hearted, witty, funny, romantic, supportive, helpful, or charming. They may suddenly seem like their old self again, the one that you know and love. These moments reinforce your decision to stay, and act as a kind of dangling hope that the relationship will finally turn around. But unfortunately, they are intermittent, they do not last. And the abuse comes right back, often worse than ever.
All forms of stress, whether physical or emotional, will engage your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. Your NEM is your body’s global response to stress, and it’s composed of six circuits of organs and systems that work together to fight stress. They include the Hormone, the Bioenergetics, the Cardionomic, the Neuroaffect, the Inflammation, and the Detoxification circuits.
Generally speaking, your body is built to handle acute bouts of stress. What it isn’t built to handle is chronic stress. And toxic relationships are a source of chronic stress. You face conflict in the morning and by the time you resolve that issue, something else comes up and your evening is ruined. And on and on and on. This chronicity of the stress keeps your NEM constantly overworking, which will eventually lead to its dysregulation. That’s why our coaching style prioritizes assessing our clients’ emotional wellbeing and life situations just as much as assessing their medical condition.
Your adrenal glands, which are part of the NEM’s Hormone Circuit, are the first responders. They produce your body’s main anti-stress hormone, cortisol. So each stressful interaction in your toxic relationships will trigger cortisol production, and your adrenals will become exhausted after a while. This is how you end up getting Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), even if you’re leading an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
Symptoms of AFS include fatigue, weight gain, sleep problems, brain fog, anxiety, mild depression, dry skin, hair loss, loss of libido, PMS, infertility, estrogen dominance, lowered immunity, hypoglycemia, salt and sugar cravings, food and drug sensitivities, and heart palpitations.
The reason the symptoms are so varied is because of the domino effect that adrenal dysregulation has on all other NEM components. Heart palpitations, for example, are a Cardionomic Circuit issue, while anxiety is a Neuroaffect problem. You’ve probably experienced some of these symptoms as your relationship began deteriorating. It’s actually very common for toxic relationships to cause such physical symptoms, and it’s usually because of what they do to your NEM and adrenal glands.
Some relationships may be very difficult to leave, at least right now. So, even though that would be the best course of action for most people, we will outline what you can do to begin your recovery process even while still in the relationship.
The first and most important step is to decide that you will make self-care a focus. That means even if you feel guilty, you will still start putting yourself first. Some examples include taking the time to rest, sleep, meditate, or go for a walk. Next, you’ll want to find some kind of support system that you trust. Because you’ve isolated yourself, you are currently having to deal with the stress alone. This is not a good idea. You need people to turn to. And this could also include professional therapists and support groups.
With regards to your physical health, healthcare professionals who have experience with AFS and NEM are crucial. They will already have a good understanding of how toxic relationships are affecting your health and wellbeing, and will help you take steps to reduce that stress and strengthen your NEM.
You may also want to work out an exit plan. For example, begin taking stock of your finances and saving some money on the side. Consult with a lawyer if needed as well. Having this plan will give you options and may reduce your stress levels significantly.
Healthy relationships are supposed to feel good most of the time - they are one of life’s most fulfilling aspects. They provide emotional support, connection, and safety, as well as joy and warmth. Reciprocity and mutual respect are at their core, even during times of difficulty.
Toxic relationships are different. They are riddled with conflict, competitiveness, and adversity. Tell-tale signs of such relationships include emotional abuse, gaslighting, betrayal, and blame-shifting. And they eat away at your wellbeing and sense of worth, and even create physical symptoms of stress. They can also make you feel like you have nowhere to turn to for help.
If you believe you are suffering from AFS and NEM dysregulation due to a toxic relationship, please know there really is help. Our coaches are keyed in on these issues and know that the only way to foster true wellbeing is by addressing problems at their root. They also create individualized recovery plans that take into account your unique situation and needs, and provide you with different options. There is really no reason to do this alone.
Toxic relationships can have many signs, some overt and some covert. They include things that you observe in the other person’s behavior, as well as how you generally feel when you’re with them. They can even include physical symptoms, such as fatigue and brain fog.
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