Northwest Health Spring 2011

Emotional Health

How to Spot an Unhealthy Relationship

Sometimes, the time spent with a friend or partner is more stressful than soothing.

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Being caught in an unhealthy relationship — whether it's with your life partner, child, friend, employee, or employer — is an emotional drain. But did you know it can cause stress that can wreak havoc with your physical health too?

"Stress hormones that create tense muscles, feelings of shakiness, or the fight-or-flight response increase blood pressure and put a strain on your heart," explains Rebecca Jo Renn, MD, psychiatrist at Group Health Medical Centers Olympia location. "When stress becomes chronic, it lowers your immunity. Stress boosts blood sugar levels too, which raises your chance of heart disease." It may also decrease appetite, interrupt sleep patterns, and lead to depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse.

Spotting an Unhealthy Relationship

These are signs that a relationship may be bad for you:

  • You don't feel respected or listened to.
  • The other person's opinion is always the one that matters most.
  • Your feelings are belittled.
  • You act differently around this person, fearing disapproval or anger.
  • You feel worried and tense about the relationship, rather than enjoying it.
  • You're always the one to make the effort or compromise.
  • Your values and beliefs are far apart.
  • The other person is overly critical of you, and frequently insults you.
  • You find yourself lying to hide information from the other person.

Getting to a Better Place

If you decide to try to improve the relationship, consider seeking advice or counseling from a family member, cleric, therapist, or psychiatrist. If you choose counseling, find someone who specializes in your specific type of relationship, such as couples counseling or family counseling.

Here are other steps you can try:

  • Address what's not working and how you'd like things to go instead. For example, communicate which words or behaviors hurt your feelings, and what makes you feel appreciated.
  • Talk to the person regularly — not just when a problem arises — and schedule time for having fun together.
  • Be clear about your values and what's acceptable behavior, and communicate this. For example, if honesty is important to you, tell the other person that you won't tolerate lying.
  • Work out mutually accepted ways of dealing with each other. For example, agree to treat each other in private as respectfully and kindly as you do in public.

You may decide the better direction is to cut ties — something a mediator can help with, says Selene David, a psychotherapist at Group Health Behavioral Health Services in Seattle. "Mediators are trained to help people end a relationship in a more positive way than it might end without outside assistance."

If it's not possible to part ways — perhaps because the other person is a close relative or employer — minimizing contact, and continuing to be clear about your values and how you expect to be treated may help you cope. And don't forget to surround yourself with positive friends.

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