Humans are social beings, and we have a fundamental urge to be around other people. We learn from observing each other from the earliest age, and we are drawn to other people for reassurance, connection and a sense of belonging.
Having strong, positive relationships in our lives, whether that’s a partner, friend, family or colleague, can be of the utmost importance for our mental health. Numerous studies have shown that surrounding ourselves with people who boost our confidence, provide support when we need it, share in the joy of life and provide emotional nourishment can give us the tools we need to cope with whatever life throws at us. Some of the key factors in a healthy, beneficial relationships are:
Kindness and empathy
Validation and appreciation
These core social elements all act as a safety net, giving us the confidence and security to experience life in all its wonder, knowing that we have people who will be there for us if we need them.
However, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that any relationship is better than none. There are times when we feel anxious or lonely, and it can seem like the best thing to do is call a friend. If that friend is caring and supportive, then that may well be the lifeline you need. But we sometimes hang on to relationships that cause us harm, because any port in a storm is better than floundering, right?
Not always – while some relationships can be clearly classified as abusive and toxic, others can fall into a category of far more subtle behaviours that can do more damage than good. In fact, research has shown that toxic relationships can worsen anxiety and stress disorders, while positive relationships can improve them.
The signs of a toxic relationship can include:
Feeling under-supported, under-valued or demeaned
You give more than you’re getting
A gradual erosion of self-esteem
Feeling consistently disrespected or like your needs are not being met
You’re not your best self when you’re with that person, or they bring out the worst in you
Having to walk on eggshells to maintain peace and stability
Spending a lot of your own emotional strength trying to cheer them up
Being blamed for everything or having things turned around to be suddenly your fault (also known as gas-lighting)
There can be numerous scenarios in which these behaviours manifest. The most severe cases are intentional and deliberately designed to control and subjugate. This is especially true if an individual is a narcissist who manipulates others in order to make themselves feel superior. But it could be that the relationship is mostly kind, warm and encouraging, but there are one or two issues that bring out toxic behaviours that can be addressed and resolved. Or perhaps one person lacks self-awareness and doesn’t realise that their behaviour is having a negative effect on others.
Only an individual can decide whether the good outweighs the bad, but if there are relationships with people in your life that grind you down, make you feel low, erode self-esteem and generally have a negative influence, then it might be time to consider ways to minimise the impact you allow that person to have.
If you want to work on improving the relationship to change the dynamic, clear and assertive communication is key, along with setting healthier boundaries that allow the relationship to flourish.
Sometimes, however, the best solution is to reduce the amount of time you spend with that person, whether that’s a gradual fade-out, or an abrupt end. If the effects of the toxic relationship are severe, or there is no easy way to remove yourself, therapy can be a possible solution. It won’t change the behaviour of the other individual (unless they also see a therapist), but it can help you learn coping techniques to emotionally protect yourself.
If you think you might need help with a relationship in your life, the best thing to do is reach out. You can talk to other people in your life with whom you have a positive relationship, or seek advice and support from groups and organisations, some of which are listed below. Your GP, health visitor or midwife can also provide assistance.
People with healthy, positive and supportive relationships are more likely to be happier and healthier. Do your best to decrease the time spent with people who bring you down, and maximise the time with those who nourish and lift you to a place where the best of you shines through. After all, you can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people you choose to be around.
 Santini ZI, Koyanagi A, Tyrovolas S, Haro JM. The association of relationship quality and social networks with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among older married adults: Findings from a cross-sectional analysis of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA). J Affect Disord. 2015;179:134-41. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.03.015