New visitor restrictions are in place due to COVID-19 (coronavirus). Learn more and review the latest information about the virus.

Emotional Health

Is Your Relationship Toxic?

What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?

Not all signs of an unhealthy relationship are obvious. In fact, some can be very subtle and difficult to detect.

People in a healthy relationship share respect, trust, encouragement and affection, which can all be summed by one phrase — mutual emotional support. It’s a delicate balance in which both people have a voice.

Northwestern Medicine Psychologist Kelly Bauman, PsyD, LMFT, explains, “It’s important that anyone has a good sense of self. If you have that, you know what you value and what your boundaries are. So when someone crosses those boundaries, you can project yourself and speak up about this and correct the situation.”

If you are in an abusive relationship, whether physical or emotional, you may feel devalued, and psychologically or physically unsafe. As a result, you are less likely to speak up for yourself because you want to avoid conflict. Not feeling free to share your thoughts and emotions is a pretty good sign that things are not going in a healthy direction. In healthy relationships, the partners attempt to understand each other’s perspectives and are hopefully attuned to the emotions that their partner is experiencing.

It’s also important that each person in the relationship understands and accepts responsibility for making the relationship work for both people. “Here’s where my responsibility begins and ends, and where your responsibility for your own behaviors begins and ends,” says Allison G. Johnsen, LCPC, BCC, a behavioral health manager at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. She admits, “This is harder to detect, because partners may not know what healthy boundaries look like.”

How Do You Learn Boundaries?

Your own experience growing up can impact your approach to relationships. If your parents had a healthy relationship, you are likely to try to emulate that. If they did not, you may recognize when a relationship is unhealthy, but you may not have an understanding of what a normal relationship looks like.

Your relationship with your parents matters, too, Dr. Bauman says. If your parents allowed you to have clear boundaries in order to develop into the person you are today, you’ll bring those boundaries and expectations into your other relationships. Sometimes it may not be the parents who are the best role models, but someone else, and that can be very helpful.

“Someone may have grown up with an ill parent or sibling, and have taken on too much responsibility for their age,” says Johnsen. As a result, they may be accustomed to taking care of others and give too frequently. “A giver, someone who may be codependent in relationships, may end up with a taker — someone who is self-centered and ignores the needs of the giver.” Johnsen explains that at some point, the giver may become burned out or overwhelmed. But if they try to push back and establish healthier boundaries, the taker will often resist. If the imbalance persists, the relationship may become toxic.

If you tend to be a giver or a taker, a therapist can help you identify what healthy emotional boundaries look like.

Don’t Ignore These Signs

Signs of an unhealthy relationship:

  • Feelings of anxiety, depression and/or low self-esteem
  • Innuendos being said in a demeaning way
  • Sarcasm
  • One partner blaming another and refusing to accept responsibility for contributing to problems in the relationship

“Although this can happen in any relationship, behavior that devalues someone gets into the danger zone,” says Dr. Bauman.

Johnsen acknowledges there may be a stigma surrounding counseling, but it’s important to get help early. “When contempt and disrespect patterns are in play for a long time, that really damages love. It damages respect, trust and emotional safety,” says Johnsen. “It’s always better to get help sooner than later.”

When to Seek Help

If you notice some troubling signs in your relationship, you don’t necessarily have to walk away. Rather, acknowledge what’s going on and consider how you can take care of yourself. That could mean seeking couple’s therapy or taking some time apart to work through issues on your own. It’s always healthy to seek help and, even more so, to do what is right for you.

However, if there is extensive psychological or physical abuse occurring, it may not be appropriate to seek couple’s therapy. If you are in an abusive relationship, you may need some help to determine how to exit the relationship altogether.

Behavioral Health