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Unhealthy relationships can be very damaging to your sense of self-worth. But there are effective ways in dealing with an unhealthy relationship.

Are you in an unhealthy relationship? How do you know the signs of an unhealthy relationship? How do you get from the point of wondering what to do--self pity, or sheer devastation--to actually taking the necessary steps to get yourself back to an emotionally healthy state?

It's important to know the long-term impact of negative relationships, how to recognize the symptoms, and how to obtain the help you need to break free from a harmful association when that is the best course of action. I do fully recognize that sometimes a better course of action is changing the dynamics of the interaction within a relationship to achieve the desired level of stability and compatibility. This can be achieved through commitment to therapeutic work on the part of either/or all of the parties involved.

Do any of the following situations strike a chord or bring back memories? That back-stabbing treacherous childhood girlfriend to whom you continue to cling because you have this subconscious desire to stay in touch with the happier times of your youth, or worse still, that lying cheating husband that has kept you from achieving your lifetime goals. Or your colleague at work who conveniently accepts your help when in need, but has no qualms about using you as a pawn in the chess game of corporate life. Or what about that parent who may have neglected or even abused you as a child, but is in complete denial and expresses great surprise about your estranged relationship. All of these types of relationships require that you make a decision. Are you going to work on changing the dynamics of the relationship with the hope of making it better, or are you going to move on?

The Effects of an Unhealthy Relationship

Some of the serious long-term effects of remaining in a dysfunctional relationship include the gradual but steady erosion of your sense of self-worth. Suddenly, you wake up one morning to find that the only identity you have is that which you have gained from your abuser. You see yourself through their eyes - often it can take years of therapy to undo the damage that has been done to the ego. It is not unusual to find individuals with serious personality disorders as a result of the insidious effect of unhealthy long-term associations.


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Another important effect is the negative impact on your ability to accept the love of other well-meaning persons with whom you are in relationship. You become suspicious of the sincerity of those with whom you relate. This is a sure guarantee to undermining all future chances for happiness. This progression occurs because as a passive participant in an unhealthy association, you have come to accept and integrate the identity, conditional love, or outright rejection you receive from the negative other person. You subconsciously expect the same treatment from others. As a result, you struggle with integrating a new identity of loving and being worthy of love and acceptance. The longer an unhealthy relationship continues, the more damaging it is, and the more difficult it is to engage in a healthy one in which there is genuine love and acceptance.

What symptoms do you look for when assessing the health of your relationships?

  • Are you afraid of your spouse or significant other?
  • Do you feel controlled or unable to express your true feelings and thoughts?
  • Do you breathe a sigh of relief or suddenly feel much happier when this person leaves the room?
  • Are you really unhappy in this relationship, but continue to hang in there because you are afraid of being alone, or because you lack an adequate support system?
  • Does this person make you feel small, inadequate, or frequently belittle you in word and deed?
  • Are there unresolved hurts that creep into your daily arguments on an on-going basis?

If you answered yes a few times, then there's your answer. These are symptoms indicating you're at a crossroad in your relationship and you need to make a decision about your continued involvement. It might be time to evaluate the benefits of your continued involvement versus the potential long-term effects on your psyche. We all have a responsibility to safeguard our emotional and mental wellbeing in pretty much the same way we safeguard our physical health. No one else will ever undertake that task for us.

What now?

If you just realized that your relationship is unhealthy, there are two ways to respond:

There's the immediate decision to end your association with your abusive other. This might work if you have had a chance to plan your course of action and you have adequate means and support to carry out your plan. Your decision should also depend on the severity of the situation with which you are faced. I never recommend action for the sake of drama. You may likely need some supportive therapy or counseling as you take this bold step. Your therapist or counselor should help you filter through your options, goals, and underlying motives for making this decision. Be sure to resolve any guilt and be very clear that this is the only course of action to take.

As an alternative to any drastic or sudden moves, I recommend what is in some situations a more healthy and sustainable course of action which is to decide this moment to appreciate, recognize, and reward the strengths you know you have. Assert those strengths and use them daily, gently, in your relationships. In this course of action, there is the opportunity to salvage relationships that can be salvaged. Too often we let other people relate to us on the basis of our weaknesses, faults and everything by which we judge and condemn ourselves and they come to know no other way of relating to us. It will take some relearning and reconditioning to achieve this change of relating to others through our strengths, especially if the negative relationship has been long term. Therapy and counseling; particularly using a motivational interviewing style, would be a good place to start relearning the skills necessary to achieve this goal. Again, this choice should be determined by the severity of your situation. In some circumstances ending the relationship may be the only way to go.

Finally, most people have at one point in time or another experienced an unhealthy relationship. It is what we decide to do that determines whether we continue to be dissatisfied in our associations or whether we attain a satisfactory level of stability and compatibility. It is normal and advisable to seek professional help as you struggle through what to do with a difficult relationship, especially if it has existed for a long period of time.

Click Here to learn more about Claire Arene, MSW, LCSW.

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