Toxic relationships can be mentally and physically draining

Published on June 14, 2013

Mind Matters, Jeanette Kennedy


Editor’s note: The following column is the second of a four-part series appearing in the Colchester Weekly News.

Increasingly, I have been seeing quotes such as ‘Surround yourself with people who celebrate you rather than tolerate you.’ 

I agree with the first part but the second part has always made me uncomfortable. It doesn’t quite hit the mark. In my opinion, it should read “Surround yourself with people who celebrate you rather than those who are toxic to you.” 

We likely all have experienced toxic relationships, whether it was within a romantic relationship, or with our parents, siblings, in-laws, friends, co-workers, bosses and sometimes even our children. We feel as though we have just been run over, slimmed or drained. We stick with these relationships in the hopes that it will get better or change. However, remaining in the relationships (as they are) makes us sicker and sicker, mentally and physically.

Dr. Susan Forward, who has written the books ‘Toxic Parents’ and ‘Toxic In-laws,’ concedes that using the word ‘toxic’ is very provocative. However, she argues it is the best word to describe the “erosive and poisonous effect that certain people in our lives can have on us.”

 As mentioned above, many relationships fit the bill, but those in our closest circle impact us the most such as our romantic partner or family members, as opposed to a work colleague. 

This article is intended to increase your awareness of what toxic relationships look like. 

Clearly, someone who is physically, sexually and/or emotionally abusive is not beneficial for our well-being.  However, there are also more subtle ways that we can be negatively influenced including being criticized, dismissed or not being validated especially by the person who is supposed to love and cherish us. Being undermined, devalued or shunned all can exist in the context of relationships. 

A ‘one-off’ is not a big deal because we all make mistakes or our emotions get the best of us, but if negative interactions occur consistently it can wear us down. Dr. John Gottman states there is a very specific ratio: there needs to be five (or more) positive events for every one negative. If the balance is less than that (or opposite) then it is only a matter of time before the relationship is in jeopardy.   Contempt is the most damaging of interactions and when it exists it is very unlikely that the relationship (or your self-worth) can survive.

In her book ‘Daring Greatly’, Dr. Brene Brown says healthy relationships are based on mutuality, and require boundaries and trust. She uses a marble jar analogy to illustrate dynamics within relationships.  Her daughter’s teacher used a marble jar in the classroom to reinforce positive interactions. Marbles would be added based on good deeds (or taken away if something negative occurred), and Brene explained to her daughter that relationships act on the same premise.  

When someone supports you, is kind to you, sticks up for you or honours what you share as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, disrespectful, share secrets, marbles come out. When you hold people in your life against the marble jar test, how does the relationship measure up?

Quite honestly, the topic creates a lot of inner turmoil for me on a personal level. When a toxic interaction occurs to me personally, it hurts and shakes me up. But then I berate myself for not having more patience or understanding, especially given my profession, because a lot of reasons why people act in ‘toxic’ ways may be due to insecurity, or mental health difficulties (depression, addiction, personality disorder). 

 When sharing this dilemma with a trusted colleague, she aptly pointed out that if I were a dentist, I wouldn’t be expected to be working on people’s teeth within my personal world. Although, I think that a lot of people share this same experience of inner turmoil, in that they experience an emotional injury, but try to make it better or make excuses for the other person at a cost to themselves. For example; ‘He is depressed and under a lot of stress, that is why he is acting that way toward me. What can I do to make it better even though what just happened makes me feel bad about myself?’

Dr. Brene Brown brilliantly points out “true compassion is having boundaries and holding others accountable.” It is not our job to fix the way others interact. Our job is to uphold the boundary. It might be that the only way the other person changes. If they realize they cannot continue to use others to make themselves feel better. This is holding them accountable and responsible for their choices. 

The boundaries also vary depending on the situation. In a work situation you may have to continue to interact with the individual (you can still limit the level of interaction), but in your personal life you may need to go as far as ending the relationship with your friend, romantic partner or family member. In the film ‘Silver Lining Playbook’ the main character had bipolar disorder. His wife needed to end the marriage (put a boundary in place) and his job was to manage his illness (be accountable) so his future relationships were less negatively impacted.

Truly connecting with others in the context of healthy relationships can have profound healing effects mentally, emotionally and even physically. Those in happy, healthy relationships live longer. They have less heart disease, fewer mental illnesses and better immune functioning.  

We can differentiate between toxic people and those who celebrate us because when we are around people who celebrate us we feel energized, motivated, safe, secure and a warm feeling washes over us. So, it is important to wisely choose whom you have in your life, and limit the amount of time you spend with toxic individuals. Ideally, those individuals in your life each represent marble jars that are filled to the top. 

 Jeannette Kennedy, M.Sc., is a registered psychologist with a private practice located in Stewiacke. She can be reached at, 902-957-1987, or