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Research has underscored just how powerful close, supportive relationships can be for mental and physical health. This is especially true for those in recovery from addiction and/or other mental health issues. The quality of the relationship is key. For example, a happy marriage or stable partnership can reduce stress and be a buffer against depression. On the other hand, an unhealthy relationship with a significant other can be worse for mental health than being single and living alone, according to studies cited by the Mental Health Foundation.
But how do you know if a relationship is bad for your mental health? How do you gauge if a partner makes your anxiety worse? If you’re thinking, “This relationship makes me depressed,” but aren’t sure why, how do you get clarity?
These and other questions can be harder to answer when you’re feeling anxious or depressed—or if past interactions with a significant other have largely happened when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. For trusted answers, we reached out to Dr. Laine Davis M.S., Psy.D., in FHE Health’s Neuro Rehabilitation department. Dr. Davis is a licensed psychologist who specializes in anxiety, depression, and interpersonal and relationship issues (among other areas). She offered the following advice about warning signs and red flags to look for in unhappy relationships.
What if You Feel Worse in a Relationship Than When You Were Single?
It’s a common question. The person asking it may be well-aware that they feel worse in a relationship, but to identify the root cause or forecast the mental health impact is another matter entirely.
6 Relationship Red Flags to Look for
Dr. Davis said these six red flags are signs that a relationship could be bad for your mental health:
- You often feel suspicious. Your mind is working overtime with doubts and constant worrying about your partner’s behavior.
- You censor yourself regularly. Keeping meaningful things to yourself may keep you from enjoying emotional intimacy.
- You feel misunderstood. You may have frequent disagreements with your partner where you feel like they don’t hear you or “get” you.
- You feel like you don’t know your partner anymore. Ideally, growth and change happen with understanding, communication, and transparency.
- You have a sense of going through the motions. Relationships can get stuck in a holding pattern, but a lasting feeling of drudgery may be a problem.
- Resentments are festering. Instead of openly discussing problems, one partner may be silently seething.
How to Know if a Partner Makes My Anxiety Worse?
Various factors, not just a partner, can contribute to a person’s anxiety. Signs that a partner may be making your anxiety worse, according to Dr. Davis: “constant fear that a partner will leave; feeling agitated and antsy in the relationship; struggling to trust romantic partners; and, saying ‘yes’ to sex when you’re not really wanting it.”
Unhappy Relationship or Depressed? Signs It’s the Relationship
Often, people wonder whether the root issue is the unhappy relationship or whether they’re depressed. Many relationships go through dry spells or seasons where one or both partners may feel dissatisfied. Sometimes, though, the core issue may not be the relationship itself but the fact that one partner is depressed.
Here are some signs that the relationship is the source of unhappiness (and may be causing depression), according to Dr. Davis:
- Low sense of security in the relationship
- Second-guessing a partner’s motives
- Feeling like you are lacking in some way
- Feeling empty after interactions
- One person does all the “work” in the relationship
- Fear of upsetting a partner or causing conflict
- Making excuses for a partner
- Worry about when you will see them again
- Lack of personal growth
- Settling for bursts of connection but craving more
More Red Flags That May Mean a Relationship Makes Me Depressed?
Dr. Davis addressed some other red flags that may mean a relationship is making you depressed.
A Controlling Nature
If a partner is controlling, that can be bad for their partner’s mental health. A controlling nature can manifest in various ways. A controlling partner “may be preoccupied with blaming others, speak in all-or-nothing terms and escalate disagreements, or exhibit unmanaged or intense emotions such as rage over a minor or non-existent problem,” Dr. Davis said. She added that a controlling partner may also engage in “a pattern of extreme behavior or threats.” For example, they may say things like “‘I will show people how awful you are,’ or ‘You’ll never see the kids again if we divorce.’”
A controlling partner may also do the following, according to Dr. Davis:
- Isolate a partner from family and friends
- Try to pit a partner against others
- Treat a partner as if they are never good enough
- Use the silent treatment
- Ignore a partner’s needs
Growing Isolation from Your Support Group
Often one partner’s controlling nature can cause the other partner to feel increasingly isolated from their support group (although they may not perceive that this is happening). In this case, ask yourself “if you’re changing majorly for a person,” Dr. Davis noted. “Say your friend used to be independent, outspoken, and the life of the party and now they are not, that is something to be concerned about.”
You Feel Like You Have No Outlet/Friends
With growing isolation from one’s support group, you may feel like you have no outlet or friends in whom to confide. In some cases, this may entail “the pain of being ghosted” (when a partner or friend suddenly stops responding to your texts or calls). Dr. Davis offered the following advice for people who feel trapped and alone in this space:
- Acknowledge that it hurts. The loss of potential, and of your good feelings, may hurt even if you didn’t care much for the ghoster. That’s OK.
- Offer yourself understanding and sympathy. You’re experiencing normal, human emotions.
- Talk about it with someone. Sometimes putting your feelings into words can help you process and move on.
- Take care of your mind and body. Eating well, sleeping well, and exercise can help.
- Make room for the possibility that the ghoster thought they were doing the right thing (even if they were wrong.)
Sometimes “obstacles to communication” may be the cause of the loneliness and isolation.
“You feel like you can be open with this person, but maybe they are not as open with you … You’re unable to connect emotionally.”
Not “Allowed” to Seek Therapy Help
If you’re not “allowed” to seek therapy, that is an obvious red flag that a relationship is bad for your mental health. It also may coincide with a partner who is controlling and whose controlling nature has caused you to feel increasingly isolated from former friends and supports.
“Gaslighting” can be another indication that efforts to get help for yourself and/or the relationship will be rejected. Dr. Davis described “five common tactics” that people who gaslight use. They “lie about things you know to be true; accuse you of the negative behaviors they engage in themselves; call you crazy, emotionally unbalanced, or too sensitive; undermine you in subtle ways; and, when confronted about their behavior, they often deflect and distract.”
Can a Relationship Cause Mental Illness?
If a toxic relationship can hurt your mental health, the short answer is “yes”: A relationship can contribute to mental illness. This may be especially true among people who have genetic markers for anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues and/or who have a history of trauma or other environmental factors associated with mental illness. As evidence, Dr. Davis noted a research study in 2012 that found that infidelity in a relationship can raise the risk of suicidal thoughts, which can resemble PTSD. She also pointed to a later study in 2016. It revealed that if one partner found out about the other partner’s infidelity, they had an increased risk of a depressive episode—if they have that condition already.
Tips for a Healthy Relationship and Good Mental Health
One way to exercise good preventative mental health in a relationship is to avoid what Dr. Davis referred to as the “seven deadly relationship sins.” They include the following:
- All Take and No Give. Relationships require fairness and balance.
- Lack of Empathy. It’s important to practice perspective-taking.
- Negative interactions should not outnumber positive ones.
- Playing Head Games. Don’t resort to blaming or gaslighting.
- Lack of Communication. Open and honest dialogue is essential.
- Spend quality time with your partner.
- No Relationship Maintenance. Put in regular effort to strengthen intimacy.
When to Seek Therapy
No relationship is immune from problems. If you hit a roadblock, don’t be afraid to talk about it.
“Bring it up and be open and honest with your partner and try to say how you feel,” Dr. Davis said. “You don’t have to run immediately to a couple’s counselor, but if you feel like you’re not being heard over and over, then maybe it would be good to seek a therapist. If your partner doesn’t want to do therapy, it is still beneficial to seek out an individual therapist.”