Is Your Relationship Making You Sick?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

While human connection can be so beneficial and enriching to our lives, it can also be a source of despair and trauma. Nearly 36% of women and over 28% of men in the U.S. have experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives.[1] Of course, not all unhealthy relationships are abusive, but they can still be stressful and harmful in the long run. Just know that if you are experiencing relationship issues, you aren’t alone. 

If you need someone to talk to or are in immediate danger, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-723.


What is Relationship-Induced Depression?

Relationship-induced depression refers to a state of emotional distress caused by challenges or conflicts within a romantic relationship. Relationship-induced depression is different than clinical depression because it’s context-specific and triggered by relationship factors and dynamics, rather than being an ongoing mental health condition. Instead of being a distinct or diagnosable condition, it’s a set of depressive symptoms that negatively affect a person’s well-being but may subside when the relationship is improved or ended. [2] 

A Case of Marital Conflict and Depressive Symptoms

Hypothetical Case:

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A couple, not married but living together, came to therapy seeking relief from their constant arguing, some of which became violent. Each blamed the other and it was impossible to discern who was the instigator and who was the victim. It’s accurate to say that they each felt victimized. He felt chronically tired, angry, and empty inside. She suffered from headaches, cold viruses, and heart palpitations since this relationship began. Neither knew what to do. Clearly, both people were desperate.

There are many articles reporting that marriage and other intimate relationships are good for health. The research seems to report this. For example, intimates seem to live longer, have lower blood pressure, fewer heart conditions, and feel better as compared to those who remain single most or all of their lives.

However, it is important to ask about the health impact of those relationships filled with conflict and turmoil, such as in the hypothetical case above?

Research points to the fact that relationships characterized by lots of conflict have a negative impact on health. These negative relationships are referred to as “toxic.” [3]

Any relationship can be hazardous to your health. There are toxic work environments, coworkers, friendships, and parents, as well as toxic intimate relationships.

Two interesting facts about people in these negative relationships:[3]

  • They do not seem to know they are in a toxic relationship even though they feel depressed
  • They are bad for both physical and mental health

How is it possible that people don’t know how bad their relationship is? The answer is that they tend to have low self-esteem and blame themselves for all of their problems.

Identifying Toxic Relationship Traits

Although no relationship is perfect and disagreement and arguments occur in the best of relationships, it is important to recognize the difference between what is toxic compared to what is not. Here are some characteristics of toxic relationships:

  • When you are together, you feel tired and unfulfilled.
  • The relationship causes you to feel bad about yourself, both before, during, and after being together.
  • You feel threatened rather than safe when you are with this person or in this environment.
  • You feel as if you are the one who is always giving while your partner gives little or nothing.
  • There is a lot of drama, conflict, and anxiety in the relationship.
  • You don’t feel supported by your partner.
  • Your partner is regularly jealous, to the point of distrust and suspicion.
  • Your partner exhibits controlling behaviors like demanding to know where you are, who you are with, and what you are doing at all times.
  • Your partner constantly criticizes you, your appearance, and your behavior.
  • You may neglect to take care of yourself, your health, and your well-being.
  • You may ignore your own needs in favor of what your partner wants.
  • You may stop spending time with family members or friends because your partner doesn’t approve or because you don’t want to talk about your relationship.
  • You may feel as if you’re walking on eggshells, afraid to upset your partner or bring up any issues.
  • Your partner is never happy, appreciative, and pleased with who you are. It feels to you as though you must change to make your partner happy.

None of this is healthy, uplifting, satisfying, or pleasant. Instead, this type of thing reinforces the worst kinds of feelings that are possible. How can being the target of constant criticism and verbal abuse possibly help anyone feel good about themselves? This can only result in feelings of frustration, inadequacy, self-hate, and depression.

Health Implications of Stressful Relationships

It’s important to recognize if you are in a toxic relationship because these types of relationships can be hazardous to your health, causing a myriad of issues, including: [3],[4]

  • Hypertension
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Weakened immune system
  • Mental health disorders like anxiety and depression
  • Sleep disturbances like poor sleep quality and insomnia
  • Metabolic dysfunctions like metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance
  • Increased mortality risk
  • Increased risk of engaging in unhealthy coping behaviors like heavy drinking and smoking

Of course, there are many other causes for medical health problems. The fact that a person has a heart attack does not mean that their marriage was the cause. The causes of disease are many and complex. 

Recognition that you are in a harmful environment is only the first step. The next step is to do something about it. Talking with your partner, getting their cooperation in making changes, finding a new job, changing careers, going to individual and marriage counseling are among the many things that can help. These along with exercise, eating healthy foods and using meditation and yoga are good at promoting health and relieving stress. Do you often find yourself trapped in a cycle of overthinking? Take our online overthinking quiz to gain valuable insights into your thought patterns.

Ultimately, if your partner cannot and will not change it is then necessary to terminate the relationship.

In the hypothetical case above, the partners decide, between themselves but with the help of couples counseling that they are best off separating.

I want to direct all of you to a wonderful article, from which much of this is taken, published in Psychology Today, by writer and psychologist, Sherrie Bourg Carter called, “Toxic Relationships: A Health Hazard.”
The article can be found at:

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


  1. National Domestic Violence Hotline. (n.d.). Domestic Violence Statistics.
  2. Røsand, GM.B., Slinning, K., Eberhard-Gran, M. et al. The buffering effect of relationship satisfaction on emotional distress in couples. BMC Public Health 12, 66 (2012).
  3. Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social relationships and health: a flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and social behavior, 51 Suppl(Suppl), S54–S66.
  4. Choi, H., & Marks, N. F. (2008). Marital Conflict, Depressive Symptoms, and Functional Impairment. Journal of marriage and the family, 70(2), 377–390.
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