Do you ever look at the person you love feeling tongue-tied?  Sometimes you feel a gnawing pain in your gut.  Your mind races as your anxiety builds and you are overwhelmed by feelings of disassociation.  "Who is this person?", you wonder.  "How did I end up here?" "Why am I allowing him or her to treat me like this?"  Our lovers are the usual culprits who drive our darkest thoughts.  For some of us, it's a Parent that just can't seem to understand that we are human too; who can't see past their own hurt to properly meet our needs.  Still others of us are frustrated by friends or siblings that seem to always have their hands out, figuratively or emotionally.  They can’t seem to get it together.  In fact, it becomes clear that they don't want to improve themselves, but for some sadistic reason, they've signed us up to accompany them through the hell they've made their lives into.  More disturbingly, for whatever reason, we stay.  We feel overwhelmed by guilt when we think about leaving them, or perhaps we’re holding on to a shred of hope, wishing that they will erase all the years of abuse with a single loving act.  I've just described what it feels like to be in a toxic relationship.

Millennials are trying, with various degrees of success, to re-define boundaries in traditional relationships.  We're struggling to resolve generational trauma that we have only recently acquired the language to dissect and describe.  We're the first generation that talks openly about mental health and spiritual growth.  We're too "soft" for the real world because we are sensitive and we want to be whole, not just fragmented people blindly chasing success.  So many of us are dealing with toxic relationships.  In fact, Oxford dictionary named "Toxic" as the word of the year for 2018.  When I decided to write about toxic relationships, I was surprised to find that Psychologists had no explicit definition of a toxic relationship.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) is a catalogue of all the symptoms that people experience due to biological predispositions or traumatic events that create Mental Health Problems.  It's the bible of diagnosis for Psychologists and Psychiatrists, yet even this seemingly comprehensive tool for analyzing the psyche had nothing to say about toxic relationships.  So I decided to find out about relationships in general and why we form them, in hopes of gleaning some insight into why they go wrong.

Since there are so many definitions of a relationship, it was hard to find one consistent definition for what a good relationship looked like.  So I began by looking for what bad ones look like.  The dictionary defines Toxic as "causing unpleasant feelings; harmful or malicious".  Loneliness is extremely damaging to humans.  Scientific studies have shown that for almost all humans, loneliness creates “a chronic distress without redeeming features”.   It turns out that good relationships are an alternative to social isolation.  Good relationships mitigate loneliness.  In fact, studies have shown that family support and networks of friends can prevent depression and other mental illnesses, while the absence of such connections leads to the development of such conditions.  The negative effects of social isolation or loneliness are well documented and extend well beyond the realm of mental or emotional health.

Loneliness affects us at a genetic level because social isolation alters the way the genes in our bodies express themselves. When we feel isolated, our genetics begin to unravel.  Research has proven that the genes of a lonely person instruct the body to kill its own cells by decreasing the amount of genes that the body uses to protect itself.  Loneliness also causes the body to create more harmful genes like, a gene known as MYC, (V-Myc myelocytomatosis viral oncogene) which causes the body to produce cancerous cells.  Ultimately, loneliness kills.  Hence, the most harm a relationship can cause an individual is to make that person feel lonely.  A toxic relationship is a bond with a Spouse, Friend, Family Member or Co-Worker that makes you feel isolated.  How is it possible that a relationship makes us feel lonelier that we would left to our own devices?  Well, let me count the ways. 

Sociologists agree that we form relationships to avoid loneliness for 9 basic reasons.  When social interactions deprive us of any one of these needs, we feel lonely because we are in a Toxic Relationship.  Here are 9 reasons relationships are toxic, based on the underlying needs for social interactions that we all share as humans.

1. Relationships with people with poor social skills are toxic.

Need:  "To learn by social observation."

People who have low empathy, poor respect for other people's boundaries + other poor adaptions to social interactions cannot teach us proper social behavior.  When we consciously or subconsciously behave the way they do, it causes people not to like us.  If the person you are in a relationship with does not behave in a socially acceptable manner, it is likely an indication of a toxic relationship.

2. Relationships with people we can't trust are toxic.

Need:  "Recognizing the shifting status of friends and foes."

Toxic relationships affect our ability to distinguish between people who we should trust and those we should avoid.  For instance, a parent should be a source of unconditional love and support.  However, if yours violates your trust by frequently stealing from you, it's hard for you to tell if others will treat you the same way.  Any relationship that makes you question if you can trust people in general, is usually a bad one.

3. Relationships with unpredictable people are toxic.

Need:  "Anticipating and coordinating efforts between two or more individuals."

This has to do with being able to predict how people will respond to us based on our actions. When you are in a relationship where you cannot anticipate whether the person will cooperate with you or others using rational criterion, the relationship is unhealthy.

4. Relationships with people with poor communication skills are toxic.

Need:  "Using language to communicate, reason, teach, and deceive others."

Our ability to communicate helps us feel less socially isolated.  Poor relationships are often characterized by people who won't or can't listen.  Another aspect of relationships that distorts communication is lying or deceit.  People who can't communicate openly make us feel isolated.

5.  Relationships with controlling people who limit our ability to form relationships with others are toxic.

Need:  "Orchestrating relationships, ranging from pair bonds and families to friends, bands, and coalitions."

Our relationships teach us about how other people perceive us.  Having a partner who tells you that you dress like a whore, or a co-worker who gossips about you to everyone in the office affects your ability to connect with others.  This will make you feel lonely and is a sign of a toxic relationship.

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6. Relationships with people who limit our ability to attain the roles we desire in society are toxic.

Need:  "Navigating complex social hierarchies, social norms, and cultural developments."

Our relationships with others often determine our role in the Social Hierarchy.  In addition to individual relationships, we're also trying to fit into to a particular class of society.  For instance, a sexist parent may lead his daughter to believe that she has no place in society outside the role of a homemaker.  If she wants to be a Doctor, she will always feel isolated from the group of people she perceives to be her peers. Hence, such a relationship is harmful.

 7.  Relationships with people who are unable to commit to us in the long-term, despite exploiting our contributions to their lives in the short run, are toxic.

Need:  "Subjugating self-interests to the interests of the pair bond or social group in exchange for the possibility of long-term benefits."

Relationships teach us reciprocity and connection.  All humans have to cooperate in order to function.  If we constantly are exploited by people who take advantage of our contributions without giving us anything in return, we learn that we are unsupported and just as lonely as we would be without any support system.

8.  Relationships with people who force us to hide their flaws and keep secrets are toxic.

Need:   "Recruiting support to sanction individuals who violate group norms."

As social beings, we need to be able to rely on other members of our community to uphold the standards we all have agreed to, in order for us to feel safe.  Abusive relationships require us to keep secrets.  An example of this might be a mother who is trying to clean up the needles her son uses for heroin so that his father doesn't see them, or a Woman who is contemplating taking responsibility for a crime she did not commit because her lover has a criminal record.

9.  Relationships that lack a sense of permanence are toxic.

Need:   "Doing all this across time frames that stretch from a person’s distant past to multiple possible futures."

Even when everything else is perfect, issues like fear of intimacy rear their ugly head in relationships.  You may have a perfect job, lover or friend, but you may be uncertain of how long they will be present in your life.  Loneliness and abandonment are lurking right around the corner.  For this reason, such a relationship will likely lead you to experience high levels of distress.

These are the Nine Ways to be lonely in a relationship.  If you find yourself in such a relationship, you may be wondering how to escape.  The most evident way to cope with a Toxic relationship is to leave.  Ideally, this is the best tactic we should employ.  However, when the relationship is with a lover you are financially dependent on, a child who is a drug addict, or a mentally unstable parent, it's not always easy to walk away.  Sometimes, the Toxic person is your employer or co-worker.

If you can't leave, you can try to change the relationship by creating boundaries for yourself.  You probably will not be able to stop the person’s toxic behavior, but you can seek the help of a therapist or support group to change the way you react to the behavior.  Sometimes, simply accepting that the issue is the person you are in a relationship with, can be liberating, especially if you’ve a long time questioning yourself, trying to figure out what you’ve done to deserve to be treated so badly.

The final alternative is to stay in the relationship, feel like shit from anxiety and depression and then, eventually, die of some disease that your relationship has made you more likely to develop.  This sounds crazy, but some of us are defaulting to this decision because we feel powerless.  There are Nine ways to be lonely, but you deserve a relationship that can heal you and prolong your life, while increasing the quality of your experiences on Earth.  You shouldn't love anyone to death.  Love should be a reminder of all the reasons we are fortunate to be blessed with having companions in this brief, and often turbulent journey we call life.

Note: I am not a doctor/physician, nurse, physician’s assistant, advance practice nurse, or any other medical professional (“Medical Provider”), psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, counselor, or social worker (“Mental Health Provider”), registered dietician or licensed nutritionist, or member of the clergy. The information provided in this article is not intended to be a substitute for the professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by your own Medical Provider or Mental Health Provider.