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What Is a Harmful Relationship?

by Jill Avery-Stoss, studioD

Relationships are so complex that it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain what characteristics and behaviors within them are healthy or harmful. Conflict occurs in every relationship, which provides opportunities to share concerns and feelings and enables resolutions via negotiation. Some relationships, however, are not comprised of these healthy dynamics. Having an awareness of unhealthy relationship attributes can help you identify them, manage their impact on you, and can help you acknowledge when your safety and well-being are at stake.

Disregard for Personal Boundaries

A relationship in which your partner ignores or disrespects your boundaries is harmful to your sense of safety and self-worth -- your vulnerability is being taken for granted, according to Jane Collingwood, in her article, "The Importance of Personal Boundaries." For example, a teenage boy pressuring his girlfriend to have sex despite her protests is unhealthy and coercive. If a wife barges into the bathroom despite her husband's request for privacy, she is violating his boundaries. Such behavior can send the message that your feelings, desires and needs are insignificant, unimportant, meaningless or even invisible.


People involved in healthy relationships balance needs and responsibilities. Both partners give and accept respect and affection, and are willing to compromise. A relationship in which only one person's desires are prioritized is unhealthy and harmful, states psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter in her article, "Toxic Relationships: A Health Hazard." This presents itself in situations, for instance, where one partner demands all of the other's time and attention, or others in which one partner is consistently expected to pay the other's expenses. One-sidedness reinforces the idea that the 'taker's' needs are superior and that the 'giver's' primary purpose is to please others.

Presence of Abuse

Abuse in any form -- physical, sexual, financial, emotional, psychological -- is harmful and unacceptable. This type of behavior generally occurs in a pattern implemented to maintain power and control over the relationship, and usually escalates over time. Abuse causes trauma by creating an environment in which someone's ability to handle and resolve the stress is overwhelmed and ineffective, rendering them powerless over the situation. This commonly results in low self-esteem, fear, anxiety, depression, hyper-vigilance, sleep disturbances and physical ailments, indicates Esther Giller, president of the Sidran Institute, which offers traumatic stress education and advocacy.

Influence of Relationship

A relationship can be evaluated for potential toxicity by exploring its effects on individuals involved. For instance, a relationship may be unhealthy if -- upon interaction with a significant other -- either partner is left feeling drained, insecure or inadequate, states Carter. These symptoms can result in depression if the environment allowing them to thrive is not addressed. She goes on to encourage people who are engaged in harmful relationships to work with a counselor to nurture their self-esteem and to assertively address the toxicity. If attempts to improve the relationship are unsuccessful, she warns that it may be beneficial to your mental and physical health to separate yourself from your partner.

About the Author

Jill Avery-Stoss is a graduate of Penn State University and a writer and editor based in northeast Pennsylvania. Having spent more than a decade working with victims of sexual and domestic violence, she specializes in writing about women's issues, with emphasis on families and relationships.

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