The Hidden Dangers of Toxic Relationships


It’s no secret that today’s society has grown increasingly more health conscious than ever before. Healthier alternatives are springing up in the most unexpected places –like fast food restaurants– of all things. And caloric counts displayed next to menu items has almost become the rule instead of the exception. Health conscious people are opting for organic, over processed foods, gluten-free substitutes, wraps in place of bread, alkaline water instead of tap water, packing lunches for work in lieu of eating out, and yet the vast majority of health conscious people fail to consider that the stress caused by toxic relationships, whether with spouses, partners, family, friends, and even co-workers, can be just as damaging to their health, and well-being, as the foods they’ve so resolutely eliminated from their daily diets.

Even healthy relationships can go through trying times and cause brief periods of stress. All relationships take work and effort. And let’s face it, no one is perfect. But toxic relationships are a whole other animal. And, if your goal is to stay healthy, you’ll be sure to avoid toxic relationships like the controversial GMO foods (Genetically Modified Organisms) the food industry is pushing.

Toxic relationships don’t have the normal ups and downs that typify healthy relationships. These relationships are parasitic and imbalanced, to the point where the toxic partner’s behaviors are unhealthy and psychologically damaging to the other partner. They can involve patterns of dominance, manipulation, intimidation, emotional coercion, withholding, dishonesty, extreme selfishness, guilt-mongering, rejection, mind-freakery, chaos, financial abuse, jealousy, and possessiveness.

The chronic stress of a toxic relationship is often invisible to the eye, and difficult to quantify, but gradually wears our bodies down over time. The prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems can take its toll, and wreak havoc on our physiology, and overall well-being.

An unsettling example of this is the photo spread on that shows the emotional repercussions on soldier’s faces before, during, and after they experienced combat. It’s a pretty disturbing, but telling pictorial, of the effects of chronic stress.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that chronic psychological, and emotional stress, is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. Published in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, the research indicates that this inability not only promotes the development of disease but accelerates its progression. Additionally, the chronic stress and conflict of a toxic relationship raises our blood pressure, and constricts our arteries, and also triggers the body to produce the hormone cortisol in excessive quantities.

Cortisol regulates the body’s inflammatory response and helps us meet life’s challenges. It is essential to our survival, but too much of a good thing is, well, not good. Sustained high cortisol levels cause immune cells to become less sensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect, resulting in increased risk of disease, including the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States —heart attacks.

And, compared to survival statistics compiled in an article titled 11 Things We Think Are Fatal That Actually Have Great Survival Rates written by Sam Greenspan, you’re more likely to survive a plane crash, gunshot to the head or heart, train crash, and a venomous spider bite, than your chances of surviving a heart attack.

Being on edge, and in a constant state of high alert for prolonged periods of time also decreases our immune system’s ability to fight off illness, again cortisol related, and renders us more vulnerable to infection and disease. An atmosphere filled with constant hostility, criticisms, and emotional turmoil wears on our emotional and mental state, and affects our sleep and appetite, adding to the deterioration of our physical and mental health.

Numerous studies caution us of the correlation between psychological and emotional stress, and its relationship to increased risk of illness and disease. Common sense tells us that chronic and prolonged stress makes us even more prone to common conditions, experienced by people on the receiving end, of the toxic relationship stick. These include but are not limited to: heart attack, adrenal fatigue, weight gain or loss, hair loss, insomnia, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) autoimmune disorders, digestive problems, asthma, migraines, epilepsy, cancer, arthritis, slower wound healing, Type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and increased dependency on alcohol, or other substances.


But, I don’t need a scientific research study to convince me psychological and emotional stress brings on illness. During the last part of a two year long toxic relationship, with a toxic person, my left eye became inexplicably inflamed. I went to several specialists, none of which could find the cause of the problem. I was prescribed antibiotics for an infection I didn’t have and sent home with a heavy duty strength cortisone cream to reduce the inflammation. Guess what? It didn’t work. Not even a little bit. The next month my toxic relationship ended, and within in a few weeks, the mysterious inflammation beneath my eye was gone, along with the stress of a toxic relationship. I later learned that one of the reasons fluid accumulates to form puffy eyes is –you guessed it– stress.

So, I must pose this question to you, is your relationship worth dying for? Think about it this way. You’re paying for that gym membership. You’re coughing up the extra cash to eat organically. You’ve given up wheat in favor of gluten-free options. You’ve eliminated preservatives, and processed foods from your diet. But, all your worthwhile efforts are in vain, if your relationship is causing you more stress than joy.

There is wisdom in the saying “relationships dictate the quality of our lives.”  Studies have proven that healthy relationships, and good marriages can positively impact our mental health, and prolong the longevity of our lives. Toxic relationships, on the other hand, not only drain us of our happiness, and slowly and insidiously murder our spirits, but they quite literally can make us sick, and potentially even kill us.

So, next time you’re doing your grocery shopping, and filling your shopping cart with low calorie, and healthy, organic foods, don’t forget that an important ingredient of the recipe for a health conscious lifestyle is a healthy relationship.



Bree Bonchay, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with over 18 years of experience working in the field of mental health and trauma recovery. She specializes in helping people recover from toxic relationships and shares her insights about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and psychopathy in her blog FreeFromToxic. Her articles have been featured in major online magazines and she has appeared on radio as a guest expert. She is also a dedicated advocate, educator, and facilitates survivor support groups and workshops.


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15 thoughts on “The Hidden Dangers of Toxic Relationships

  1. I had a heart attack at the end of 2012. It was the end of the first year we moved out into the bush. I should have run away screaming then….I did not. A long year of emotional and physical abuse, isolation, confusion (this was to be my happy-ever-after home – what was going on?). Five years later I am still here…..nothing has changed. But I have….I have changed. And one thing I have realised is that if I don’t move on, I will die here. And I know in my heart that I will never be loved in this place. Not by the Narc, and certainly never accepted by his mother who rules her family with threats of losing their inheritance. Which they bow to. And I cannot accept. You are so right. This article is spot on. I am not well…..I can feel the flutters in my heart, I am using three times as much asthma meds as I ever had, I can’t sleep, even with a pill anymore. I am sick. And I am tired. And I am done.

  2. Excellent! They ARE bad for our health…not just emotionally but, yes, even physically. I know this for a fact. And a giant weight is lifted when you finally are free of them. Ah, it feels good to breathe easier!

  3. I have a query for Bree Bronchay. I assume that many child victims of narcissistic behaviors grow-up to be narcissistic themselves and, in turn, they abuse and victimize their own offspring. (Much as children of drinkers grow up to be drinkers.) How does the grown-up child of a narcissist ideally address his own self-important, overweening behaviors. How does one treat and remedy one’s own narcissism?

    1. I suppose if an individual is aware of his own narcissism and feels that it is negatively impacting his life then with the help of a good therapist who specializes in DBT and CBT therapeutic techniques the narcissistic traits can be decreased. Unfortunately there is not a lot of research studies/statistics about the the effectiveness of these therapies on improving NPD because most narcissists don’t believe they have a problem and don’t present for therapy. However, there are a lot of studies that show DBT is effective in treating BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) which is included in the Cluster B personality disorder family. The difference being is BPD’s are more self-aware and are able to feel remorse and guilt. Hope that answers your question. ~Bree

      1. Thank you. I am going to take a look at what Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is and see what I can learn. I have seen DBT in action a little bit in a treatment setting where I worked as an aide, but I don’t think I grasped the fundamentals at the time.

        I want, also, to compliment your weblog: It is very hard-hitting; it is strong medicine, especially in the way it recommends terminating relationships and keeping them terminated. – Mike Mooney

      2. On a very different topic, Mr. Donald J. Trump is on a lot of our minds in recent weeks, and the question occurs to me: Doesn’t Mr. Trump display, very publicly, toxic qualities of narcissism, especially in the way he seeks to unfairly tear down anyone who disagrees with one of his statements. He can never acknowledge being in error.– But anyone who challenges him is treated with outrageous levels of disrespect.

      3. I have written posts on my Facebook page- -saying that Trump should be expelled from the Republican Party. (Let him take his business elsewhere. Don’t allow him in the Republican primaries. See how well he does without a party affiliation.)


        I’ve read several of your most recent posts on your weblog. They indicate to me that most narcissism that you’ve been encountering is in abusive spouses. Most often, sociopathic husbands that need to be left — and left for good — by their emotionally abused wives.

        I think that sort of abuse probably does most often come from males. (The less kindly, the less empathetic gender.)

        There is, though, the possibility of that emotional abuse in any unequal relationship. So, in some cases, a steely determined mother might abuse a son narcissistically.

        A boss might abuse a trainee. Could be a female supervisor.

        A priest, an altar boy.

        A teacher, a student. There’ve been a number of women teachers who have manipulatively controlled male students.

        A coach, a young athlete. Could even be a female coach and a female athlete.

        A guard, a prisoner.

        An older & richer wife, a younger less worldly husband. A morganatic marriage.


        I have a friend who swears his mother was always a complete narcissist. I have often felt dubious about his claim, since I know her. (Indeed, I’ve know her really well all my life; they’re from my hometown area.) But do I know her? Not as he knows her.

        The nearest I can tell, she may’ve been determined all her life, somewhat unconsciously, to make him into a perfect mother-pleasing child. So much so that she appeared to take credit for everything he accomplished, but she’d come down hard on any perceived shortcomings. Rage!

        Once he had his own family, he found he had “to say no a lot” to requests to attend extended family weekend events, dinners, & holidays. This resulted in WORLD WAR THREE. She very angrily attacked him and his wife, and she tried to tear down the wife extensively. Tried ultimately to suggest the wife was the problem and the son should leave her.

        However, outside of her immediate family this mom would never have been seen as having those highly cruel and overpowering qualities. Only within the closeness of her relationship with her son (also with other immediate family, her daughter, her husband, her granddaughter, etc.)

        She’s an interesting character study. I knew her since when she was a little girl. No one would ever have expected such cruelty.She was always just a cute smiley little girl who was always engaging and conversational. Fun.

        I believe, though, she saw her own parents’ marriage as abusive, in the usual way, her father being arrogant and cruel towards her mother. I believe she reacted by DECIDING TO CONTROL how her own family developed, and she tried to make her son so perfectly well-behaved that he literally never wanted to speak to her again, after they’d had a number of terrible fights on the matter. So, in fact, this Narcissist Mom was herself a victim of the abuse her father had thoughtlessly visited on his wife & daughter. She then re-victimized her own son & daughter, continuing the cycle for another generation or so. Anyhow, that’s the theory.

        – Mike Mooney

      4. The Narcissist Mom described in the above comment compares well, I think, to the Engulfing Narcissist described in the Your Parents Made A Boo Boo post. Which I’ve just read this afternoon.

      5. Also, the concept of the Adult Child Of A Narcissist seems to apply to the Narcissist Mom described above, as she is reacting to the damage in her childhood and attempting to find a way to gain control of circumstances via her perfectionism.

  4. I had my 1st reaction to poison ivy a month after moving in with my narc. Before, I could roll around in it and never catch it. In the years since (23) I’ve developed asthma, allergies, thyroid disease, copd due to repeated bouts of pneumonia, gluten sensitivity and finally, cancer. Lots of other little things along the way. It took the cancer to get me out. Quite a price to pay.

  5. I’ve read the websites. They all say when a person you are worried about has a drug addiction an eating disorder or whatever mental illness it may be- when you confront them in it- they may show signs of anger and if they do this is normal. Well guess what buddy? It’s also NORMAL if it isn’t true and if you feel a major part of your core identity is being taken from you. Imagine waking up one day in a hospital bed with a handcuff tied to the chair. Your family has stuck an IV in your arm saying it is for your own good but if you behave accordingly and not get angry they’ll take it out. What if that same person HATED the people sticking the IV in them? And felt they were being scapegoated for their new found anger at them?
    I was telling my parents for the first time I was angry at them and making them the bad guy in my own life for the years of hurt they had done onto me and now yes I was very angry because they were wrapping this act of care in a way for my inner hurt and anger to not have stemmed from THEM so they not longer had to take any responsibility but stem from me. To make me the bad guy in my own life again and the one to fix everything. Read on. Thanks.

    They assigned onto me the culpability of the blame that belonged to them- the responsibility for all of the hurt, pain, and trauma that resulted from having parents that were not emotionally there and one who was not physically there. I found myself auditioning for their love constantly. My house was not a home but a place where, if I acted properly and was “simple and nice” enough, I would receive love. My parents love was never unconditional as their shipping me off as having an eating disorder when I finally felt I deserved better love and was angry at them for being who they were- and the repercussions it had on me- began to kick in.

    I was angry, frustrated, and awakened. A new woman but not really- at the same time. The funny thing about going through a breakup is we tend to discover ourselves and our self worth. That’s what happened with me. But the moment that really began to take place and I found self acceptance was the moment I realized I was receiving so much less from my own home. There- I was the one held accountable when things fell apart or when I was hurt or sad about things in the relationship being bad. I guess things were never great in my house hold, being my mother had so badly to escape reality for half the year and Coke back into our lives like everything is fine. I can understand why my parents had to “try” to establish a reality as kind loving individuals. If only you people knew the death stares the mental trauma and the amount or irreparable damage that can come from non-physical abuse.
    My first boyfriend was my wounded inner child’s way of continuing to audition for my parents love. He was gone all the time which was important being that my entire life I felt no one could love me steadily. They had to leave and come back and be emotionally as well as physically unavailable. This to me was love. And I wanted more and felt I deserved more so I’d blame myself for the relationship falling apart and for all of their inherent flaws. I put my partner up on a pedestal (being he was just my parents love in another form) and since I was to blame for all the problems in the relationship I had to be the one to fix them– not him. So I tried and strived for perfection which ultimately never got MY needs met and left me in the dark. Same thing happened when my parents said I had an eating disorder. They set me up. Clearly there had to be a good and bad guy and clearly now with my new found rage I was making them the bad guy in my life. They deserved to own at least some of what was wrong in this relationship being that they were my parents and I their child. They came first so the trauma aftermath was simply that/- AFTER math.
    I came second.
    So when this happened and since they are people to whom it is very important to be seen to the exterior world as living a life that is great and happy and grand the tainting and shattering of any front of an illusion that their identity really hinged on was unacceptable to them. Which is why when people came sniffing around and questioning that inner identity of theirs when I expressed some signs of things not being okay in our home they did not hesitate to warp my reality and take away my identity, only to save their own.

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