How to identify symptoms of a toxic relationship with family, friends
February 3, 2020
The signs of a toxic relationship are often overlooked or even ignored. Relationships between friends, family and significant others are sometimes difficult to identify as toxic or harmful. According to research conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), with American teenagers ages 13 to 18, only 33 percent of teens who were in a violent relationship ever told anyone about the abuse. Below are the stories of three junior girls who have experienced being in a toxic or abusive relationship. These stories describe the negative effects of an unhealthy relationship between family, friends and dating partners.
Editor’s note: The content featured below contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all readers. Due to the sensitivity of the subjects mentioned, the names of the students featured have been changed in respect of their privacy.
Cutting family ties: When enough is enough
Tears stream down junior Amy’s face as she gathers all of her clothes into a black trash bag and heads for the door. Her stepmother screams curse words behind her. Amy’s stepmother forces her out into the cold to sit on the porch in her nightgown for hours. Other times she would have to go to a grandparents’ house.
Amy and her stepmother argued frequently, which oftentimes resulted in Amy temporarily staying overnight with her grandparents.
“It got to the point where every time there was an argument, I would have to leave,” Amy said. “She didn’t care who was there, she would scream at me and it made me feel unwanted.”
According to The National Children’s Alliance, nearly 700,000 children are abused in the U.S annually, which includes physical, verbal and emotional abuse. In addition, almost 40 percent were a parent or caregiver of the child victim.
Amy’s father traveled for work for weeks at a time, leaving her alone with her stepmother and her children. According to Amy, her relationship with her dad was good until he got remarried.
“When my dad was there, he would just watch her throw things at me and scream at me,” Amy said. “It was worse whenever he was gone, it gave her more of a chance to be violent because no one was watching.”
One day before school Amy’s stepmother became angry with her and a verbal fight quickly escalated to a physical altercation.
“She would tell me that she was going to take me to a foster home, I would never see my dad and my siblings again,” Amy said. “That day, she got so mad that she [dragged me] into the hallway and started throwing metal hangers at me.”
The phenomenon in which a child is the only child to receive any abuse or is singled out amongst other family members is referred to as scapegoating or the Cinderella effect.
“It’s hard to tell what turns on the switch, but once it’s on, it seems that child becomes the scapegoat for all the anxieties in the family,” said Daphne Young, vice president of communications and prevention education at Childhelp.
After Amy’s stepmother became a constant figure in her life, the family dynamic towards her became toxic. Amy wasn’t allowed to leave the house other than to go to school for several weeks. During these times, she also was not allowed to visit her mother.
“I felt isolated,” Amy said. “It felt like she was trying to get me to lose my friends and the relationship with my mom.”
During times when the family traveled on overnight trips, she was left alone for days.
“My family would go out of town and I had to stay home,” Amy said. “While I was at home, I had to clean the entire house and if I didn’t do it by the time they got back, I would be in more trouble.”
Toxic relationships between parents and children aren’t typically covered by mainstream media but show the same effects as any other unhealthy relationship. “Just as there are ordinary good-enough parents who mysteriously produce a difficult child, there are some decent people who have the misfortune of having a truly toxic parent,” Dr. Richard Friedman wrote in an article published in the New York Times.
When Amy and her stepmother had arguments, her stepmother would share anecdotes with her friends to mock Amy.
“So many times, she would bring up something that I did, or she would make up a lie and say that I did something stupid or crazy,” Amy said. “They would laugh about it with each other and I couldn’t say anything about it because she would scream at me right in front of them.”
In the National Survey of Midlife Development, a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, 2,905 adults, ages 25-74, were surveyed. The results indicated that children with consistent parental support reported fewer psychological and physical problems later on in life than those who didn’t receive the same amount of support.
“Early parental support appears to shape people’s sense of personal control, self-esteem and family relationships,” said Dr. Benjamin Shaw, Associate Dean for Research at the School of Public Health at the University at Albany. “This in turn affects adult depressive symptoms and physical health.”
Amy says that she has never felt support from her step-mother and hasn’t felt support since before her parents’ divorce.
Since her parents’ divorce, Amy hasn’t felt like a part of the family.
“I felt like all I ever got was a cold shoulder, she was a bully,” Amy said. “My dad never intervened, he was so wrapped around her finger and I feel like he’s scared of losing her after [losing] my mom.”
After nearly six years of moving back and forth from her parents’ to her grandparents’ house, Amy now permanently lives with her grandparents. According to Amy, this was the best option for her.
“I finally feel free and I feel like my own person,” Amy said. “Before I was trapped and it felt like a prison, now I’m free.”
Frenemy or foe?: When to draw the line
The tardy bell rings for math class as Elizabeth and her friend sit down to start their bell work. When the time is up, Elizabeth’s hand shoots up just before a friend’s and the teacher calls on her to answer the question. The friend acts annoyed as she waits for Elizabeth to speak and when she answers incorrectly, the friend smirks, insulting Elizabeth under her breath.
Friendships, romantic relationships and relationships between friends can all develop negative traits that have tremendous effects on physical and emotional well-being.
Time Magazine references communications and psychology expert Dr. Lillian Glass who is accredited as the person to coin the term “toxic relationship”.
Glass defines a toxic relationship as “any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”
In 2019, Business Insider reported that a person in a toxic relationship is constantly put down.
According to Elizabeth, her friendship with a peer became toxic after entering high school. This lasted in on-and-off increments for two years. Elizabeth says her friend was frequently condescending in the classroom and attempted to assert dominance over her.
“I don’t like jokes about [my intelligence]. It’s a thing for me where I don’t want to be dumb. I also don’t like to be told I’m annoying because I’ve been told that my entire life so it really hurts [to be insulted by] someone I care about,” Elizabeth said. “[I dislike] abrasiveness. And it would happen continuously and I don’t like to be called [those things]. [I thought] this person should know that.”
Business Insider cites a violation of boundaries as another signal of a toxic relationship.
“One time [at practice] I gave the last [extra] water bottle I had to another player on the team and she thought I didn’t have water and so she slapped my arm and was like, ‘why would you do that’,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t like to be hit or touched and it just made me really uncomfortable.”
Business Insider also says that a toxic person does not like to see their friend succeed.
“I try not to beat myself up over things, and so one time we were [doing a drill] and she said, ‘well maybe you should just quit.’ It’s really hard to give up something you love doing,” Elizabeth said. “I do sometimes think about quitting things because I’m not good at them and that’s not how you should approach life. I don’t think telling people to quit things because they’re bad at them is something a supportive friend should do.”
According to Forbes, toxic relationships can promote high-stress levels, cause individuals to feel “insecure or bad about [themselves], leave [them] feeling drained and unhappy, place pressure on [them] to change something [that] may even be physically and emotionally harmful.”
Forbes says that toxic relationships can also have a physical impact.
“One study found that being in a negative relationship puts people at a higher risk of developing heart problems…,” Forbes said. “In another study, researchers found that women with high levels of conflict in their relationships tend to have similarly high blood sugar levels, high blood pressure and high rates of obesity. Research has even found that hostile relationships can even slow wound healing.”
In a 2018 study by Yale University, psychologists from Yale, University of Oxford, and University College London observed that people are naturally inclined to forgive others, increasing the odds of remaining in a toxic relationship.
The study conducted 1,500 participants to observe two strangers (the independent variables). The “bad” stranger sent electric shocks to another person for money and the “good” stranger abstained.
While the participants were found to confidently form positive opinions on the “good” stranger, participants formed weaker negative opinions on the “bad” stranger and their opinions became more positive as the “bad” stranger had an occasional good deed.
“We think our findings reveal a basic predisposition towards giving others, even strangers, the benefit of the doubt. The human mind is built for maintaining social relationships, even when partners sometimes behave badly,” said Molly Crockett, Yale psychologist and leading researcher in the study.”
Time Magazine says that Glass encourages people in toxic relationships to consider two options.
“I really am a firm believer that you have to try to work everything out and understand why the person is toxic. You may be able to live with it—but on the other hand, you may not,” Glass says. “[If you can’t], you’ve got to get out of it. We have to not put ourselves in that position.”
According to Elizabeth, she distanced herself from the relationship when she experienced toxicity. Elizabeth recently confronted her friend about the ill-treatment.
“Sometimes we let behaviors happen because we don’t think they bother us and it takes self-reflection to be like, ‘Okay, this actually does bother me. What do I do about that?’” Elizabeth said. “[After confronting my friend], she grew to understand my boundaries. She’s been more respectful about things that make me upset now.”
Poisonous partnership: When to walk away
On the way to school, Ashley looks over at Derrick to see him gazing out the passenger window and leans over to ask why he is still giving her the silent treatment. He hadn’t spoken to her in days. This was one of many ongoing manipulation tactics Derrick used to have control over Ashley.
Ashley and Derrick’s relationship started in middle school and the relationship lasted two years into high school. According to Robin Hattersley Gray, violent behavior often begins between 6th and 12th grade whenever 72 percent of 13 and 14-year-olds are “dating.”
Ashley says that she was being controlled during the entire relationship.
“If I did something to make him mad, he would not talk [to me] or text me for weeks,” Ashley said. “He made it seem like my fault because he would wait to talk to me until I begged him to talk to me.”
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, One in 10 high school students has experienced physical violence from a dating partner in the past year.
After starting high school, Ashley feels that the relationship became more toxic. Derrick started partying and drinking, which often led to more arguments between them.
“He cheated on me at parties, he would get very intoxicated and call me to break up with me or scream at me,” Ashley said. “He would break up with me so that he could go hook up another girl, then the next morning he would call me and we would be dating again.”
According to Ashley, friends constantly told her that the relationship was unhealthy, but she didn’t recognize the abuse until her best friend sat down with her.
“You could see what was happening, everyone knew how bad it was,” Ashley said. “My best friend had seen the worst of it, [she told me] ‘I couldn’t put myself through it anymore’. But I couldn’t bring myself to the thought of breaking up with him.”
Ashely says after deciding to end the relationship, Derrick called her daily and apologized. When Ashley dismissed him, she says that he would get violent.
“After I broke up with him, I blocked him on everything but I still got constant calls, it was call after call after call,” Ashley said. “When I answered, he would yell at me about how he wasn’t a bad person and how he didn’t do anything wrong. He accused me of making up things constantly.”
According to Ashley, the abuse from the relationship still affects her today.
“Every time I think about what he did to me, it hurts me,” Ashley said. “It really affects my relationships now because I don’t trust anybody, I don’t trust anybody with my feelings or my emotions.”
Ashely encourages anyone in a similar situation to end the relationship.
“I have brought myself to forgiving him, it hurts and it sucks,” Ashley said. “Every person [is different] but you know what you need to do and you need to make that decision.”