Could An Unhealthy Relationship Literally Break Your Heart?

It’s obvious how relationship problems can affect family wellness, but you may not be aware how your relationship with your partner affects your personal health. Relationship distress can interfere with your immune system and hormones, delay healing and even affect your mental health with depression and anxiety. According to a lot of studies, good relationships are beneficial to wellness, and can create a stronger sense of happiness. Unhealthy relationships, however, can damage your emotional and physical wellbeing. The question is; are you experiencing the signs of an unhealthy relationship?


1. Touch hunger: Clinical psychologist Dr Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, explains that we Westerners are ‘the world’s least tactile people, we hold, hug, pat, stroke, fondle and caress each other much less often than do other folks. Psychologists have suggested that we suffer from “touch hunger” and that this is just one of the signs of our ongoing loss of connection and community.’ This lack of connection can be even more damaging when you feel it in context of your significant relationships, so maybe it’s time to get a little more touchy-feely.


2. Isolation within relationships: ‘The sense of isolation is a pivotal concern in love relationships,’ says Dr Johnson, who argues that touch hunger, or not feeling safe enough to touch a loved one, shows this deprivation of emotional connection at its most obvious. Dr Johnson comments, ‘The new science of love tells us that feeling a sense of connection to another is the deepest and most pressing need we have as human beings. Our social brain codes this connection as safety, and touch is the most obvious route into this safety.’ Loving touches releases oxytocin – the cuddle hormone – in your brain and turns on your mind’s reward centres, which makes you feel recognised, significant, relaxed, comforted or even aroused. As oxytocin counters cortisol – the stress hormone – this shows just how important physical and emotional connection is in weathering the stresses and strains of life.


3. The (literal) heartbreak rejection: According to Dr Johnson, ‘Partners speak about the pain of rejection or abandonment in terms of life and death. This is not because they are immature or too needy. It is because emotional isolation is traumatic, reminding us of our essential vulnerability in a world teeming with danger.’ When you feel emotionally alone or in hostile a situation within your relationship, research shows that this elevates your blood pressure, stress hormone levels, heart disease risk and risk of death from a major cardiac event. It turns out a bad relationship can really break your heart! Dr Johnson adds, ‘The quality of our love relationships is a big factor in how mentally and emotionally healthy we are. Conflict with, and hostile criticism from, our loved ones increase our self-doubts and create a sense of helplessness, classic triggers for depression.’


So that’s how an unhealthy relationship can affect your health, but how do you make things better? It’s normal to go through phases of feeling disconnected to the one you love, but if this separateness causes you to become more withdrawn, hostile or hurtful to one another, this can destroy your relationship as well as your health, and you need to take measures to bring you and your partner closer. Dr Johnson recommends reaching out to your loved one and asking to be held, perhaps with the help of couples’ therapy. ‘The couple therapy I do is a tested, cutting edge approach to healing a love relationship,’ she says. ‘The powerful outcomes it achieves seem to hinge on a couple’s ability to shape a “hold me tight” conversation, where each partner can reach for the other, be held and hold in return.’

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