During my last year of college, I found myself picking my split ends constantly. A friend of mine asked me how I felt when I did it. "Angry," I realized. "At who?" she asked. "My boyfriend," I said. That's when it hit me: My relationship was hurting my mental health. I didn't feel like I could talk about my anger, so it came out in trichotillomania, or obsessive hair-picking.
"Relationships are arguably the most impactful, meaningful aspect of life, and they can impact us in very different ways, depending on the relationship," practicing psychologist and Harvard lecturer Holly Parker, PhD, author of If We're Together, Why Do I Feel So Alone?, tells Bustle. "Some have the power to uplift our spirits, to lend comfort during life’s strains and stresses, to weave fun and playfulness into our day, and to imbue life with a profound sense of purpose. Sadly, others can pull us downward, drain our energy and emotional reserves, fill us with heartache, and erode our happiness."
In my case, the stress and anger of dealing with an emotionally abusive partner was spilling over into other areas of my life. I had trouble concentrating on work, got testy with friends, and wasted time watching TV just to take my mind off him. Here are some signs your own relationship may be hurting your mental health.
1. You've Become Depressed Since The Relationship Started
People in lower-quality relationships are more likely to show symptoms of depression, according to a study in the Journal of Family Psychology. At their very worst, toxic or abusive relationships can lead to suicidal thoughts. A study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that people experiencing a lot of relationship conflict were more likely to contemplate suicide. In general, the more stressers in your life, the more likely you are to experience depression, says Parker. The ways this can relate to relationships are numerous. My own relationship, for example, left me depressed because I felt hopeless to change it.
2. Your Physical Health Has Declined
A review in Psychological Bulletin found that relationships have "direct influences on cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, neurosensory, and other physiological mechanisms." There's a real connection between mental and physical health, says Parker, so an unhealthy relationship can cause headaches, insomnia, or muscle pain just as easily as it can cause anxiety or depression. If one of these physical problems is present as a result of your relationship, there's may be an underlying mental issue, too.
3. You're Trying To Distract Yourself From Thinking About Your Relationship
The moment it clicked that my relationship was hurting my mental health was when I realized all the bad habits I had — picking my hair, binge-watching Friends, playing video games for hours, oversleeping — were attempts to distract myself from thoughts about it. When you're in a relationship with someone, negative thoughts about them can cause you so much cognitive dissonance, you'll do anything to push them to the back of your mind. But when you don't address these feelings, they can come out in unhealthy habits.
4. You're Relieved When Your Partner Leaves
When my partner would leave after weekends at my place, I'd be so excited to crawl in bed and go to sleep. All the mental energy it took to accommodate him just wore me out. This feeling of relief could indicate that your partner's causing you stress, especially when it's accompanied by "a sense of weight and physical tension in the parter's presence," says Parker.
5. Your Self-Esteem Has Lowered Since You Started The Relationship
This could be a sign that your partner's the one lowering your self-esteem, says Parker. That can happen in subtle ways: My ex, for example, would frequently gaslight me, which made me question my intelligence, rationality, and sanity. He also talked about himself constantly while asking me very few questions, which led me to feel less interesting. Some people will more overtly insult their partners. When one of the people you're closest to is making you feel inferior, you may start to believe you are.
6. You Wish You Could Get Out, But You Don't Feel Like You Can
"If a partner isn't having a positive impact on your emotional well-being, your mind will be more likely to show you the exit door," says Parker. We may not realize we can go because we're so attached to the person or, in the case of abusive relationships, they make us feel like we can't leave. But deep down, we may know we're better off without them, which can come out in fantasies of leaving.
7. A LOT Of Your Problems Come Down To Them
"Although many stressors in life can undermine emotional health, the possible role of relationships should not be dismissed," Parker says. "If a romantic relationship is having a negative impact on your psychological well-being, it’s vital to turn attention to that."
The same way I realized my trichotillomania was an effort to distract myself from thoughts about my partner, some may realize their low self-esteem stems from their partner's putdowns or their stress stems from feeling like they have to take care of their partners. Take an honest look at the roots of your problems, and if your partner's are at the bottom of them, the relationship may be doing you more harm than good.