A Toxic Relationship
Coming to the realization that you’re in a toxic relationship can be devastating. After all, you’ve poured your time, love, and energy into making this relationship work, to the point that you might be wondering what’s wrong with you. Why can’t you get it right?
Before you beat yourself over the head again, let’s talk about how to recognize a toxic relationship. Of course, some signs are easy to spot. If someone is outwardly aggressive or violent, we know that something’s wrong. And we know that it’s time for some serious boundaries.
But the signs aren’t always so obvious, which makes things a lot more difficult. Experts say that when a relationship has become toxic, your gut tells you that something isn’t right. But you’d probably rather ignore that inner turmoil than ask yourself the tough questions.
Signs of a Toxic Relationship
Let’s take a look at some of those subtle signs. Any one of the items on this list is cause for concern:
- Your relationship is filled with drama and negativity.
- You regularly get caught up in behavior that you don’t feel comfortable with, like shouting at each other in public.
- Teasing and sarcasm are part of your “normal” conversations.
- You seem to bring out the worst in each other.
- The relationship is unpredictable. One moment it’s up and the next it’s down, and you rarely understand why. It feels like one big roller-coaster ride.
- You’ve been criticized so much that you wonder whether you can do anything right. You feel like a failure.
- You keep giving and putting yourself last in an effort to keep the relationship intact.
- Your opinion hardly matters; you’re not involved in decisions that you should be making together. And when you’ve finally had enough and insist on being heard, the typical response is, “My way or the highway!”
- Everything is your fault – even when it clearly isn’t.
- If you think about it, which you try not to do too often, you realize that the good times (if there are any) aren’t worth the pain. You tell yourself that things will get better, but at some level you know that this is wishful thinking.
- You get caught up in the other’s lies – and you’re the only one who sees this as a problem.
- Any attempt to talk about your feelings gets shut down.
Any one of these signs indicates that you’re in a toxic relationship. Items 5 through 12 indicate that you’re with a toxic person. If it’s at all possible, leave. Then get some help. Toxic people can make you doubt yourself, so much so that you need help to regain your confidence. And chances are you were wounded before you met this person – that’s why you didn’t see – or couldn’t face – the truth.
Dealing with a Toxic Person.
So let’s look at some guidelines for dealing with any toxic person:
- Leave if you can. Truly toxic people drag you down. They make you doubt yourself. You may even find yourself engaging in their nasty behaviors as a form of self-defense. The best thing you can do for yourself is to avoid them altogether.
If you decide to stay:
- Limit the time you spend with toxic people. (We’ll look at some ways to do that in different situations later in this post.)
- Keep your conversations short. Avoid gossip and personal topics.
- Don’t get sucked into the drama. Toxic people are usually looking for a reaction. When you don’t give them any, they may look elsewhere.
- Choose your boundaries carefully and stick to them – no matter what. This may mean starting with small ones and increasing them over time.
- When a toxic person argues with your perfectly reasonable boundary, do not justify yourself. Simple responses like, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or, “Nevertheless, that’s how it is,” are enough. Hang up the phone or walk away.
- Be careful about sharing personal information, as it may be used against you later. And besides, truly toxic people are only capable of superficial relationships. The sooner you accept this, the happier you’ll be.
- Don’t play the game. Don’t respond to toxic behavior with more of your own. It just makes things worse.
- Toxic people can bring you down, so make sure you spend enough time with positive people.
- Increase your repertoire of stress-reducing activities. Meditation, exercise, music, dancing and time in nature are all helpful. So is anything that you truly enjoy.
These guidelines are useful in just about any situation – except, of course, if your safety is at risk. In that case, get our or get professional assistance.
If violence is not an issue and you choose to stay in a toxic relationship with someone you don’t live with, like a friend or family member, you have more options:
- As suggested above, limit your time together. Decide how often you see each other, and for how long. Consider replacing some of your visits with phone calls. You will probably encounter resistance, so you may need to do this gradually. Be prepared to stick to your boundary no matter what.
- Never invite a toxic person to your home. Meet in public places and take care of your own transportation. Make sure you’re free to leave at any time.
- As suggested above, set strong boundaries. One of the most powerful consequences available to you may be simply walking away. If a friend or family member has a habit of putting you down, for example, make it clear that you will no longer tolerate it. The next time it happens, remind him or her just once. If the behavior continues, get up and leave. Don’t back down, and don’t see this person again until you’re ready. (If you normally meet once a week, don’t meet again until next week.) When you’re dealing with toxic behavior, it’s all about consequences.
- When the toxic behavior escalates – as it will when you start setting boundaries – just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t show any weakness. It will be hard, but it will pay off once the other person realizes that your new boundaries – and, more importantly, their consequences – are real.
If you have a toxic boss or co-worker, consider these suggestions, in addition to the general ones for all toxic people:
- As already suggested, set strong boundaries where you can. For example, if a co-worker tries to dump extra work on you, refuse to accept it. If it’s left on your desk when you’re not there, return it. If it continues, consider letting the offender know that you’ll be taking the issue to management if it happens again.
- Keep a record of agreements and decisions. Send emails with the details, making sure to note who is responsible for what and by when. Ask for corrections. Think about who to copy in and whether to do so overtly (cc) or quietly (bcc).
- Keep a written record of problems and inappropriate behavior, just in case you need it.
- Communicate in writing or by phone as much as possible – and, as you would with any toxic person, keep conversations short.
- Consider discussing a toxic co-worker with your boss. Be specific about the issues and discuss how to handle it.
If your boss is toxic, the environment may be, too. Finding another job may be your only real option.
Coping with a toxic relationship?
Finally, what can you do if you’re living with someone toxic – and you’re not prepared to leave (or kick someone out)? Long-term exposure to toxic people can destroy your self-esteem if you’re not careful. Here are a few things you can do to cope:
- Walk away from arguments; don’t add fuel to the fire. Let go of the need to prove yourself right.
- Spend as much time away as possible.
- Get some regular exercise. It’s good for your mind as well as your body.
- Do something that makes you happy. Spend time with friends, take up a hobby or volunteer your time.
- Engage in regular stress-reducing activities like exercise, meditation, listening to music or spending time in nature. If these don’t work for you, do some research and find something that does.
- Talk to someone you can trust. You need another human being to remind you that you’re not crazy.
- Find a good therapist. Living with someone toxic takes its toll. A therapist can recognize the damage and help you to heal.
- Do not share your coping strategies with a toxic person. He or she will probably notice the change – and try to undo it.
Toxic people challenge us to respect ourselves. They remind us that we’re responsible for our own well-being. If you’re in a toxic relationship, I hope you’ll do what it takes to look after yourself. Because if you don’t – who will?