Sadly, in a lifetime it’s fairly likely we will all experience some form of toxic relationship. They come in many guises: the negative co-worker, the demanding relative, the constantly criticising spouse or the competitive friend. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity, hurt and stress. For many of us we know who the culprits are, but for others, the dynamic of the relationship is so developed we fail to recognise that we are maintaining toxic relationships, which are bringing little joy to our lives.
Toxic Relationships Defined
There is no clinical definition of a toxic relationship. “The term ‘toxic relationship’ is useful as a definition”, explains clinical psychologist, and author of Toxic Relationships and How to Change Them, Clinton W. McLemore, PhD. “Think of a scale — from nourishing on one end to toxic on the other. [A toxic relationship is with] someone who continually throws you surprises or curves, keeps you off balance, raises your anxiety for no apparent reason, or leaves you feeling badly about yourself.”
How to Identify a Toxic Relationship
Pay attention to the subject of your interactions. If it’s hard for you to have a two-sided conversation with this person something is wrong. Do you spend a lot of time making them feel good about themselves, but not the other way around?
Ask yourself whether this person tries to control you. Pay attention to irrational displays of jealousy in particular. These actions can appear to be caring behaviour, but if they cross the line into possessive, this is unhealthy.
Does it feel like you can’t do anything right? Do you disagree a lot with this person and find yourself agreeing with them just so that you’ll get along? Do they criticise you a lot?
Pay attention to their jokes. Do they tease or mock you frequently? If so, this person may be using humour to (not so) subtly depreciate you, which is often a toxic behaviour.
How do you feel when you are with this person? After you spend time with them, do you feel good about yourself, or does your self-esteem dip? Do you leave interactions feeling more energetic, or do they deplete you of energy?
Recognise what constitutes a healthy relationship. A good, healthy relationship involves supporting one another. Negative competition or point scoring is not healthy.
Notice whether you can comfortably be yourself. Do you have to hide things from this person? Can you tell them about your true feelings, or do you have to put on a persona around them?
Don’t stand for abusive behaviour. Abuse can take many forms. In a toxic relationship, the person may try to hurt you with emotional or physical abuse. In either case, it’s time to end this relationship.
Trust your gut. If you think the relationship is toxic, it probably is. Even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is about the relationship that’s going wrong, if your gut is telling you to get out, listen to it.
Changing Toxic Relationships
If you have sadly identified that a relationship in your life is toxic, the question is, how do you deal with it? Is it ever a good idea to suppress these feelings and soldier on, repeating the same behavioural patterns hoping for a change that may not occur? “If the toxicity is really well-ingrained in the other person, it’s not easy to change,” says McLemore.
It is important to assess toxic relationships, from one circumstance to another. Toxic relationships between co-workers or even friends are very different from toxic family relationships. Within the family dynamic you may choose to endure this relationship out of love. Or you may have little option when it comes to escaping from a toxic relationship with a boss. In this circumstance, there are actions that can help manage toxic relationships:
Begin with a gentle, one-to-one approach in which you tell the person how you feel about the way they treat you. For people who are not fully aware of the impact of their actions, this can be an effective way to change toxic relationships for the better.
Set limits. Even with a person who has authority over you, such as a boss, you can set limits. This means you should be assertive and clear about how you need to be treated and any boundaries you may have. Control your responses. Despite being toxic, these kinds of relationships are still a dynamic between two people. Consider how you respond, because you may be continuing the toxicity unwittingly. For example, if you instantly do whatever has been demanded of you without question, you are furthering this pattern.
Lastly, we all have our limits – you may have come to the conclusion that it is time to walk away from a toxic relationship. Sometimes it’s a matter of ripping the plaster off, being brutally clear and honest that the relationship has reached the end of the road. In other circumstances it can be kinder to quietly slip away, reducing contact gradually. Ending something so familiar isn’t easy. Often things may get worse before they get better – but they will always get better. No matter the method, it’s important to be kind to yourself and to the other person. Perhaps remain open to the idea that there may come a time where your paths could cross again under happier circumstances. Ultimately happiness comes from relationships that complete us, not deplete us.