We can experience toxic relationships in our families, in the workplace, and among friend groups. They can be extremely stressful if the toxicity is not effectively managed.
While they cannot always be avoided, toxic relationships can be managed with healthy boundaries, self-care, and above all, awareness. Here is what you should know about toxic relationships, including what makes a relationship toxic, how to detect if you’re in one, and the most effective ways to manage the various types.
Toxic relationships can exist in just about any context, from the playground to the boardroom to the bedroom.
A relationship is said to be toxic when your well-being is threatened, whether it is your emotional wellbeing, your psychological well-being, or even your physical wellbeing.
Relationships that involve physical abuse are definitely classified as toxic. Relationships in which one person is consistently giving more than they are getting may be toxic as well, especially if the person who is giving more feels devalued and depleted because of it. In many cases, this person is unable to change the dynamic.
Likewise, if you are in a relationship where you feel you are consistently not being respected or that your needs aren’t being met, you may feel a toll on your self-esteem over time.
Relationships where you feel unsupported, misunderstood, overtly or subtly attacked, or in other ways demeaned can classify as toxic. On a basic level, any relationship that makes you feel worse rather than better can be toxic over time.
Only you can tell if the bad outweighs the good in a relationship, but if someone consistently threatens your well-being by what they are doing or by what they are not doing, it’s time to focus on solutions.
Not all relationships are toxic because of the other person. Sometimes it’s the way the two of you interact that brings out the worst in both of you.
For example, you may have a competitive friend who pushes you to be your best, and you do the same for them. If you are both getting enjoyment out of the dynamic, this may be fine. However, if you are seeking someone who can validate your hard work with some emotional support and your friend is constantly putting you down, this may not be a healthy dynamic for you. Regardless of whether your friend’s intention is to put you down, this can be especially dangerous if you develop a spite-based competitive streak with this friend that is not enjoyable for you.
Similarly, if you find that you are not your best self around someone—they might bring out the gossipy side of you, or they seem to draw out a mean streak you don’t normally have—it could be that the two of you create toxicity together.
What to Do
If you find yourself in a toxic relationship where you bring out the worst in one another (or simply fail to bring out the best), you may want to work on the relationship and change the dynamic, particularly if there are other benefits you are getting from the relationship. You may want to attempt to talk to the other person about it.
Be assertive about your needs and feelings while also taking responsibility for your part in the situation.
In these cases, it is often a good idea to discuss what you see as a problem and decide together if you want to change the dynamic and how. You may be able to change the way you interact so that you both begin to get your needs met in a better way as you bring out the best in one another. Assertive communication and healthier boundaries may be the key.
Not all toxic relationships are mutual. Some people can sap your energy with constant complaining or by seeing the glass as half-empty and constantly sharing this perspective with you.
Some people feel the need to argue with others constantly, explain why they know better, or point out the flaws of others, which may or may not weigh on your patience. This person may act this way with everyone, and they are likely not even aware of their effect on others. They may not know healthier ways to communicate their need. It is likely that they do not know how to read social cues well enough to know when they are frustrating people or making them feel like they are not being heard.
What to Do
You may simply want to limit your time spent with people who bring frustration or unhappiness into your life. You may, however, want to talk to them about your issues and see what happens.
With people who lack self-awareness or social skills, it can be an exercise in futility to expect them to change. However, in smaller doses, they can go from being a toxic force in your life to a mere annoyance.
If this person is someone you need to interact with, like a family member or co-worker, you may do better to limit interactions and try to nonconfrontationally stand up for yourself when the situation warrants it.
Heavily Toxic People
Some people, particularly narcissists (and their less common cousins, sociopaths) tend to feed off of other people’s attention and admiration.
Narcissists feel a need to one-up people and make them feel “less-than” in a quest for feelings of superiority. They may intentionally put you down in subtle ways, throw little insults at you if you share an accomplishment you are proud of, or they may keep you guessing as to whether they will be nice to you from one day to the next.
It is not always obvious whether they are aware of what they are doing, but if their behavior is consistently making you feel bad about yourself, it may not matter. The result is the same: Your unhappiness.
With a true narcissist or sociopath, or with anyone draining you of your well-being, the best solution is to put distance between yourself and them. You are probably not going to change them, and confronting them will only bring out their wrath without resolving anything.
Narcissists, for instance, are notoriously bad at admitting fault because they truly do not believe that they make mistakes; they find it personally threatening to see themselves as less than perfect. In general, you may have tried and failed to discuss your feelings with the other person in your toxic relationship. Even if you are able to express yourself, it can feel as though your words fall on deaf ears.
It is often best to distance yourself from this person, or at least accept that you need to be on your guard. This acceptance won’t change them, but it can help minimize the stress of dealing with them.
When dealing with any type of toxic relationship, the most important thing is your self-care, health, and well-being. If you are dealing with someone who drains you of your energy and happiness, it may be worth it to consider removing this person from your life, or at least limiting your time spent with them.
If you are ever in a situation that presents a threat to you and your emotional or physical well-being, it is crucial to seek help from a professional or from friends and family as needed.
By Elizabeth Scott, MS