How to Tell if You’re In a Toxic Relationship
By Jim Hjort, LCSW
Friendships are one of the natural wonders of the world, because human beings are never static. We’re designed to accommodate constant change in our physical and social environment with our own constantly changing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Getting two people experiencing this change and movement to happily coexist for any length of time in the form of a friendship is something of a miracle.
It doesn’t always last, of course. Each of us has needs and capacities that need to be met and exercised for us to feel happy and satisfied. Friends are willing and able to do their part to help each other with that, but both sides of that equation can change, too: the needs and capacities of one person, or the other’s willingness and ability to meet and help exercise them. When one changes without the other, the system breaks down.
Sometimes friendships gently fade away from malnourishment, as each person invests their resources in more satisfying ones. Other times, hurtful behavior, negative feelings, and attachment to memories of better times makes things a bit more complicated, and confusing.
A Matter-of-Fact Perspective
When a friend mistreats you, or your relationship is on the rocks, the connection that has, at least in part, satisfied your fundamental human need to be seen, heard, and cared for is now in jeopardy. Especially since it involves someone with whom you’ve let your guard down, the pain, frustration, and disappointment of the situation can readily transform into defensive, empowering emotions like self-righteous anger.
Try to recognize and let go of those secondary, reactionary emotions, though. For one thing, they generally don’t serve a useful purpose in the dialogue between the people. Animosity tends to breed more animosity, and holding onto that isn’t a pleasant or healthy activity for either party.
Plus, the real problem isn’t in those feelings. It’s in the underlying mismatch and, for the purposes of the relationship, all that ultimately matters is whether it is capable of being remedied or not. Making that determination is easier with a more rational, less emotionally charged perspective.
Getting to the Core Issues
Here’s an example. Say your best friend started making fun of you in front of other people a while ago. You’ve communicated to her a few times that you don’t like being made fun of; she said she understood and apologized, but she’s kept doing it. You’re torn because you know that being friends requires some degree of vulnerability and intimacy with someone, and yet you aren’t comfortable being those things with her anymore. At this point, angry thoughts and feelings might well pop up: “Why can’t you just stop? Why are you doing this to me?!”
While the answers to those questions might be interesting, they don’t really matter, do they? You’ve expressed to your friend that her behavior is unacceptable to you. She is either willing and able to stop, or she will continue. If she continues, you have a decision to make: accept the ongoing mistreatment or end the relationship, at least in its current configuration. That’s it.
In real life, being the healthy person you are, you’d also need to consider if you have a part in whatever the problem is. If there is, then the same principle applies to you: are you willing and able to change things that are contributing to the problem, or not?
The point is that all you’ll ever control, and all you’re responsible for, are your own words and actions, and the same holds true for the other person. Pretty simple, right? What is there to get worked up about?
It’s Not Always Easy
Of course, it isn’t always easy to hold and act on this rational perspective. Consider a best-case scenario: both of you have tried what you’re willing to try, and it just isn’t working because of an irreconcilable impasse. Even now, it may still easy for you to get stuck because of the positive feelings you still hold for your friend, and her good intentions: you believe that she isn’t intentionally trying to hurt you.
This situation is similar, in some ways, to the distinction between murder and manslaughter: whether the harm was caused intentionally makes for an important moral, intellectual, and legal distinction to the prosecutor and defendant, but it matters little to the deceased.
If you knew that if you left the house today you would either be killed by a falling piano or an ax murderer, would you need to be certain which one it would be before deciding to stay home? If someone is consistently hurting you, does it make a difference whether it’s because they’re unwilling to change or just unable to do so?
Letting Go of the Secondary Emotion
Some might say that this perspective seems dispassionate or non-emotional but, to be clear, it doesn’t involve divorcing yourself from or denying your emotions. In fact, it’s by paying attention to them that you are able to determine what need of yours isn’t being met in the first place, so you can communicate effectively and determine how to take care of yourself.
It involves letting go, as much as possible, of the blame and anger that clouds your clear-eyed judgment and keeps you stuck. When toxic situations carry on for too long, with each person expecting or demanding that the other change, even though neither is willing and/or able to, that’s when the hard feelings really bloom.
They may last a lifetime: the gift that keeps on taking! It’s much better simply to keep perspective, keep lines of communication open, be clear on needs and expectations with others, and when an irreconcilable mismatch develops with someone that causes your quality of life to suffer, to move on to people who are a better fit for you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Hjort, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and the founder of the Right Life Project, where he helps people overcome roadblocks to self-actualization as a psychotherapist, Right Life Coach, and mindfulness meditation instructor. The Right Life Project helps you understand the ways you can work with the different dimensions of your life (psychological, social, physical, and vocational) to be happier and more fulfilled, and to reach your full potential.