Managing and Breaking Away from Toxic Relationships
All of us strive to find inspiration and fulfillment by connecting with others, especially with the other half of your romantic relationship. While we accept a certain level of imperfection from the people we love, some folks can be more difficult to deal with than others, and some relationships can even be described as “toxic,” that is, emotionally and/or physically harmful to one or both parties.
While it can be hard to set boundaries with people we love, it’s important to recognize the impact toxic relationships can have on our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us. Read on to learn more about what makes a relationship toxic, and how you can heal what’s broken, or walk away.
What makes a relationship toxic?
Conflict and dysfunction can happen in any relationship, even a healthy one. What defines a relationship as toxic is repeated harmful behavior with no effort or intention on the part of the toxic person to change. In a toxic relationship, dysfunction is normalized, and even expected and accepted by one or both parties. In many cases this toxic behavior is not visible to the outside world - this person may be on their best behavior around others, but as soon as they have you alone show their true selves. The root of much of this toxic behavior is a need for control, and toxic people use these behaviors to isolate and dominate others.
Some examples of toxic behavior include:
Your partner seemingly never has a good opinion of you and your actions. No matter what you do or say they find fault with you, and rarely if ever praise or validate you. They may frame the belittling as advice and concern for your wellbeing, or even as playful teasing, but without a balance of good feedback, the constant bad feedback may sap your self esteem and make you doubt your ability to make even the simplest of decisions.
Someone who is love bombing you will shower you with extravagant gifts and compliments, and demand your constant attention to the exclusion of all your other relationships and commitments - friends, family, job, etc. While many of us can get carried away in the first stages of a new relationship, the difference between someone who’s in love with you and someone who is love-bombing you is that the love-bomber uses their affection and generosity to make you feel indebted to them and control your behavior, particularly if it isolates you from everyone else.
Not respecting boundaries
Boundary setting is an important part of any healthy relationship because it creates clear expectations for both parties as to what behavior is acceptable and what is unacceptable. People with good boundary-setting practices make it clear to others that they determine their own thoughts and actions, and are in control of the physical and mental space they occupy. Toxic people try to remove your physical and emotional boundaries, often while keeping their own well-guarded, to make you vulnerable to their manipulation, often in the guise of creating greater intimacy between you.They may even characterize your own boundary-setting as selfish or closed off, and ask why you are shutting them out. Violations of physical and emotional boundaries can include going through your text messages, refusing to let you hang out with friends without them, or demanding that you share your dating history in exhaustive detail, among other examples. These practices can reduce the target’s sense of self-hood, and imply that the toxic person has the right to access every part of them.
Everything seems to make this person angry with you, and it’s impossible to predict what will set them off. You may have given up disagreeing with this person entirely for fear of making them mad, or feel that you need to constantly watch everything you do or say to keep from angering them. Over time living in constant vigilance wears you out both physically and emotionally, and makes you lose perspective on your own normal behavior.
The person makes you feel guilty for doing anything that contradicts them, or even slightly inconveniences them. They use your love for them against you, and set unrealistic standards for you to prove that you care about them. Every small disagreement is characterized as proof of your indifference to their feelings, even decisions you make that have nothing to do with them.
When you come to this person to let them know that their behavior made you sad and angry, they somehow convince you that their behavior is your fault, or that your perception of them is influenced by your own flaws. They may tell you that you’re too sensitive, or that your behavior led them to hurt you and that it isn’t their fault that you’re unhappy.
Gaslighting refers to a deliberate pattern of manipulating the truth until the target can no longer tell the difference between reality and the perpetrator’s constructed false reality. Someone who is gaslighting you may “remember” events and conversations differently than you do, insisting that you have a bad memory or that you can’t trust your own judgment or the judgment of the people around you. The goal of a gaslighter is to make you trust them completely and exclusively, and to isolate you from anyone who may disagree with them.
How can I protect myself from toxic relationships?
There are many different kinds of toxic relationships that present differently, and the actions you take will depend on the severity of the toxic behavior. Overall, the best way to protect yourself from a toxic relationship is to make sure you are well-grounded in a strong support network, and that you know what your physical and emotional boundaries are. This can be difficult if you are already enmeshed with someone who has isolated you from your friends and family, or who has undermined your sense of self and agency. However, whether you’re looking to get out of a toxic relationship or trying to protect yourself from falling into one, these are a few good first steps in seeing the truth and breaking free.
Know what your boundaries are
The best way to protect your own boundaries is to know what they are and speak up about them. Here are a few good questions to help you get started:
- What do you consider personal and private?
- What are you comfortable sharing with new acquaintances?
- Close friends?
- What parts of your life are non negotiable/what can you not live happily without?
- What would you feel comfortable changing or compromising?
Think of another close relationship in your life that seems healthy to you - perhaps a long-term friendship or a close family connection. What would you never dream of doing to the other person? What would you never tolerate from them?
Answering these questions will help you write a “relationship playbook” that you can check when someone seems to be crossing the line. Practice firmly but kindly telling someone when you’re not comfortable physically or emotionally with their words or behavior. This can be difficult so start small with a friend you trust who will understand if you explain that you’re working on healthy boundary setting. The more you do this the easier it will be, and if someone gets angry with you for expressing your needs, you will be able to recognize it as a huge red flag that they are not comfortable with you having the agency to live life according to your own rules.
Reach out to someone you trust
One of the most important tactics of a toxic manipulator is to isolate you from friends and family because they know that the outside perspective of someone you trust can undermine their control over you. People who love you will see when you’re being treated poorly, and will notice if your personality changes due to the influence of a toxic relationship. They can help you see the relationship clearly and give you the support you need to either speak up or break away. Plus, if a toxic person sees that you have someone other than them in your life, they can either reveal themselves by freaking out, or do you the favor of leaving you alone for good.
If you feel that your toxic relationship has already left you too isolated to get help, a support group or therapist can provide a good place to start. Toxic manipulators work best in isolation, and the more people you can get involved in your life, the more difficult it will be for them to infiltrate your emotional and mental defenses.
Toxic relationships are complex and highly personal. It can be incredibly difficult to both accept the relationship for what it is, and to start making changes. A therapist can help you take the first steps towards understanding why you may be in your situation, and give you the tools you need to assert your independence and find freedom. Make an appointment today.
If you feel that you are trapped in a relationship that threatens you or your loved ones with emotional and physical harm, we encourage you to visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline, or dial 1-800-799-7233 for free confidential assistance.