Do any of these situations sound familiar?

  • You’ve been friends for years and she’s always been prickly, but now you’re noticing that her zingers are louder than ever and aimed directly at you.
  • Your co-worker is a show-off who’s always dismissed your suggestions and ideas, and now he’s actively disparaging you to anyone who’ll listen.
  • Your partner says mean things to you, and when you object, he either says “You’re too sensitive,” or stonewalls and refuses to talk.
  • Your parent has amped up the volume on putting you down, no matter what. How should you react?
pkchai/Shutterstock
Source: pkchai/Shutterstock

You wake up one morning and it dawns on you that you’re not holding your own in a problem relationship. In fact, you are getting trounced, pounced, and hurt. It doesn’t matter whether the person involved is a parent, sibling, co-worker, friend, spouse, or lover—or whether they’re manipulative, bullying, combative, or a garden-variety narcissist trying to suck you into his or her orbit. What matters is that you don’t know what to do. You recognize that the connection isn’t healthy or good because it makes you feel lousy, but somehow, you’re stuck.

Not everyone gets stuck in this way—not for long, at least. Some of us are more skilled at recognizing toxic behaviors and are more self-assured about how to deal with them. These tend to be people who have a secure attachment style, see themselves accurately, and are confident about their self-worth. They need and want relationships and they know the real deal from the cheap knock-off. That’s not true of an insecurely attached person who doesn’t have strong mental representations of what a healthy relationship looks like, and has problems with self-esteem and managing his or her emotions. These people are most likely to find themselves unable to act when they're enmeshed in a toxic relationship.

Here are eight strategies you can use to manage run-ins with people who seem to enjoy raining on your parade, need the upper hand, or just like feeling good by making you feel bad.

1. Recognize the traits that make you easy prey.

Assessing what you bring to the party doesn’t mean taking responsibility or the blame for someone’s mistreatment of you—keep this difference in mind. Is it your need to please or your fear of rocking the boat that keeps you tongue-tied when your friend makes you the victim of her bad mood? Use cool processing to think about the interactions you’ve had with the person that make you unhappy—focusing on why you felt as you did, not what you felt—and see if you can discern a pattern. Insecurely attached daughters often confuse someone’s need to control and grandstand with strength and perseverance, and can easily find themselves ensnared by someone toxic. If that’s the case, you need to pay attention.

2. Explore your reactivity.

Again, without taking the blame for the dynamic, you should look at both the degree to which you overreact and under-react in the relationship; either can unwittingly intensify the dynamic and keep it going. A controlling or bullying person will regard your under-reaction as permission to keep treating you in precisely the same way. People with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style tend to be hyper-vigilant about cues that the relationship is going south and often become angry and vituperative when threatened; this kind of overreaction is likely to make a narcissist feel powerful and inspire him or her to keep playing games.

Instead, work on managing your emotions and set some goals for yourself in terms of handling the relationship differently. Use “If/Then” thinking to embolden your implementation of your plans. Prepare by focusing on what you will do if an exchange happens, using the “If X, then Y” formula. For example, “If my friend makes a nasty remark, then I’m going to say, ‘Why would you say something so hurtful?'” or “If my mother denies what she said to me, then I will simply say,’ You can’t browbeat me into believing that. It didn’t happen.’” This isn’t easy and it takes practice, but standing up for your perceptions is important.

3. Trust your gut.

One reason insecurely attached people stay in hurtful relationships is a lack of trust in themselves or their judgment. If your default position is to always rationalize toxic behavior (“He really didn’t mean what he said; it was just the heat of the moment”) or to give the person the benefit of the doubt (“She didn’t realize how hurtful her gesture was; once it’s explained to her, I’m sure she’ll come around”), this is the moment to stop and realize why you’re doing the excusing. If you find yourself falling back into the pattern of making excuses or rationalizing toxic behavior, stop. 

4. Beware of the sunk cost fallacy.

What's keeping you in this relationship anyway? The thought of what you’ve put into it? Your fear of loss and being alone? As the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky shows, humans are famously loss-averse, and prefer to hold onto what they have in the short term—even if giving up a little will get them more in the long run. Additionally, they prefer the known to the unknown, even if the former makes them unhappy. All of that yields the most pernicious unconscious pattern, called the sunk cost fallacy, which is often responsible for keeping us in places we ought not to be, including toxic relationships. This is the habit of mind that focuses on what you have invested in something—it could be emotion, time, effort, or even money—and keeps you in place so as not to lose that investment, Of course, whatever the “investment” is, you can’t retrieve it under any circumstances—whether it’s the years you put into a job or a relationship, or the money you put into your failing car or venture—so there’s no real logic to the thinking. This fallacy has been used to justify wars, cars that have long since outlived their usefulness, and all manner of lousy relationships and marriages.

If you catch yourself thinking about what you have sunk into the relationship with a toxic person, instead start thinking about where you might find yourself if you let go. That word “fallacy" says it all.

5. Recognize the power of intermittent reinforcement.

You may consider yourself more of a “glass half empty” kind of person than the “glass half full“ type, but research shows that, generally, humans are overly optimistic. We tend to see a close loss more as a “near win.” This is what keeps people at slot machines: When three of the same symbol line up, they take it as a sign that the fourth will show up shortly. There's an evolutionary reason behind this: When the challenges of life were largely physical—think hunter with bow and arrow—staying encouraged enough to keep going and turn the near win into a real one was a good thing. Additionally, we’re more motivated to hang in, paradoxically enough, when we get what we want some of the time.

That’s what B.F. Skinner showed with three very hungry rats, each in its own cage, with a lever that delivered food when pressed. In the first cage, the lever always delivered food and, with that understanding, the rat went about its business. In the second cage, the lever never delivered food; that rat absorbed the lesson and lost interest. But in the third cage, the lever worked randomly and the rat was fixated and totally hooked. He pushed at the lever constantly: That’s intermittent reinforcement.

Alas, this works in human relationships, too: When a toxic person actually does something nice, your heart leaps, your optimism ramps up, and you think, “We are turning a corner!” That locks you in for that much longer, just like that rat. "Now and again" does not a pattern make, and you need to keep that in mind.

6. Guard those boundaries or plan an exit strategy.

If the toxic person is someone you can’t avoid coming into contact with—a co-worker, a neighbor, your mother-in-law, or someone in your social circle—set boundaries for behavior and the kind of contact you’re going to have. Insecurely attached people often have trouble recognizing what a healthy boundary looks like and don’t always know how to negotiate them. You don’t need to be rude, abrasive, or accusatory; in fact, it’s important that you aren’t, but that you are firm and decisive. If it’s a work situation, go through the appropriate channels and put it in writing. To a co-worker, you might say, “I’m okay with criticism but I’d prefer if you not make it personal. My being overweight has nothing to do with my performance.” Or to the mother-in-law who makes jokes at your expense, “I’m sorry but that’s not funny. I may not be the most organized housekeeper, but my family seems to be thriving nonetheless.” For the toxic others you can ultimately give the boot, plan an exit strategy.

7. Anticipate push-back or retaliation.

It’s likely that the toxic person in your life has his or her own “investment” in the connection—he likes controlling you, or she likes the lift her power over you gives her—so once you start setting boundaries and confronting the individual, don’t expect him to go gently into the night. The chances are good that he or she will redouble efforts to keep the dynamic going by manipulating, gaslighting, or spreading rumors about you, to gain the upper hand. This is especially true if you move to end a marriage to a narcissist who will want to retain the sense of having won and triumphed at all costs.

8. Don’t normalize abusive behavior.

This is especially important if you’ve been in a toxic relationship for a long time or you grew up around people who used words as weapons. They may have demeaned, marginalized, or dismissed you or other family members and then rationalized their behavior by saying, “They’re only words"; denying that they were ever said (a form of gaslighting); or asserting that the real problem was your sensitivity. Refusing to answer you or ignoring you is also abusive behavior of the silent variety. It’s clear to most everyone that lying is toxic but so is telling partial truths or a carefully edited version of events and then, once challenged, blaming you for not asking the right questions. (This was a ploy of a toxic person I knew who also happened to be a lawyer.) The bottom line is that emotional and verbal abuse are never OK.

This piece draws on the research done for two of my books: Quitting—Why We Fear It and Why We Shouldn’t—in Life, Love, and Work (New York: Da Capo, 2015) and Mean Mothers (New York: William Morrow, 2009).

Copyright © 2016 Peg Streep

Read Mean Mothers and visit me on Facebook.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

8 Signs of a Toxic Friendship is a reply by Susan Heitler Ph.D.

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