Managing Difficult and Toxic Relationships During a Pandemic

Having your reality undermined at a time of confusion is unsettling.

Posted Mar 14, 2020 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

Enough information is out there about anxiety and coping with the fears induced by the novel COVID-19 at this point that you may know the drill:

  • Refrain from being on media too often and “panic saturation” from reading the news too much
  • Talk to trusted people and process your fears
  • Try to find a routine of some kind even if you are stuck at home
  • Follow handwashing and other social distancing protocols
  • Seek out your social networks through video chat like FaceTime or Skype
  • Talk to your mental health practitioner about your fears and concerns
  • Ensure you adhere to your psychiatric medications if you are currently taking them and have sufficient supply
  • Exercise at home or in uncrowded places like taking a walk in an uncrowded bit of nature
  • Build mindfulness, meditation, and breathing into your daily life

But there is an issue that isn’t getting as much coverage—and you know it is what I focus on. When you are in any kind of relationship with a difficult, antagonistic, toxic or narcissistic person—the usual rules do not apply. 

How are you supposed to cope with this if you are in a toxic or otherwise difficult relationship (e.g., a relationship with a narcissistic partner, family members, etc.)? Quarantine may mean you are now stuck at home with this person or persons—and things like going to work or school (or them going to work or school) gives you a moment to at least not have to manage the difficult dynamics of these relationships or at least get the support of co-workers or other aspects of your routine that let you get through the day. In addition, you yourself may actually be sick, be worried about other people who are also sick or struggling with self-isolation, or be anxious about other fears including fears about your job, fears about your finances, fears about your health. 

Here’s what is tragic. Your difficult partner, family member, or even supervisor or boss, maybe even more difficult under these conditions, and will not be a source of reassurance. In fact, let’s dispel that hope right away. As I have talked about and written about in the past, one of the most exhausting things about these relationships is the merry-go-round of disappointment. 

Disappointment is stressful, and the last thing you need now is more stress, so do not expect that under conditions of quarantine, isolation or pandemic that all of a sudden, the narcissistic person or people in your life will suddenly become supportive and wise and calm. You are more likely to find that they will be more antagonistic and irritable over the loss of routine, the fact that their entitlement is not getting them to the head of the line at the grocery store, that they may be losing money in the stock market or losing new work and sources of income, and in fact may be oblivious to the human suffering around them, and still focusing on the banal details of their own lives with zero empathy for the disruption and chaos that is unfolding around so many of us. Do not be surprised by that—it is them. They don’t care about anyone else on a good day, why would that all of a sudden begin during a pandemic?

Your concerns may be gaslighted, minimized or trivialized in the face of the epidemic. You may be called “crazy” for being anxious or asking your family members to wash their hands or have to listen to entitled family members go on rants about how they had to wait in line at a store or complain about events being canceled. They may even (bizarrely) blame you for all that is going wrong, or for the fact that there is not any sanitizer in the stores, or for not foreseeing this and filling the house with canned goods months ago. They may not assist with household chores or child care. Or on the flip side, you may need to manage their anxiety while they show no empathy to anyone else while they make the entire COVID-19 situation about them. 

Now you may be stuck in the house with your narcissistic partner, parents, roommate, adult children? You may even be thinking that you are able to deal with getting the damned virus, but not the 24/7 invalidation, emotional abuse, and gaslighting (which is also a stressor that is doing a number on your immune system). 

First of all, use social distancing to your advantage and if there is enough room—sit in another room. Have realistic expectations—they will be difficult, you know that, so when it happens it is not surprising. Do not engage. Keep your responses minimal. Do not personalize their stuff—it’s not about you, it is their core insecurity and demons—don’t make those yours. Get out of the house and take a walk—as long as where you live is not crowded and you do not have symptoms, that is acceptable.

What if they are sick? Current guidelines indicate that they must be quarantined from the other people in the home and use a separate bathroom, but alas—their entitlement may mean that they believe it is OK to cough on you with abandon. If that is the case, then get out of there on the grounds of public health and hopefully you have someplace you can go to. If you do not, then strap a container of sanitizer to you and do your best to keep surfaces clean and stay out of harm’s way. 

What about elderly parents? Especially if they are difficult! Keep them fed, keep them away from people, wear earplugs and ignore their usual nonsense—they will be critical, invalidating. Under conditions of fear, they will be worse. If you do not live with them, check in on them, but with realistic expectations or communicate with whatever other family is willing to step up to the plate.

Difficult bosses? The most toxic bosses out there are keeping offices open unnecessarily and ignoring pleas for public health -this may be particularly the case in small businesses of less than 200 people. I am not a labor attorney and there may be labor law that applies in your area about risk. A tyrannical boss at other times will become diabolical under these conditions as he or she is losing money and has little empathy for employees or clients. Document everything, prepare for the worst, and do not go in if you are sick. 

What if you get sick? This is a tough one because many people fully understand the depth of narcissistic abuse when they finally get sick and the narcissist views you as an inconvenience and can’t be bothered. They may not be willing to help out or do so very begrudgingly which can be unsettling as you are managing the fear of illness. In this situation, stay in touch with your health care provider and local health authorities, get your essential medications and some water and basic food around you, and be prepared that you may need to manage this on your own.

And finally, there have been concerns out there raising the issue that domestic abuse and violence situations are likely to escalate and get worse under these conditions as abusers get frustrated and take it out on their usual targets. Domestic violence programs may be more limited than usual because of all that is unfolding but the resource lines will still have feedback and tips. In the U.S., that number is 800-799-7233 or thehotline.org

When anxiety and fear are high—some may draw together in a healthy manner, but sadly, for those of you in narcissistically abusive relationships, it will be quite the opposite. You may feel that many resources that talk about general anxiety do not speak to you—and you are right, narcissistic abuse is very specific and being gaslighted when you are worried about your health and the world at large is destabilizing.