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Toxic Relationships

Toxic, past negative experiences can become ingrained in our psyche.

Be aware of toxic relationships and vow to make a change.

Be aware of toxic relationships and vow to make a change.

Sometimes you can see a toxic relationship heading your way like a bullet train and at other times they creep up on you so slowly you are unaware you are in one until it’s nearly impossible to get out. Most of us have experienced – or are currently in – one or more toxic relationships. We question how they can be avoided and maybe even if we are the toxic person. We may also ponder why, after experiencing past negative toxic relationships before, we continue to draw them into our lives, or why we are continually vulnerable to their lure by Mr. or Ms. Toxic Agent.

The many faces of toxic relationships

Toxic relationships have many faces; they pop up in both our personal (parent-child, siblings, friendships) and occupational (supervisor-employee, coworkers) lives. You know the type – you lend a family member money, or a co-worker your car; or you care for their children while they go on vacation hoping they will one day return the favor. Unfortunately the toxic person doesn’t pay you back, returns your car damaged with no offer to repair it and asks you to watch their children again next vacation without ever offering to watch yours. It doesn’t happen once, it happens repeatedly in different forms. You feel hurt, taken advantage of and angry – at the offender and yourself. Bottom line is: you are consistently being brought down. You feel “used.”

Past negative time perspective and the toxic relationship

The tendency to unconsciously seek out toxic relationships frequently starts with past negative experiences when we are children and might carry on throughout our lives. They can become so deeply ingrained in the way we think and feel that we don’t realize we are steeped in toxicity until—or hopefully when- someone else points it out. The toxic person in our lives (and maybe it’s us), is generally concerned about themselves and their needs; the relationship is classic codependent. The worse form is when that other is your partner or mate, supposedly there forever!

How so?

Generally in a toxic relationship you don’t bring up how you feel; maybe you don’t want the person to be angry because they hold some sort of power over you, or you are holding on to the dream that one day they will wake up, realize their transgressions and make good. And if you do mention their offense, it’s likely to be a backhanded use of passive-aggressive behavior that only you recognize—so it is ineffectual in changing anything for the better. In a follow up column we’ll delve into passive aggressive behavior and time perspectives. But for purposes of this column, we’ll use the following examples of weenie retaliation in toxic relationships:

What you say: “Wish I had the money to fill in the blank, but I don’t.” (present-centered)

What you meant: “Because you never paid me back that money I lent you!” (past negative)

What you say: “Know of a good auto insurance company because my insurance premium just went up.” (present-centered)

What you meant: “Because you crashed my car and wouldn’t own up to it!” (past negative)

What you say: “We can’t go on that couples retreat because we can’t find a babysitter.” (future negative)

What you meant: “We watched your kids for two weeks but you won’t even offer to watch ours for two days!” (past negative/future negative)

Again, unfortunately, you wish they would pick up on the faux pas but they act like they don’t know what you are talking about. Here are examples of what you might have said to help correct the situation:

“Hey, I think it’s a good idea for us to set up a plan for you to pay back that money I lent you; unless you have it now.”

“How are you planning on paying for the damage to my car?”

“We are wondering if you could watch our kids for a couple of days so we can go on a couples’ retreat. We’d really appreciate it.”

You will open a dialogue to a possible resolution. And if not, you’ll know for sure where you stand in the relationship and make future positive plans to move on.

Five signs you’re in a toxic relationship

In our research for this column, we discovered that author Yvette Bowlin ( distilled the myriad indicators of toxic relationships into the following five signs:

1. It seems like you can’t do anything right – The other person constantly puts you down as not good enough. They mock your personality, and you feel ashamed most of the time. You only feel pardoned when you take on the traits of the person doing the condemning or judging.

2. Everything is about them and never about you – You have feelings too, but the other person won’t hear them. You’re unable to have a two-sided conversation where your opinion is heard, considered, and respected. Instead of acknowledging your feelings, they battle with you until they get the last word.

3. You find yourself unable to enjoy good moments with this person – Every day brings another challenge. It seems as though they are always raising gripes about you. Their attempt to control your behavior is an attempt to control your happiness.

4. You’re uncomfortable being yourself around that person – You don’t feel free to speak your mind. You have to put on a different face just to be accepted by that person. You realize you don’t even recognize yourself anymore.

5. You’re not allowed to grow and change – Whenever you aim to grow and improve yourself, the other person responds with mockery and disbelief. There is no encouragement or support for your efforts. Instead, they keep you stuck in old judgments insisting that you will never be any different than you are now.

If you’re experiencing even just one of these signs, check in with yourself to see if the relationship is doing more damage than good.

Five steps to end a toxic relationship

So how do we get out of toxic relationships? We’ve pared down Borchard’s steps to ending toxic relationships (…) and put our time perspective spin on them:

1. Step out of denial (review past negative behaviors) - Are you energized or drained after spending time with X? Do you want to spend time with X or do you feel like you have to? Do you feel sorry for X? Do you go to X looking for a response that you never get? Do you come away consistently disappointed by X’s comments and behavior? Are you giving way more to the relationship than X? Do you even like X?

2. Identify the perks (discover how you feel in the present) - All relationships, even toxic ones, have hidden benefits. Or why would you stay in them? So identify the perks. Determine what, specifically, you are getting from this relationship. Does X make you feel attractive and sexy? Does helping X with her kids even though it exhausts you relieve your guilt in some twisted way because you feel like your life is easier than hers? Even though X doesn’t treat you well, does she remind you of your verbally abusive mom, and therefore bring you a (toxic) comfort level?

3. Fill the hole (practice selected present hedonism) - Find alternative sources of peace and wholeness - nourish yourself. In other words, do things that make you feel better and in ways so that you don’t have to rely on others. For instance, revisit that project you put on the back burner, learn meditation or yoga, call friends, and remind yourself that you won’t feel this way (sad, angry, upset) forever.

4. Surround yourself with positive people (be pro-social) – Hopefully these folks are working on their boundaries as hard as you are; they aren’t enmeshed in their fair share of toxic relationships and therefore become somewhat toxic themselves. The stuff is contagious. Be smart with whom you choose to hang out.

5. Heal the shame (replace past negative with a bright future positive) – Work toward healing the part of yourself that may be attracting toxic relationships. This may mean exploring past toxic relationships, forgiving yourself for the part you played and realizing that you deserve the right kind of love and attention in order to create a brighter future for yourself.

Let go of the negative past and give love permission to enter your life

Let go of toxic relationships – the past negative people - and experiences and focus on the good things – the past positive experiences; makes plans for a brighter future, and live a fulfilling and more meaningful present.

We leave you with one of our favorite quotes:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel.”

by Maya Angelou.

Resources: by Yvette Bowlin,… by By THERESE J. BORCHARD , www.Worldof

Check out our other Psychology Today blogs to get a fuller appreciation of how to create a more balanced time perspective in your life!

Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at to discover your personal time perspective.

Visit our website, "" \t "_blank", to view a free 20 minute video - The River of Time; you’ll learn self-soothing techniques as well as how to let go of past negatives, work towards a brighter future, and live in a more compassionate present.

See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy "" \o "Psychology Today looks at Psychotherapy" Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing); for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit "" \o "" \t "_blank" and "" \o "" \t "_blank"


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