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Detox Your Relationships

Helpful hints for dealing with a toxic person.

Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock
Source: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

The term toxic is defined as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The word is often used to describe chemicals, but it is also commonly used to describe people and relationships.

Most of us have been involved in a toxic relationship at one time or another in our lifetimes. We all have been in the company of others who did not act for the greater good of anyone besides themselves. Toxicity comes in all forms: name-calling, physical abuse, lying, gossip and all the internal turmoil that results from being in an unhealthy relationship. Whether it is a personal relationship involving a family member, lover or a friend, or a professional relationship involving a co-worker or a boss, toxic relationships can damage and leave long-lasting effects on the person involved in one.

Why it matters

Relationships are two-way streets that involve helping each other throughout the journey without any expectation of gaining anything in return except for a lending hand when the tables are turned. Whether you have been pressured into lending out your apartment to a friend only to be backstabbed weeks later or have worked diligently to help a co-worker obtain a raise without the person showing any form of gratitude, these disappointments can be quite heart-breaking and may even cause trust and self-esteem issues further down the road.

As humans, we are social beings who thrive on companionship and deteriorate on loneliness, according to psychological studies. Entering into a toxic relationship can result in severe inner conflict. So how do we avoid toxic relationships or, better yet, mend them? And when should we decide to walk away from them? Before we are able to make a decision, we must first recognize the signs of a toxic relationship.

When trying to determine whether you need to take a step back from a toxic friendship or romantic relationship, take some time to think about the person showing the toxic behavior. Take a step back and look at a 360-degree view of the person’s life, so that you have a clearer picture of this individual. Ask yourself the questions outlined below.

How does the person treat others?

Look at how the person treats the people closest to him or her. Does he or she speak badly about family members, or display signs of aggression toward parents, friends or co-workers? Is the person in constant conflict with other people? You may feel as though this person is always coming to you complaining about others, whether it’s a constant fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or an inability to get along with his or her mother. Is this person using you as an emotional punching bag to take out his or her frustrations and conflicts with others on you? If so, then you may want to take a step back to gain insight into this situation and re-evaluate the purpose of this relationship. The best decision may be to walk away if the person lacks insight and is unwilling to change.

How does the person deal with conflict?

In general, most people do not enjoy dealing with conflict. It can be difficult to communicate your feelings and make yourself vulnerable in a relationship when you have disagreements. However, relationships do grow as you learn to deal with and resolve conflict. If a person refuses to address issues or refuses to communicate or apologize for his or her actions, then the individual may be portraying toxic behavior. Additionally, if this person acts spiteful after the conflict and spreads rumors or speaks poorly about you, then that is a major red flag. A person who truly cares for you will try to make amends and not sever the relationship. You can learn a lot about someone’s character by observing how he or she deals with conflict.

How does the person make you feel when you are together?

When you are together, does this person talk about himself or herself the whole time? Does he or she verbally put down others or gossip? Does the person make you feel happy about spending time together, or do you feel burdened? Take a moment to reflect on the time you spend with this person to determine how you feel after each experience. If you feel more miserable than happy when you spend time together, then you may need to set personal boundaries and take a step back from this person in order to protect yourself. This is not selfish, but rather an act of self-love.

What are the person’s past experiences with relationships?

Like the saying goes, history repeats itself. Although people do grow and mature, their past experiences truly shape them. Does this person have close long-term friends? Or does the individual sever relationships quickly? What happened with the person’s past relationships? Were they toxic? Although it is important not to pry into one’s past, allow your partner to be open and share his or her past with you. Learning about someone’s past may take time, but it can be telling of how future relationships might work out. People often do learn from their mistakes and make improvements within their relationships, but it is common for history to repeat itself. It is important that you are aware of this person’s past behavior and make mental notes to determine whether he or she has taken the proper steps to make positive changes.

Does this individual make you feel important?

Does this person go out of his or her way to cause you grief, or does the individual hurt you when you are already down? Does the person trivialize things that are important to you? Does he or she ignore your requests and needs? If you are having more stressful and bad moments than good moments when you are with someone, this may be a sign of a toxic relationship.

No easy solutions

Recognizing and admitting that you are in a toxic relationship may be difficult, as many people are blinded by love and temporary happiness. Additionally, many people feel they may be lonely without that friend, lover or sibling. They might even intellectually recognize a toxic person or situation, but their emotions end up having more influence over their decisions than their intellect.

In fact, many people who grew up in toxic homes find it hard to accept loving relationships, because they’re not familiar with them. In these cases, familiarity breeds comfort rather than contempt. It is easier for others to see the toxicity. One of the most difficult therapeutic problems I see is helping patients who have been preyed upon, or “toxified,” to accept a kind and loving experience without fleeing. They are attracted to what is familiar – more toxic relationships, which they often experience as normal. It may be scary for them to cut these ties. It’s sad, but true, that they may even believe what the toxic person said about them – that they’re stupid, ugly, worthless, or whatever. The good news is that this toxicity can be reversed with therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

This series will detail more about how and when to leave toxic relationships and how to build healthy relationships.

Contributed by Kristen Fuller, M.D., Sovereign Health

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