Asa Don Brown Ph.D.

Towards Recovery

Toxic Relationships

Being aware of the effects of a dysfunctional relationship

Posted Sep 26, 2017

Dr. Asa Don Brown
Source: Dr. Asa Don Brown

From the backstabbing co-worker to the meddling sister-in-law, you are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead. Take control and choose to focus on    what is important in your life. Those who cannot live fully often become destroyers of life.   ~Anais Nin

A toxic relationship is any relationship that is unfavorable to you or others. The foundations of any relationship, healthy or not, are most commonly established upon mutual admiration and respect, but can, in time, become remarkably unhealthy. It is the poisonous atmosphere that distinguishes a merely bad or troublesome relationship from a toxic relationship. Toxic relationships can prevent those involved from living a productive and healthy life. 

Toxic relationships can be caused by two polar opposite personality types. The toxicity is caused by the incompatibility of the persons involved in the relationship. In some cases, there is no one necessarily to blame for the toxicity; rather, the toxicity is caused by the inability to commune and establish healthy boundaries, conversations, and communication. 

Not all toxic relationships are caused by two unhealthy people. It does not always take two to tango. In some cases, unhealthy individuals target and prey upon others for their own personal needs and gratification. It is a slanted desire for a relationship. The individual who is preying is seeking to emotionally and psychologically dehydrate others, removing whatever is possible for their own greedy benefits. Such individuals have a manipulative style, and will frequently triangulate and maneuver their way into any relationship that they perceive as beneficial. 

People who are toxic are rarely aware of their own toxicity. They are too self-absorbed and preoccupied with their own emotions, interests, needs, and goals to be aware of the needs, goals, interests, and emotions of others. 

Asa Don Brown
Source: Asa Don Brown

Toxic relationships are:

  • Unfavorable — Toxic relationships lack the expression of approval or emotional support.
  • Unhealthy — Such relationships are imbalanced, unfavorable, and unaware. 
  • Unwholesome — They are characterized as lacking any moral, ethical, or positive principles.
  • Noxious — The harm of toxic relationships is that they are not only unpleasant to be around, but are also poisonous, leading to an emotional, psychological, and possibly physical death. 
  • Hazardous — Toxic relationships are not conducive to life, and are most commonly centered on high-risk behaviors, emotions, and outcomes. 
  • Poisonous — When a toxic relationship becomes poisonous, it is attacking the very nature of the persons involved. It is not uncommon for such poison to prove malicious and extremely painful for all others who encounter the relationship. 
  • Deadly — Unfortunately, toxic relationships can be hazardous for one’s health. They have led to the purposeful harm of self and others. 
  • Injurious — Toxic personality types are frequently malicious, conniving, immoral, conspiring, triangulating, and unwilling to recognize the needs or welfare of others. 

Psychopaths and Other Toxic Personalities

Not all persons who are toxic are psychopaths, but those who are psychopaths can have the gravest effect upon you, themselves, and others: “Psychopaths are very effective at masking their selves from those they wish to manipulate or con” (Babiak and Hare 2007, 67). Psychopaths are people suffering from a chronic psychological disorder. The personality of a psychopath is often impulsive, imposing, extravagant, flamboyant, resplendent, swanky, and, most commonly, pretentious. Such individuals are rarely aware of how they affect others. It is not uncommon for psychopaths to have an overly inflated sense of self and an unrealistic set of expectations of others. The psychopath’s traits often encompass superficial, grandiose, deceitful, self-loving, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, conceited, self-centered, and egotistical styles. In a majority of cases, psychopaths are narcissistic, demonstrating behaviors of an antisocial personality. 

Psychopaths are rarely in touch with their own feelings, emotional well-being, and psychological needs. They are individuals who lack such personal insight, and they commonly lack empathy for themselves and others as well. It is rare for a psychopath to acknowledge when they are wrong or to accept personal responsibility. Psychopaths are individuals who crave the admiration, attention, and acceptance of others, but will never reveal their need for approval. It is essential that psychopaths receive psychotherapy and treatment for their mental conditions. 

Why would anyone knowingly want to befriend an antisocial, psychopathic personality type? McCoy explains, “It is easy to become entranced by them. They are the darling, high-maintenance sports cars of the manipulators” (McCoy 2006, 107). Psychopaths are extremely concerned with their appearance and how they are being portrayed by others. If a psychopath feels that they are being described, tagged, or designated any label other than a desired identity, they will do whatever is necessary to reverse or redeem their character. Likewise, it is important to remember that psychopathic individuals are like anyone else; they too deserve the right to be befriended, loved, and admired. If a psychopathic individual receives psychotherapy, they are capable of gaining control over their own deviant behavior, allowing them to lead a healthy and positive life. 

Toxic Relationships 

Toxic relationships are not always made up of psychopaths or people with psychological conditions or symptomatology. Toxic relationships may be made up of good people with bad or poor relations. 

Importantly, toxic relationships can be made up of poor choices, bad decisions, and wrong turns in life. Toxic relationships are like a good pasta that has been overcooked. An overcooked pasta may have started off as eatable, but in time, if too much heat is applied, a good, eatable pasta becomes barely tolerable or unable to be consumed.

How Do You Know If You Are in a Toxic Relationship?

There are many warning signs that may indicate you have entered a toxic relationship. The following are a few questions to engage your thoughts and conversations:

Are you in a toxic relationship?

1. How does this person make you feel?

2. Do you feel safe in the presence of the person?

3. Do you feel your children, partners, or others are safe?

4. Have you ever felt emotional or psychological distress when interacting with the person?

5. Do you feel that you are on guard around this individual? 

6. Have you ever been caught in the web of their triangulation? 

7. Is the person manipulative or conniving? 

8. Have you ever felt the person may push moral, ethical, or legal boundaries?

9. Do you ever feel as though the person adds unnecessary challenges to your life?

10. Do you feel emotionally drained after dealing with the person? 

An Inability to Leave the Relationship or a Desire to Repair the Relationship

What if you want to repair a toxic relationship? If so, then you have some decisions to make. Are you willing to succumb to the negativity of the relationship? Are you willing to endure the anxieties, stress, and troubles that might engulf the relationship? 

It is important to ask yourself, “What am I gaining from this relationship?” If it is a kin, coworker, or desired friendship, “How can I bring or return the relationship to health, happiness, and wholeness?” What are you willing to sacrifice, if an individual within the relationship is unwilling to seek out health? Are you willing to sacrifice your own safety? Are you willing to sacrifice the well-being and safety of your children, spouse, or others? 

Reaching a Healthy Relationship

If you are experiencing a toxic relationship, but feel a need to maintain the connection, you should consider seeking a professional for therapy. 

Any healthy relationship involves work, discipline, motivation, purpose, intent, and desire. If a relationship has experienced health in the past, it is possible to return it to a healthy, happy, and prosperous climate. Notably, if a relationship has never experienced a healthy atmosphere, it may not be possible to achieve such a climate. Nevertheless, you should act as an investigator, deciding whether the relationship has the potential to reach a healthy climate, the probability of achieving a healthy level, and the possibility of everyone on board participating in and working toward a healthy atmosphere. It is important to recognize that all therapy will take time, patience, understanding, compassion, empathy, and care. If you expect to return a dysfunctional relationship to health through an expedited approach, the likelihood of achieving your objective is slim. 

Patience is the ability to wait and calmly preserve. We all grow impatient, but some people have more trouble waiting than others do. We tend to forget that all good things take time.  ~ John Wooden

If you're trying to return to better days within the relationship, then you may be returning to the same problems that you previously experienced. Rather, you should reach for a newness within your dysfunctional relationship. You should seek to obtain new insights, new communication styles and strategies, and new problem-solving skills. Do not expect to live as before, but rather expect to live a life better than you have ever known. 

Dysfunctional relationships can cause someone to feel stifled, manipulated, or downcast. The other person can cause them to literally feel as though they are being smothered, trapped, and oppressed. In many cases, a toxic person may have a major psychological diagnostic, such as narcissism or borderline personality disorder, but this is not to say that their behavior is excusable. Like all of us, toxic individuals should be held responsible for their behaviors and attitudes. 

Asa Don Brown
Source: Asa Don Brown

It is not uncommon for someone to stay in a toxic relationship out of simple obligation. The obligation is most certainly established as a codependent relationship. People who are in codependent relationships are dependent because of physical, psychological, or emotional need. Codependent individuals are emotionally and psychologically reliant on their partner. They may be reliant on their partner out of obligation, but in a majority of cases, codependent individuals are reliant on their partner for financial support, and/or they may have a major addiction, illness, or physical or psychological disorder. Those who are codependent have a great fear that the provider will abandon them; therefore, they are willing to put up with almost anything in order to feel safe. Likewise, if children are involved, they may fear the provider may abandon them or try gaining full custody of the children. 

While less common, the toxic person may be the recipient of care and support. In such cases, the provider may feel a sense of obligation to the person for whom they are providing care and support. They may fear leaving the person, because the person is ill-equipped to support and/or care for themselves. They may fear that the individual will intentionally harm themselves. The provider may also be concerned with the welfare of their children. Will their children be safe with this toxic individual? 


Author:     Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.


Twitter: DrAsaDonBrown


The article was originally published for the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, CCPA.    


Babiak, P. & Hare, R. D. (2007) Snakes in suits, When psychopaths go to work. New York, NY:  HarperCollins 

Block, J. D. (2003) Naked intimacy, How to increase true openness in your relationship. New York, NY:  The McGraw-Hill 

Brown, A. D. (2010) Waiting to Live, Bloomington, IN: IUniverse

McCoy, D. (2006) The manipulative man, Identify his behavior, Counter the abuse, Regain control. Avon, MA: Adams Media 

Wall, C. L. (2004) The courage to trust, A guide to building deep and lasting relationships. Oakland, CA:  New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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