Toxic Relationships: How to Identify and How to Manage

There are times when you need someone to talk to, someone you can count on. Sometimes you need your support system, whether it’s your family or your best friend. But what happens when you begin to dread your phone ringing? You start to question everything you do while in their company? You may start to think that something must be wrong with you. They are your friends and family. You should be happy to have them in your life, right?

Think again. You might have found yourself in what is known as a toxic relationship. What exactly is a toxic relationship?

Photo by Obie Fernandez on Unsplash.

According to Michele Carpentier, a licensed mental health clinical counselor with more than 30 years experience, this dilemma is common. “Any relationship can become toxic.” There are multiple definitions of toxic relationships. One way to define it is if one or both parties aren’t open, supportive or honest. Another way to realize if the relationship is toxic is if the relationship is preventing personal growth. This could be with a romantic partner, a friend or family member, or even a working relationship between a boss and employee. 

“This person could be dishonest, only tell the other person what they want to hear or the person may have a mental illness of some kind, such as narcissism,” said Carpentier, director of Special Programs at SUNY Plattsburgh.

According to Carpentier, the top five signs or red flags to watch out for are:

  1. Dishonesty/Lying
  2. Controlling behavior
  3. Avoidance when talking about certain topics.
  4. Insecurity. This is very common in a child/parent relationship. 
  5. Codependency. This is an all-about-me type of romantic relationship.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

When you’re dealing with a toxic relationship in a family situation, you need to compartmentalize. That means setting limits on how much time you spend around those family members. However, some people can’t do that, so you have to evaluate your physical, emotional and mental being

“You have to assess if the relationship is healthy for you,” Carpentier said. That will help you to make the final decision of either limiting your time with the other person or cutting them out of your life for good. 

Ashley Durocher was more specific on the subject. Durocher is a licensed mental health counselor and a nationally certified counselor who graduated from the SUNY Plattsburgh clinical mental health counseling program in 2010. She had previously worked in education and foster care. 

“Toxic is more a layman’s term and not a clinical term,” Durocher wrote.  “The terms we tend to use in the clinical field are unhealthy relationships or relationships with boundary issues.”

Durocher, who is associate director of Student Support Services at SUNY Plattsburgh, listed some characteristics of unhealthy relationships:

  • Not validating, listening to or accepting other people’s viewpoints, thoughts or feelings.
  • Trying to change the way someone behaves or feels. 
  • Making others feel guilty for doing something that is neutral. 
  • Isolating the person from other friends, family and supporters.
  • An unhealthy reliance on the partner to make any decision.
  • A partner that is overly critical.
  • Hostility
  • Manipulation
  • Disrespect
  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse

“It is difficult to give general advice on how to get out of an unhealthy relationship because there are so many safety and personal factors involved in such a decision. No two unhealthy relationships will look the same,” Durocher wrote. Safety is the most important consideration.

Durocher urges everyone to be mindful of the warning signs mentioned above. “Don’t pursue a relationship if you recognize any of these traits,” she said. Having a support system, knowing what agencies and who to contact that can provide various types of support are also important factors if someone does find themself in an unhealthy relationship.

 “A pattern often develops where the partner will oscillate between acting loving and caring and blames, denies or deflects any wrongdoing, then goes back to controlling and manipulating behavior, which can make things very confusing for the partner,” she wrote.

“Healthy relationships are built on mutual trust, respect, reciprocity, open and honest communication, consent, and shared decision making and problem solving,” she wrote.  No relationship is perfect but communication is key. If that becomes a problem, then one might consider that they are in an unhealthy relationship.

Dr. Andrew Christy, who has completed his doctoral studies in social and personality psychology at Texas A&M University, specializes in interpersonal relationships.

“My main areas of expertise and scholarly interest are in identity/the self and psychological well-being/happiness.” Christy said. “Both of these are areas of psychology that are heavily impacted by relationships, so to that extent I do know a thing or two about relationships.”

Defining and Recognizing “Toxic” Relationships

Christy, an assistant professor of social and personality psychology at SUNY Plattsburgh said that the term toxic relationships is not used by psychologists. However, there are scholarly concepts that are similarly related to the well known expression. Psychologists do recognize abusive relationships. This type of relationship can be considered toxic.

“An abusive relationship exists when at least one person in the relationship is violent, aggressive, or manipulative toward the other person,” Christy wrote. One example is physical abuse, like in domestic relationships. Abuse can also be verbal, tearing down someone’s self-esteem, like with bullies. There is also financial abuse, keeping someone’s own money from them without due cause. 

Relationships can go bad for other reasons outside of abuse, too. The quality of what happens in a relationship can determine its course, such as mutual respect. Mutual respect in this instance means “the extent to which both people in the relationship are respectful towards and supportive of one another,” Christy wrote.  A healthy relationship of any sort involves give and take, helping and being there for each other when needed. So without mutual respect, understanding  and similar amounts of effort, ergo give and take, this can be seen as a red flag. 

“For example, if they seem to expect the other person to always be there for them when needed and to conform to their expectations, but feel no obligation to return the favor and be there for the other person when they need help or support,” Christy wrote, describing this type of unhealthy relationship.

“Another important indicator of relationship quality,” Christy wrote, “is patterns of communication which involves honesty and openness.” 

If two people feel like they can’t be completely honest with one another, that might suggest something is amiss in their relationship, like cheating.  Depending on the relationship, communication isn’t the most important thing. It’s more important that communication is clear, honest, and respectful when it occurs, even if that isn’t extremely often. But of course, responsiveness in communication is important too; if one person is making an effort to reach out and the other person is unresponsive, that can become one of those imbalances in effort that might signal a problem. This can be known as being ghosted.

“Related to these considerations of mutual respect, one of the biggest red flags in any relationship is when one person expresses contempt for the other,” Christy wrote. That’s when the distraught person feels like they are unimportant or unworthy of being taken seriously.

Nonverbal behaviors like eye-rolling are also common expressions of contempt. This is known as a lack of regard and can make one of the people in the relationship feel like their opinion doesn’t matter. So communication is key, especially in this situation. If that doesn’t work, then it may be time to reevaluate the relationship and decide if it’s worth continuing. But stopping contact altogether might not be the best thing. 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Getting Out of Toxic Relationships

“Depending on the degree of toxicity and the nature of the relationship, ending or leaving the relationship may not always be the best course of action. If the relationship is important to you, then making some effort to preserve it is worthwhile before ending the relationship altogether.” Christy wrote.

Certainly in cases of abuse, it is quite rare for abusers to change their ways. So if you have experienced abuse in a relationship, it is definitely justifiable to remove that person from your life without trying to salvage the relationship. But in cases where there are relational problems that fall short of abuse, it is usually worth trying to communicate about the problems and see if you can improve the situation before taking the step of ending the relationship.

Whether you are trying to improve a relationship or simply want to end one, honest communication is helpful. It is usually the most constructive way to communicate about specific behaviors or events and how you felt about them. This gives the other person more concrete feedback than saying things at a broad level about their personality or character. Be clear and concise, direct. 

If this hasn’t worked for you in the past, then don’t bother wasting more time and energy. Walk away. 

“Most of the time, with friendships,” Christy wrote, “it is more common for friends to gradually drift apart or for one person to just ghost the other than for there to be a friend breakup, where the friendship ends after a discussion of what isn’t working out.” 

When it comes to friendships, long conversations regarding your feelings don’t always happen, but if the friendship is crucial to you, it is generally worth the effort to have these conversations.This allows for the possibility to save the friendship. Even if the friendship comes to an end, it gives each person a clearer understanding of why that happened, which may be helpful in other friendships now or in the future.

“Family relationships are often the most difficult to really leave or end, since those people will still be your relatives even if you choose not to associate with them anymore. In relationships with parents, it may be particularly hard for children to communicate honestly, even as adults, since parents are typically the authority figures in the relationship. The idea that parents are accountable to their children runs against that typical dynamic,” Christy wrote.

When it comes to having an important discussion with a family member, especially of this nature, it may be helpful to start out by making it clear that you love your family member as long as that’s true, and you really want the relationship to be as good as it can be. Starting from that place might help make everyone involved a little less defensive and more invested in figuring things out together. 

“With family members,” Christy wrote, “it is also very easy to get overly fixated on the past, since there is often a lot of history there, with longstanding dynamics that have developed over many years.” While some discussion of past events is necessary,  it is important to remember to return your attention to the present and future, since that’s where change is possible. 

But like in friendships or romantic partnerships, if things in your family relationships don’t get better even after multiple attempts to communicate honestly and resolve issues mutually, then you may need to distance yourself from the relationship.

It’s hard for most of us to completely sever ties with family members, especially parents or siblings, but even if it’s not possible to completely end that relationship, you can limit how much time you spend around them. Don’t let them make you feel guilty. 

So what needs to happen in a relationship is this. Listen to not only your heart, but your head and realize how you feel. Are you comfortable with the people around you?

If not, change what happens. It’s your life, don’t let others bring you down.

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