Managing Toxic Relationships

[1356 words | 6-minute read]

Is there someone in your life you dread encountering: someone whose behaviour is beyond frustrating and actually harmful? This doesn’t necessarily refer to physical harm, although it can. I’m talking about a person who, after spending some time together, leaves you feeling angry or sad or both. This is a toxic relationship and it’s likely you, like most people, are part of many. Utilizing the following steps will allow you to curate a group of people who love and respect you. This will make you a stronger, happier person.

If somebody brings you mostly frustration, it’s time to reevaluate the relationship.

Identifying Toxicity

One of my best friends in high school, Joe*, was a lot of fun to hang around with. In high school. After I moved out of my parents’ house and started attending University, we continued hanging out. But Joe started taking a lot of liberties.

He assumed that because I had my own place and he did not, that he could show up unannounced and crash on my couch whenever he wanted. I had a job and he didn’t, so naturally, I was always on the hook for the bar tab whenever we went out. If we were staying in, I was responsible for supplying the alcohol. And the snacks. And apparently, in the case of one demand that thankfully never came to fruition, my bed. So he could hook up with a stranger at the bar we were at (don’t worry, he was kind enough to buy her a couple drinks…on my tab). This was one of the rare moments I put down my foot. Later that same night he spilt wing sauce on my carpet and negated to tell me. He left before I found out.

It’s easy to Joe is not a particularly great friend. It eventually got to the point where he would show up with an empty gas tank and I would have to give him gas money just to get him out of my apartment. I hated getting together with Joe, but I was afraid of losing a friend. After all, he was my fun buddy from high school!

The reality was, Joe had stopped being my friend a long time earlier. He became a taker, with no thought for me or my feelings. To him, I had become a couch and an open tab. But I’m to blame, too; to me, Joe was less a friend than a connection to my adolescence.

Relationships need to be more than mutually-beneficial in order to function properly. They also require mutual respect. Eventually, Joe and I were unable to resolve simple arguments because neither of us had respect for each other.

On the other hand, my wife and I have been able to weather some incredibly taxing situations because we support each other. I’m willing to go to any lengths for Dominique, because I know she appreciates my effort and would happily do the same for me.

At a certain point, I began keeping track of debits and credits in my friendship with Joe. In a healthy relationship, this shouldn’t be the case. You should be willing to help each other because you value each other as teammates instead of opponents.


Communicating Expectations

Some relationships turn toxic due to a lack of communication. When I felt like Joe was beginning to take advantage of me or acting toward me in a way I didn’t like, I should have spoken to him about it. It’s much easier after the fact to identify the tipping point than it is during the situation. That’s why it’s important to step back periodically and assess your relationships.

Do your friends, loved ones, and coworkers know how you want to be treated? If a co-worker constantly passes work onto you, and you don’t voice dissatisfaction, he may assume you’re okay with it. Maybe he thinks he’s paying you a compliment by giving you projects he deems too difficult or important for himself. Wife asks you to put the kids to bed every night? She may think you’re faster at getting them to sleep and that way you’ll have more time to spend together.

You may think people should just know that certain behaviour is poor. But, if you haven’t voiced disapproval, how are others supposed to know? Some may even look at the previous examples and see them as completely understandable–they’ve done that before. Just like you hate mint chocolate chip ice cream or love Cardi B, it isn’t the case for everyone.

Try to put yourself on the other side: someone suddenly snaps at you for doing something you thought was completely acceptable. More than that–you thought the other person liked it! After all, how could you know otherwise? He never brought it up.

Be aware that when you begin communicating your expectations, you will likely be met with opposition. And understandably so. You’re doing more than asking them to change their behaviour–you’re telling them what they do is hurtful. Would you like to hear that? Imagine the emotions you would feel: anger about being criticized; sadness about having hurt someone; confusion about why they haven’t said anything until now. The longer a habit has been formed, the harder it is to change. Especially if you were the one who, indeliberately, helped reinforce it.

If you’re finally fed up with how people are treating you, you have three options:

  1. Ask others to change their behaviour and be patient while they adjust. Do this in cases in which you want to save the relationship (friends, significant others) or need to (coworkers, bosses).
  2. Dissolve the relationship, communicating the reason(s) why. This may be after you have made repeated attempts to verbalize your displeasure and the other party is unwilling or unable to change behaviour. Some relationships are better graduating into the best memories of those people–while you can still remember the good times.
  3. Ghost. In extreme situations, or if an individual isn’t worth the time or effort, block his number, delete him from your social media, and ignore any oeuvres he may make.

Whatever your decision, it’s time to begin…

Discover others’ motivations through open dialogue.

Embracing Quality over Quantity

It’s likely you have close friends you never seem to have time for. And, depending on your schedule, that may really be true. But if you don’t have enough time for people you like, why spend any with people you don’t? Remember Joe? I begrudgingly spent time with him, at the expense of people whose company I enjoyed. People who liked me for me. While I was angrily picking up the bar tab for the sixth time in a row, I could have been enjoying a nice evening with a number of other friends.

This goes for family, too. If, after communicating your expectations, your loved ones choose not to change behaviours, begin limiting time spent together. Outside the most extreme of circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend ghosting on close family members. That doesn’t mean you can’t begin limiting their access to you. If you can’t do an entire weekend with a family member, try an evening. If even dinner seems too daunting, try lunch somewhere neutral. Explain that as she improves her behaviour toward you and your relationship improves, you can spend more time together. Put the ball in her court and make her accountable.

While you fix or ditch toxic relationships, you should spend more time with people you like. Or make some new friends, ensuring you properly communicate from the beginning. Flag behaviour in a good-natured and agreeable way. Phrases like, “I don’t like it when people…” as opposed to “You need to stop doing…” After all, these are your feelings–you need to take ownership over what you do and do not like.

More isn’t always better. A tight group of good people can give you the happiness and strength to be the best version of yourself.

Your time is valuable and you shouldn’t waste it on people who don’t respect you. The pain of losing a friend or significant other will be replaced quickly with much more powerful feelings of happiness and relief. Remember to be honest and open with behaviour you do and do not like. Someone unwilling to respect you is forfeiting access to you. Spend your time on people who care about you.

*Joe is an incredibly fake name.

Managing Toxic Relationships