Most of us try to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We buy organic produce if we can afford it and we read the labels on the foods we buy. We worry about air quality, drink lots of water, and try to get enough exercise. But what some of us don't realize is that relationships with toxic people can be just as unhealthy as processed foods, smoke-filled air, or a couch potato lifestyle.
There are many types of negative relationships. The toxic person in your life could be a belittling spouse or partner, a passive-aggressive friend, a judgmental parent, a demanding adult child, or a difficult boss. Anyone you interact with regularly who you feel you have to "handle" or who makes you "walk on eggshells" is potentially toxic. These relationships cause stress and anxiety and contribute to depression and even heart problems.
What makes a relationship toxic?
A toxic relationship is one in which communication is fraught and conflict arises easily and often. Toxic people behave in ways that hurt others and negatively impact their lives. The toxic person may try to minimize or invalidate your point of view. They make you feel like you are competing with them – and losing. They are negative, belittling, unpleasant, unsupportive, and/or passive aggressive. You feel like you are being gaslit, disrespected, or manipulated. You feel burned out or trapped. You feel bad about yourself and even wonder if you are to blame.
Is this relationship toxic?
This quiz can apply to any type of relationship, whether it's a romantic partner or spouse, family member, friend, or colleague. There are no right or wrong answers here – the purpose is to gain clarity about how your relationship with this person affects you. Simply put some thought into answering these questions:
- How does it feel to be with this person? Does their presence lighten your mood and energize you or leave you feeling irritated, defeated, depressed, threatened, unsettled, or emotionally drained?
- Do you dread having to see them?
- Do they seem to thrive on conflict?
- Do you find it hard to be spontaneous around them because you always need to tread carefully?
- Do your encounters bring out the worst in you and make you gossipy and mean?
- Do you feel better or worse about yourself after seeing this person?
- Do they tend to bring every conversation back to themselves?
- Do you feel like you're always giving, and the other person is always taking?
- Is the relationship fraught with drama, conflict, and/or anxiety?
- Do you feel like the other person cares for you as you are, or do they make you feel like you need to change to make them happy?
- Do they make you feel guilty or manipulated?
- Do they lie to you, omit telling you important things, or even gaslight you?
- Do you feel responsible for their happiness or satisfaction?
- Are their ethics and values so different from yours that you find yourself judging them?
- Does the other person tend to see themselves as a victim and blame others for their problems and mistakes?
- Is the other person often judgmental or even mean?
- Is their perspective pessimistic, negative, and dark?
Be honest with yourself. You may realize this relationship is more trouble – and pain – than it's worth.
Dealing With Toxic People
A 2016 study performed at the University of Michigan found that the ongoing stress of a toxic relationship impacts the cardiovascular system. Chronic stress also contributes to inflammation, high blood pressure, diabetes, digestive issues, depression, headaches, asthma, and other health issues. Clearly, a toxic relationship is bad for you. So, what do you do to alleviate the stress?
The first step is to acknowledge that the relationship is indeed toxic and that you deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. Next, ask yourself whether you can walk away. That's often easier to do if the toxic person is a friend or acquaintance versus a spouse or family member. It may entail a difficult conversation, or you may have to simply phase them out.
If the toxic person in your life is a family member, they are likely part of a toxic family dynamic that you may be powerless to change. What you DO have control over is your own actions and responses:
- Set boundaries. You don't have to live with patterns of behavior that go back to your childhood. Tell your mother proactively that you will not answer the phone if she calls you at work. Make it clear to your uncle that you will not engage in any political conversation. Let your brother know that you will not tolerate his vulgar or abusive language. If the boundary is crossed, you can either confront it head on, when it happens, or simply disengage and walk away EVERY TIME the boundary is crossed. Be straightforward and direct. Respect the boundaries you have set, regardless of the other person's behavior. If that means walking out, do so.
- Get counseling or therapy. Therapists are experts in toxic family dynamics. Therapy can shed light on unhealthy situations and patterns of behavior and help you develop strategies to deal with the toxic person, or find the strength to walk away. You can also turn to blogs and books about narcissists or toxic people.
- Maintain emotional distance. Approach your interactions as dispassionately as possible, as if you are a neutral observer. Some therapists refer to this as "the grey rock method." Pretend you are as unresponsive and disengaged as a grey rock. Abusive people thrive on drama. Recognize when they are pushing your buttons or baiting you and don't give them the fight they are trying to pick. Over time you will find the toxic person's behavior becoming more predictable and easier to understand. This will help you spot potential conflict and avoid unpleasant encounters.
- Find a degree of acceptance. Changing a complicated family dynamic may not be possible. To use the tired cliche, "It is what it is." And toxic people are who they are. If you've made your needs and boundaries clear and your family isn't recognizing them, accepting the situation can take some of the mental burden off, especially if you reduce the amount of time you spend with the toxic relative(s).
What if the toxic person in your life is a spouse or significant other? This is a more complex, serious problem than can be addressed here. Couples counseling is a good place to start. If your partner or spouse won't go to couples counseling that is a sign that they may not be interested in working on the relationship. You will then have to figure out your next move and you may want to get individual counseling to help you do that.
If you are experiencing physical abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
This article first appeared in the May 2023 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.