How To Spot And Leave Toxic Relationships, According To Experts

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
toxic relationships
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While all of the relationships in your life don’t necessarily have to be easy, they shouldn’t be that hard. Sure, some require work. We’re not talking about the typical give-and-take that goes into maintaining the bonds you form with someone. We’re talking about the toxic relationships in your life that drain you. The ones that leave you feeling somehow lesser than. You know, the ones you come to dread.

Whether we admit it or not, we all have them. Part of the problem, though, is that it’s not always easy to recognize you’re in a toxic relationship. And it can be even more difficult to work up the nerve to disentangle yourself from one or take the steps to fix it.

So, we called in the big guns. Scary Mommy asked relationship and mental health experts to weigh in on the most common types of toxic relationships you’re likely to encounter. Here’s the full 4-1-1 on signs, solutions and, if the relationship can’t be fixed, exit strategies.

How do I deal with a toxic friend?

We’ve all had that one friend. You know the type — for the longest time, you were convinced they were someone you had to have in your life. Then, at some point, the tide started to turn. You started to realize that sometimes they say things that really hurt you. You don’t feel great about yourself after you’ve been around them. This is a toxic friend. Here are a few more signs to watch out for:

  • They’re noticeably selfish.
  • They might even border on narcissistic.
  • You feel unhappy when you’re around them.
  • There is always drama (can you say pot-stirrer?).
  • They leave you feeling drained.
  • They tend to belittle you, often around others to make themselves feel better.
  • They’re extremely possessive of your time and attention.
  • They play the victim…a lot.
  • You feel like you can’t fully trust them not to talk about you behind your back.
  • You feel “obligated” to be there for them.

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Unfortunately, it may take time to identify a toxic friend. You probably want to give them the benefit of the doubt and, hey, maybe the relationship started out healthy. Bottom line, though? They’ll show their true colors eventually, according to Emily Mendez, M.S., Ed.S, mental health author and founder of Zen Connected. “They don’t care about your time. Let’s say you make plans for dinner. Suddenly, they bail to do something else instead. Sure, sometimes things come up that are unavoidable. But a toxic friend will change plans on you whenever it suits them because they just don’t care about your time. Good friends value your time and follow through on things,” Mendez told Scary Mommy, adding, “A toxic friend doesn’t care about what you want. They care more about their own needs and what they want. They are selfish and expect you to always go along with what they desire.”

Does this mean you have to cut that friend out of your life for good? Maybe not. “Toxic friendships are unhealthy relationships. As long as both parties continue with the same behaviors, the relationship will continue to be toxic,” said Mendez. So, it may be up to you to alter your behavior in the friendship. Set boundaries and stick to them.

Still, these stories don’t always have happy endings. Noted Mendez, “Sometimes you have to cut toxic friends out of your life. If you’ve told them that the behaviors are hurting you and they make no effort to change, distancing yourself from them is really the only answer.”

How do I deal with a toxic romantic partner?

Maybe you’re in a committed long-term relationship. It might be your spouse. Maybe it isn’t even monogamous yet, but you’re enjoying yourself and feel there’s potential for something lasting. Regardless, when you’re in an intimate or romantic relationship with someone, you need to know the signs of toxicity:

  • Things progress very fast — enough to bypass really getting to know one another.
  • There is a lack of deliberate separateness.
  • The effort is one-sided or uneven.
  • You lack trust.
  • You’ve changed your behavior to suit their desires.
  • You feel like your partner is more interested in themselves than in you.
  • They treat you disrespectfully at times.
  • They are controlling and/or jealous.
  • There is no growth in the relationship.
  • You feel constantly criticized.

We asked EffortWise founder Dave Wolovsky — a positive psychology-based coach and mind-body teacher who works with both individuals and couples — why these intimate relationships turn toxic. “We all deeply yearn for someone else to complete us, to heal us of our insecurities. The irony is that the more we give in to that desire, the more quickly we find out that the other person doesn’t complete us because they’re a totally separate person with a different history, plus their own needs. That’s where the conflict comes from,” Wolovsky said, continuing, “As we get closer, deeper, younger parts of us say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get what we need! Unconditional love! Someone who’s there JUST FOR ME!’ Then we act in ways that invalidate the other person’s separateness (and they do the same for us), causing both people to be thinking, ‘Why aren’t you giving me what I need? Why aren’t you here just for me?'”

One step toward fixing a toxic intimate relationship is to reduce the closeness. “Closeness and separateness need to oscillate. You take a step toward closeness, you take a step toward separateness. It’s a vibration. Over time, the emotional ‘net’ that gets woven becomes strong. Time is the key. The vibration (close, separate, close, separate) needs to happen over time. The faster you want the relationship to move, the more balanced you have to be, closeness with separateness,” explained Wolovsky.

Unfortunately, people often wrap up the way they’re feeling in the moment — or felt during that initial heady whirlwind romance — with a relationship’s strength. They rush through the motions, not being open and vulnerable with each other. And so, a relationship can turn toxic if the people in it cease to feel emotionally satisfied.

Elaborated Wolovsky, “Then our energy starts going elsewhere. We have affairs, either with other people, intoxicating substances, or work. In order to keep the relationship healthy, we need to keep its heart pumping. We need to keep trying to get closer to each other, which includes reminding ourselves that we’re not as close as we can be, that the other person is always a little bit separate and that we can always get to know them more by being curious.”

How do I deal with toxic in-laws?

Pop culture has made a long-running joke (and even movies) out of dealing with the in-laws. Sure, some people luck out and wind up with a tight-knit relationship with their spouse’s parents. As for the rest of us, gaining another set of parents doesn’t go so seamlessly. Here are some signs you might fall into the latter camp:

  • They frequently remind you that you aren’t “good enough” for their child.
  • They try to turn your spouse against you or create a divide.
  • They insert themselves into your decisions as a couple — without asking.
  • They make passive-aggressive comments about your appearance.
  • They invade your personal space.
  • They talk to you (and treat you) like a child.
  • They discuss the marriage as though it’s temporary.
  • They give you the cold shoulder.
  • They talk negatively about you to other family members behind your back.
  • They take offense if you don’t acquiesce to their every whim.

We probably don’t have to tell you that dealing with toxic in-laws is some tricky business. You run the risk of alienating your spouse, but what options do you have, really? Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher, MA, CAGS, LHMC — owner and psychotherapist at Polaris Counseling and Consulting — spoke to Scary Mommy about how to handle this delicate situation.

“The toxic behaviors in this relationship can vary from meddlesome in-laws to parents who mistreat our spouse,” Weaver-Breitenbecher explained. “When the behavior is more benign (meddlesome behavior), choose your battles. Some people just don’t know their place and while we’d probably love to teach them, it isn’t always worth the impact it has on our marriage. Pick your battles and set firm boundaries when something actually matters to you.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, an abusive in-law merits a more serious discussion. “If your in-laws mistreat your spouse, remind yourself that it’s his/her option to maintain a relationship with them and it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t always feel comfortable with how your mom/dad interacts with you, but I’ll support you in however you need me to,'” said Weaver-Breitenbecher. “It’s their parents, so they get to choose.”

How do I deal with a toxic boss?

Maybe your concern isn’t so much with your personal life as it is with your professional one. Raise your hands if you’ve had a boss that made you dread going to work? (*Raises both hands*) If turning your alarm clock off in the morning feels like facing a firing squad, you might have a toxic boss. Here are the signs:

  • They constantly make you feel like you aren’t good enough.
  • You avoid having meetings with them.
  • You get a knot in your stomach when you think about or see them.
  • They don’t acknowledge you for your work.
  • They spend meetings just talking about themselves.
  • They bring up inappropriate topics for the workplace or make inappropriate comments to you.
  • They invade your personal space and/or privacy.
  • They become angry for things that seem unreasonable.
  • They demand your time and attention, even when you’re off the clock.
  • They pit co-workers against each other, ultimately creating a hostile work environment.

Does this sound terrible? Of course it does. But here’s the thing: It’s not always possible to walk away from a job, especially one that comes with a steady paycheck and good benefits. To find out what the best approach is for dealing with a toxic boss, we tapped Kat Vollono, LMSW, owner and director of NYC-based Radiant Therapy.

“According to principals of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, when we think about solving a problem with a boss we can either solve the problem, find a way to feel better about the problem, deal with the problem, or do nothing about the problem. When we think about this in context of a working relationship, when we decide to be proactive and work to change the problem, it is important to find a way to be heard while maintaining professional boundaries,” she explained.

If that sounds daunting, don’t worry — Vollono has you covered with some talking points. “When speaking to a boss we want to use a professional, firm, yet compassionate tone. One way, using principals of non-violent communication, we can approach it non-judgmentally saying: ‘When I see ____, I feel _____, because my need for _____ is not being met. Would you be willing to____?'” To help bolster your confidence, Vollono also recommends finding sources of support outside of work.

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How do I deal with toxic co-workers?

This brings us to toxic co-workers, because it isn’t always your boss who makes your workday difficult. Having good chemistry with your colleagues can make or break the way you feel about going into the office. If it’s solid, you actually look forward to logging your 40 hours. If it isn’t, it’s just another reason you wish you could just win the lottery already.

While you probably have no trouble pinpointing those truly awful colleagues, toxic types can be more insidious in that they may not be quite so surface-level ingratiating. We asked Lauren O’Connell, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Santa Monica, California, to weigh in on the signs — and, as it turns out, there are a few specific types of toxic co-workers to avoid.

“The Mortal Enemy”

  • You obsess about hating them.
  • You probably spend way too much time complaining about them to friends and family.
  • Everything they do fills you with rage (sometimes inexplicably).
  • They undermine you.
  • They make passive-aggressive comments.

This situation undoubtedly sucks. But, if it makes you feel any better, O’Connell says that a lot of people have this type of toxic colleague. So, is there anything you can do, considering even five minutes in a meeting with them makes you want to pull your hair out? Yes and no.

“Here’s the thing, regardless of your list of justified complaints about this person, you probably have to figure out how to keep yourself calm, collected and polite around them,” said O’Connell. “This may involve doing some personal work, reflecting on your own relationship to reactivity and taking things personally. If you can, do your best to keep your interactions with this person to a minimum. Limit the amount of negative energy you invest in gossiping about them and complaining about them. You could even try setting a positive intention where you ask the universe to give them all the things you want for yourself.”

“The Negative Nancy”

  • This person is always negative, without fail.
  • They’re known as the office gossip.
  • They have a reputation for being a constant complainer, too.
  • They tend to shoot down ideas before they’re out of your mouth.
  • They have trouble letting go and enjoying celebratory occasions, like company milestones or co-workers’ birthdays.

You may also know her as Debbie Downer. Or Pessimistic Pete. Whatever nickname you choose to give them, their story remains the same — they’re simply incapable of seeing the brighter side of things. “We all need to blow off steam with our co-workers sometimes, but this person is so toxic and so negative that they can bring you too far down,” explained O’Connell.

But again, it isn’t always feasible to hand in your resignation, especially over one unfortunate co-worker. In this case, it’s best to keep things simple. “It’s unprofessional to spend a ton of time complaining about them, and it sets you up to have a bad attitude and outlook at work, as well. The thing is, they can really get under your skin and set you up to fail. My advice with this person is to cut the conversation short,” said O’Connell, suggesting, “Politely escape to the bathroom or back to work. Do your best to be polite but not get sucked into the vortex.”

Written by Julie Sprankles.

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