Getting Rid of Toxic Relationships

» Posted by on Mar 31, 2015 in Alpha Blog | 0 comments

Somehow they get into your life. Often times they are relatives who have been there for a while and you grew up thinking they were normal. Sometimes they are friends who have been around for a while. Sometimes they are lovers. Sometimes they are bosses or coworkers.

All of them have one thing in common; they appear to be on the up and up, and they seem as though they are respectful or supportive or that they find you special. But sooner or later it will dawn on you that that they are not who they seem, and you’ll have a hard time knowing what happened.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

A twisted father sexually abused his 6-year-old daughter, telling her she was his special favorite. She was in part flattered by his affections and by the fact she had seemingly taken her mother’s place in his eyes. But at the same time she felt guilty and confused. As she became an adolescent her father stopped the sexual abuse and formed a father-daughter bond cemented by his sudden generosity. As an adult she spent most of her life suffering from depression, having disastrous relationships with men, yet it was hard for her to break from this father who was now financially supporting her. After every contact with him she felt terrible because of the negative feelings he aroused in her, but she continued to idealize him the way the rest of the family did. How could she get rid of this toxic relationship?

A man who had been raised by a toxic mother ended up with a toxic wife. The wife belittled him for not being assertive enough, for not getting a better job, for not being promoted on his present job, and for not asserting himself with his mother. She was extremely jealous and would constantly probe his email and Facebook accounts to find evidence of cheating. When he joined a gym to get fit, she mocked him and complained that all he thought about was himself and his muscles. They hardly had sex because she found him, as she often put it, “disgusting.” Sometimes he couldn’t take it anymore and would seek refuge by spending the night at a male friend’s house; when he returned she would yell at him and curse him for hours, convinced he had cheated. Yet the man admired his wife because she seemed so confident—a quality he lacked—and he had been trained to be loyal. So he was unable to leave her.

An alcoholic man was married to a woman who wanted to save him from his alcoholism. He would go on binges, coming home late, forgetting their anniversary her birthday or some other significant occasion. The next day, when he was sober, he would apologize profusely and promise not to ever do it again. She loved him and continued to believe him. Then he would do it again, promise again, do it again, and promise again. She was on a roller coaster, and her life was agony. With his words, he would tell her he loved her and would do anything for her and was always so so sorry about everything. With his actions he was saying the opposite—that he had contempt for her and her feelings. He was a typical passive-aggressive with a persona of niceness, one of the most toxic kinds of people. His wife was a dependent personality who needed to keep believing him and couldn’t find the courage to leave him.

A young woman would call her friend almost every day to complain about the latest man she was dating. She would talk for an hour and her friend, a shy young woman, would dutifully listen. Often the caller would ask her shy friend’s advice, and the shy friend would give it, and the caller would reply, “No, that won’t work.” If the shy friend started to talk about her own dating life, the caller would immediately turn the subject back to herself. After each call the shy woman would feel bad, not knowing quite why. The caller was a toxic person, a narcissistic personality who was only interested in the shy friend as long as she served her purpose. In reality she had no respect for the shy friend, and that’s why the shy friend felt bad after each call.

There are many such people in our lives. Often they seem authoritative, charming, irresistible, and in the know, and they make us feel lucky to be their friend or relative. Sooner or later it dawns on us that, on the balance, they make us feel worse.
When it dawns on us that we are being subtly or not so subtly abused, we try to talk to them about it; we find that they are totally out of touch with how they are acting out their feelings. They refuse to listen to anything we say. Expressing hurt feelings to them usually does no good, and expressing anger only elicits their counter-anger. There is only one thing to do about such people when you find that they don’t respond to constructive communication. Eliminate them from your life.

This is easier said than done. When they are relatives—a mother, a father, a brother or sister, you must go against strong taboos about cutting yourself off from family. “She’s my mother, I can’t do that to her.” But if the relationship is toxic, you have no choice. Often what you want to do is get revenge. But revenge against such people is futile. They are manipulators, and they’re way ahead of you. If you try it, they’ll know just what to do to make you feel worse. They won’t feel bad losing you (they don’t care), and you won’t feel gratified to let them go—at least not immediately. So it’s a thankless task to get rid of them.

The first step is to find a professional or good friend with whom you can discuss the situation. This will build your ego—your strength, confidence and courage. Also, through talking about it constructively you’ll be able to confirm what you already know—that they are indeed toxic. Finally you’ll learn to forgive them.

The next step is to forgive yourself. The tendency is to regret the time you wasted trying to make the relationship work. But just as they couldn’t help being who they were, you couldn’t help it either. We are all who we are because of luck—our genetic makeup or our upbringing.

The final step is to make the break. If you think there’s any use, you can make one last attempt to talk with them. If talking fails, which is usually does with toxic people, then you can tell them the relationship doesn’t work for you. Don’t give them any reasons. That will just provide them with ammunition for arguing with you. They may not go easy and you may need to block them from your email, etc.

Once you are rid of them, you will have learned from the experience and gotten stronger. And the next person who comes along and behaves in a toxic way will be in for a surprise. You’ll catch the game and send the inconsiderate oaf packing, their face twisted with confusion. And inside you’ll feel proud that this time you were able to set your boundaries.  Most importantly, now you can start collecting people who are truly supportive.

By GERALD SCHOENEWOLF, PH.D.