Life is very rarely black and white. In all things, you’ll find shades of grey – and relationships are certainly no exception. But while it’s very normal (and even expected) to have fallings-out with friends and loved ones, and to do them favours now and again, it’s important to know when a line has been crossed.
If you’re worried about a relationship in your life doing more harm than good, it could well fall under the umbrella of toxic relationships. In this article, we’ll look at how best to define such a relationship, and how to cure a toxic relationship.
What Is a Toxic Relationship?
We need relationships with other people…
In fact, human brains are ‘hard-wired’ to naturally form relationships and co-operations with other people. Right from birth this is the case. Studies show that one thing that has led to the success of humans through evolution is the fact that above many other animals we use something called ‘alloparenting’. This means that people other than the biological parents are often responsible in some way for the care, growth and nurturing of our children. Think about the fact that we use babysitters, teachers, extended family and friends all to help care for our young almost from the moment they are born.
It makes sense then that as a species, right from birth we are geared up to be a ‘pack animal’ and to rely on others – not just for our basic needs (such as Lions that hunt in packs to maximise their chances or being fed and staying safe), but crucially also for our emotional needs too. We need relationships.
But although our brains are hard-wired to need relationships with other people, we all have different values, ideas and personalities that come from a combination of our different genetics, backgrounds and histories. This means that although we need relationships, they’re not always easy things to form and maintain in the way we might want, because essentially everyone is very different.
People often talk about relationships (whether friendships, professional relationships or romantic relationships) being formed as the result of ‘chemistry’. Well, just like interactions between chemicals, relationships can also bring about certain reactions and products. Ideally, relationships should be supportive, understanding and productive in a way that helps both people have their needs met and live enhanced lives as a result of the relationship. In most cases this happens in the relationships that we form. However most people can also empathise with the idea that relationships can also be unproductive… or at times downright dangerous.
The term ‘toxic relationship’ has no official definition, although it can broadly be considered to be a relationship through which one or both of the participants are regularly hurt, either emotionally or physically, or causes others to be hurt. Sometimes the effects of toxic relationships can be clearly visible, such as a violent romantic relationship, or passive aggression and bullying at school. However, often the effects of toxic relationships can be much more subtle with one, both or more people being largely unaware that their relationship is actually a toxic one. Ultimately, this can increase the risk of emotional wellbeing and mental health problems if changes aren’t made. At the very least it can make you unhappy with the relationship.
Know The Warning Signs
For many people in a toxic relationship, the situation can progress without them even being aware. That’s why so many individuals never realise the damage being done until an external party advises them of the unfiltered truth, which can be hard to see yourself – especially if the relationship as become slowly toxic over time.
There are a number of warning signs that you should keep watch for in all of your relationships, especially if you feel an increasing pressure, resentment or unhappiness in the relationship. If you start to notice any of these in your close friendships, family ties or romantic relationships, you may need to think about things more closely:
- Frequently being criticized or feeling uncomfortably inferior around the other person.
- Feeling as though your actions are controlled – directly or subtally by them.
- Being afraid to do or say certain things for fear of how the other person will react.
- A sense that the other person is more interested in what they get from the relationship, than you as a person.
- Frequent disagreements, arguments or strong emotions when together.
- Being on the receiving end of frequent passive-aggressive behaviour
With these in mind, it’s also easy to recognise the signs of a healthy relationship: feeling loved, compassion, secure, and safe to express yourself. Of course, no relationship is ‘perfect’, and it’s natural that all types of relationships will undergo some stress or strain over time. The key thing is that these are periods in time in which both people recognise that things aren’t going the way they might hope, and decide how to work on their relationship to make things better. It often sounds cliche, but the key to any type of relationship usually comes down to having a shared sense of ‘teamwork’ and that you’re striving for roughly the same things – without necessarily having to agree on everything.
But if you recognise any of the warning signs above in your relationships, what can you do?
How To Cure A Toxic Relationship
If you think that you’re in a toxic relationship, action should ideally be taken to resolve (or dissolve) the relationship.
Knowing which is the best option can often be one of the hardest parts. Often with personal friendships, the best place to start is having an open conversation with the other person. This is usually best done by talking about aspects of the ‘relationship’ that make you unhappy, rather than talking about how ‘the person themselves’ make you unhappy.
By doing this it helps give you and your friend the option of thinking about what is happening in the relationship that could be changed. This is often much less threatening than suggesting that the other person needs to change something ‘about themselves.’ Again, being specific with examples can often be helpful too. Often unnecessary arguments can develop where people talk in general terms which can often seem like a wide attack. By sharing specific examples of times that you have struggled with the friendship it can be easier to look at how things can change in a more practical way.
If you don’t feel able to have this type of conversation then it might be a strong signal that the friendship isn’t working and has little chance of altering. In these situations often people grow apart and the friendship naturally comes to an end.
Within romantic relationships things can often be quite different. Here, it usually takes either one or both of the people to actually discuss changing or ending the relationship – rather than a gradual drifting. The marriage and Family Encyclopedia has a useful article on ending romantic relationships.
If you are struggling to know what the best option is, then one of the best ways to start this process is by asking for help. Unfortunately, actively asking for help from others when you feel trapped in a toxic relationship is one of the hardest things to do. This is where it’s vital to count on your internal strength, acknowledge the fact that where you want to be is better than where you are, and start to rebuild your self-esteem. In many toxic relationships, the controlling partner can wear the other down so much that they may not be able to muster the courage for this. That’s where other friends, family or even mental health professionals come in. It can often make no difference where the help comes from, as long as some light is shed on this relationship and the damage it is doing to the two individuals and others around them.
Always looking forward
As hard as it may seem to find a way out of a toxic relationship or to work on making it more healthy, it’s important to understand that you might be much more content once a change has been made. For those who have weathered this storm, life has never been better – and you can feel this way too by removing this toxic element from your life.
The key is to focus not on what’s around you, but where you want to be. Think of all the things that this toxic relationship has prevented you from trying or fully enjoying: travel, movies, music, art… whatever it may be.
There really is a world of possibilities out there, and with the right support, you can break free of your toxic relationships and live the life you’ve always dreamed of.