Loads of people stay in toxic relationships with their loved ones for different reasons namely – the need to belong to a family structure or remain in a marriage, the desire to sustain the relationship even though it is to their hurt, pain and detriment, societal pressures- “blood is thicker than water” or “marriage is for better and for worse.”
Some have a savior mentality – it is my duty to make sure the marriage or relationship works; for others, it’s a victim mentality- wherein they take upon themselves the entire burden of ensuring the relationship works by allowing the other party to ride over them believing that if only they could be all the other party wants the relationship will work. For many it’s a misconception about how relationships are supposed to work, yet some see it as a religious issue which can bring curses and the displeasure of God.
Overall, the thought of walking away is too extreme a decision to make and several people trudge on in the hope that someday the other party will have a change of heart and treat them properly.
So what should you do when you find yourself in a toxic relationship?
I have found the following to be very helpful in dealing with toxicity in relationships:
1. A realization of the fact that not all families are the same. This is very important especially for children of a toxic parent. Because toxicity is all we know we expect that all families behave in the same way. But when we realize that not all families are the same it becomes easier to manage our expectations in the relationship.
2. An acceptance of the fact that blood does not always mean family. Blood is not always thicker and other people can take the place of family in our lives. If some family relationships destroy rather than enrich, we tend to look for and appreciate the other relationships that we have which fill the void created by our toxic relative. We will find these relationships in friends, mentors, community etc.
3. An understanding that the toxic behavior is not about you or whatever you may or may not have done but it’s about them. This is very important because many times we tend to accept unsavory behavior from our loved ones out of guilt, a feeling of not being enough, which makes us tend to think that if we could just do what they want, give in to their wishes a little bit more things will change. The earlier we accept that we can’t do much to change the way a person behaves towards us the earlier we begin to hold them responsible for their actions.
4. Be introspective, there are several reasons why people become toxic, for some it’s unconscious and they don’t even know that they are being toxic, They may be sarcastic, facetious and condescending in their behavior but it may be because of their own personal issues or demons, their background and how they were brought up, concerns and even physical sickness- a lot of patients suffering from dementia have been known to be unkind to those they love. Conversely, some relatives are knowingly toxic and find delight in causing pain, embarrassment and hurt in others. They seem to find their joy in manipulating and controlling people’s actions and reactions. They are that family member that always finds a cause for quarrel at every family gathering. For them it is a game they look forward to and once you don’t rise to the bait they either leave you alone or try more audacious methods. The key here is ignore, ignore, ignore.
5. Be confrontational, toxic people don’t really like to be confronted and stood up to. They are like bullies and take delight in attacking the vulnerable. Our confrontation must be two pronged. a. We must confront the behavior and call it what it is. A lot of toxic people make use of subs, insinuations, innuendos. Instead of openly expressing how they feel, they make subtle, annoying gestures directed at you. Instead of saying what’s actually upsetting them, they find small and petty ways to take jabs at you until you pay attention and get upset.
b. We must confront the person and tell them firmly but kindly that we will no longer tolerate that behavior from them and the consequences of such behavior must be spelt out and carried out if it occurs. Confronting toxicity is not easy to do because we are often filled with guilt for even thinking about the person in such a way but it is necessary otherwise resentment will grow and consume the relationship we are trying to protect.
6. Find your voice in the relationship. As adult children we must help our parents realize that we are no longer children and cannot be treated as such, in a marriage, we must be able to tell our partners what we want and the freedom to be whom we desire to become. In all cases whatever the relationship between the parties we must find the strength to say No to certain behaviors or actions.
7. Create boundaries– boundaries are healthy in relationships because they help us spell out how we want to be treated and how we treat others. It is said that our freedom ends where the other parties rights begin. Most toxic people do not respect boundaries, they think that they have the right to your time, resources as at when they desire so it is necessary to let them know the boundaries e.g I will not come to your house every day (parent/child), I will not allow you to talk down at me and trample on my emotions ( husband/ wife) and more importantly enforce whatever actions you have told them ahead of time.
The key thing to keep in mind is that every case of dealing with a toxic family member is a little different, as I said earlier some toxic people actually do love us and have good intentions, they just may be very needy and self-centered. In such relationships the toxic party will most likely be willing to change their ways and there is a chance that the relationship can become healthy and productive though both parties must accept their faults and work hard towards the well-being of the relationship.
For those of us with toxic relatives, we owe them and ourselves the duty to draw their attention to the ways they have hurt and demeaned us and to play our part in ensuring that we are reconciled with them as best as we can, however, if we try our best ( I would strongly suggest counseling with a certified therapist ) and all fails or we find no appreciable difference then we must remember that the most important person in every relationship is ourselves, we must protect our individuality and well being and we should consider taking ourselves away from the relationship by loving from afar and/or leaving the relationship temporarily or permanently.