Having close, intimate relationships is a complex and difficult task. Our early relationships with our caregivers often shape whom we are attracted to and what type of person we find comfortable to be around. If you don’t get it right, you can end up in relationships that drain the life out of you.
If you do some self-reflection, you notice that you saw the problems well beforehand, but tolerated them for some reason or another. In my experience, the two most common reasons for ignoring warning signs were:
Having the belief that the person could change (perhaps if they are loved enough).
Being unable to break away from the cycle of connecting with someone who behaves in a similar way as a hurtful parent. I spoke about this in an article about repeating familiar relationships.
Since we all have faults, how can we tell when we need to accept someone’s flaws and when we are overlooking serious issues?
People do grow and change as they mature, so it is not completely unreasonable to think someone can change their behavior. However, there are some behaviors/attitudes that don’t change much (without professional help) as they are part of the person’s personality.
Here is a list of some behaviors that I believe should be considered red flags, NOT to ignore or think they will go away with time. These are not transient behaviors that you see when someone is going through a bad patch. Instead, these are behaviors or attitudes that persist over time.
- Chronic anger (blow ups, irritability, moodiness, not due to a depressive disorder)
- Chronic sarcasm (anger disguised)
- Excessive neediness (this can be attractive to women who like a fixer upper)
- Disparaging humor (putting others down in a subtle way, also anger disguised)
- Punitive mindset (feels people deserve the bad things that happen to them)
- Controlling nature (needs to micromanage your affairs)
- Pervasive insecurity (needs you to reassure them constantly, can take the form of needing you to agree with them, do what they say, etc.)
- Extremely opinionated (a disguised form of someone who is judgmental and maybe critical)
- Manipulator (may use guilt to get you to do things, doesn’t take no for an answer, tries to get you to change your mind, makes you feel bad about things and see them as the victim)
- Predominate self-centeredness (take more than they give, things are always about them, they have a hard time putting others first)
- Need to be on the offense (has a world view that people will always try to stick it to you or get over unless you get yours first)
If you grew up around someone who did some of these things, you may find yourself being attracted to similar people even though you don’t like their behavior. Even objectionable behavior can feel familiar and comfortable at some level.
Of course, there are other factors that influence how we choose our friends and significant others, but these are just a few ideas for you to consider to have a healthy relationship and prevent having an unproductive and/or hurtful relationship.
What if you are already involved in a toxic relationship?
How To Detox The Relationship
1. Take a break. Give yourself some time to reflect on what bothers you about the relationship. How do you feel when you are away from the person? How much do you miss them? What do you miss about the person?
2. Create emotional distance. Emotional distance is the key to disentangling from toxic relationships. Think about how close you need to be with the person. Is this a key person in your life like your spouse? If so, then you will need to seek professional help to improve the relationship. But you still may need to pull back ever so slightly.
This is not to say you should be cold to your spouse. But suppose your husband is cynical and critical and this has worn you down. To protect your self-esteem you are going to need to give his opinion less weight so that you don’t internalize his every negative opinion of you. Even in the closest of relationships, you still have to maintain your own thoughts and ideals that are independent of your spouse.
If the person is your parent, you have to accept the loss of an intimate relationship with your parent and pull back as far as you need to in order to maintain whatever relationship is logistically necessary.
Toxic mother example
If you have a toxic relationship with your mother and you have children, you probably don’t want to interfere with the grandparent relationship. But the time you spend with your mother and her drama damages you. This is a scenario where you can reassess your mother’s place in your life. If she is good to your children, then let them continue to see her. But you will need to see your mom more like a distant relative whose opinion doesn’t matter much. It will probably require that you drastically reduce your level of engagement with her to keep the conversations light. When she asks personal questions, you answer them as though you were talking to someone at work or a casual friend.
Some people struggle with taking this position of emotionally divorcing your parent. We all instinctively want a loving relationship with our parents. It’s inborn and persists through adulthood. But if don’t have that kind of intimacy with your parent, you have to realize that you as the child are not going to change your parent’s personality. That takes years of work with a mental health professional.
If you accept this realization, you’ll see that all your efforts to correct your mom’s behavior is pointless and just leaves you feeling spent.
3. Look at your contribution. What are you doing to keep the drama going? Are you picking fights with your husband and provoking him to lose it? Are you treating your mom the same way she treats you? We usually stay in toxic relationships for a reason; even if it’s a twisted reason.
Once you recognize how you are perpetuating the problem, look to change your behavior and see how it impacts the relationship.
4. Get professional help. Serious marital problems usually call for marriage counseling. You need an objective person to see both sides of problems. If it is a relationship outside of your marriage, your own therapist can help you recognize your blind spots, your contribution or give you more specific recommendations on how to handle the toxic relationship.