Toxic Relationships – what they are and how to handle them

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Many people will intuitively know when a relationship doesn’t feel healthy, but when does a less-than-perfect relationship turn toxic? The simplest explanation is from Psych Alive,

“A toxic relationship is often characterised by repeated, mutually destructive modes of relating between a couple. These patterns can involve jealousy, possessiveness, dominance, manipulation, desperation, selfishness or rejection.”

Although there’s generally an emphasis on toxic relationships being with a romantic partner, often this isn’t the case. In my counselling room I find it’s just as frequently a friend or family member whose causing my client concern, as it is a husband or lover . Both Jennifer Anniston and Davina McCall have spoken publicly about the challenges and emotional hurt they faced in maintaining loving and respectful relationships with their mothers.

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How to spot a toxic relationship

Some articles list traits or behaviours, for example, “Your partner looks at your mobile phone without permission”. The problem with these articles, is they tend to focus solely on romantic relationships and they fail to take into consideration that there can be multiple problematic behaviours within a toxic relationship. To list all these behaviours would take days. Therefore, the best way to determine if your relationship is toxic, is to focus on your feelings and not their behaviour. The most common red flag feelings are:

  1. anxiety and nerves, because you’re unsure how they’re going to react or behave today
  2. unease and resentment, as you believe you’re being taken advantage of, or having your personal boundaries pushed
  3. low self esteem or anger, as you realise they are belittling you, either in implicit or explicit ways
  4. lethargic and drained after being in their company, because the negative aspects of the relationship outweigh the positive
  5. sick, anxious or generally constricted at the thought of spending time with them. One of the best ways to know if a relationship is poisonous is to consider whether you actually feel as though you’ve been poisoned when spending time with them
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The three best tips for managing a toxic relationship

It’s unrealistic, and unhelpful to assume that everybody in a toxic relationship will be willing or able to leave. Even so, here are some steps you could take to minimise the negative impact the relationship has on your mental health.

1. Get clear on what’s keeping you in the relationship

If your relationship with your sister is toxic, but your mum gets great happiness from seeing you together, then be aware of this. Likewise, if a friend puts you down but is also great fun, than acknowledge it’s chemistry keeping you together. Simply accepting the reason you stay in a toxic relationship can ease pressure on yourself and help you feel more in control.

Note: If you’re in a relationship, and you’re scared to leave, then this may not be toxic but abusive. There are many organisations who can support you in leaving the relationship.

2. Can the relationship be detoxed?

If both people are willing, and often with the support of a professional counsellor, toxic relationships can be detoxed. On occasion they can even be turned in to happy, healthy connections. Sometimes, it’s not the people who are poisonous themselves, but the patterns of behaviour that play out within the relationship. Many of these patterns are learned from our parents in childhood, and then repeated either unthinkingly or unconsciously into adulthood. A skilled counsellor can help you both untangle old beliefs and behaviours and work with you to find new, and better, ways of relating.

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3. Create some boundaries

If you cannot, or won’t, leave a toxic relationship then there are practical steps to safeguard your mental wellbeing. Set a limit on how often you can bear to see the person, and stick to it. Decide whether you can manage their company one on one, or whether they’re easier to handle in a group. Think in advance about whether you’re going to call them out on their putdown comments or just ignore them. In short, put boundaries in place to protect your mental health and be prepared to seek support.

I would love to hear your comments and how you learnt to identify, manage or leave a toxic relationship.

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