Toxic relationships come in many forms. They can be found in families, friends, workplaces, even churches or social service organizations. Therefore, in this article I will be talking about you and “the other party,” so as to incorporate the different levels of relationships.
While there are only a few steps to getting free of a toxic relationship, they are not simple steps. Each step builds upon the other. They require honesty, self-evaluation and an honest assessment of the relationship. You will need to evaluate the relationship, make decisions based on the evaluation, and then act upon the decisions.
The first step is to honestly evaluate your relationship objectively. Rarely are these relationships all bad, usually we receive something good which keeps us hanging on.
Sit down with pen and paper. On your paper draw a line down the middle. On one side list the gains or positives of the relationship. This list will include anything positive you receive from the relationship. Maybe you split bills, or receive a paycheck (in a work relationship), or in some other way get financial help from this relationship. Is there a sense of protection because someone is taking care of you? If you hate living alone, just having another person in the house may be a positive for you. In a marriage having a second parent to help with child rearing can be a tremendous comfort. Include any emotional support you may receive from the other party’s family (such as a mother-in-law, your boyfriend’s sisters), particularly if you think it may be taken away if you end the relationship. What does this relationship allow you to avoid? Staying in a job situation may keep you from having to revamp your resume and go through the interviewing process. Staying with your boyfriend allows you to avoid the dating scene.
On the other side, list the losses or what the relationship takes out of you. Do you feel stressed out more often than not? Maybe you don’t feel heard by the other party. You might be frequently doing errands or extra favors that you feel are not being recipricated. Maybe you work more hours than expected. Does this relationship cause hardship in other significant relationships in your life? Maybe a girlfriend wants so much time you can’t do your job properly. Maybe your job is so stressful you can’t devote enough undivided time to a spouse.
Keep your list for a week. Keep adding to it as you become aware of more gains and losses from this relationship. As you add to the list, do not take time to evaluate what you are adding, that will come later. For right now just add things as they come to mind. More importantly, add the things that come to your gut. For example, you feel taken advantage of because the other party demands more time from you than you want to give. Write that down as a loss before you start rationalizing it and making excuses for the other party’s expectations. Remember, putting things in perspective comes later. This is a brainstorming session.
While evaluating the situation, don’t forget to look at yourself. Is your life where you would like it to be? If not, what do you wish was different? Close your eyes and imagine your life exactly as you want it. Who is with you? What type of relationships do you have? How do you feel: calm, excited, happy, at peace? In this vision, are you surrounded by people who care and really listen to what you are saying? Spend some time imaging this. Come back to the present. Is your imaginary world anything like what you imagined? If there are significant differences, do you see your life as moving toward or away from your vision? Is this potentially toxic relationship supporting you as you move towards your vision? Or is this relationship holding you back?
Now it is time to start making decisions. First and foremost, it is crucial that you have someone you can talk to. When you are in a relationship that you want to hold onto in spite of how difficult or potentially toxic it is you cannot make good decisions alone. Find a friend, family member, or professional who is not directly involved in the relationship. Choose someone whose opinions you trust. It is best if you pick someone you admire, someone who you wouldn’t mind emulating. Ask if you can use them as a bouncing board. Share your gains and losses list, and your vision for your future. Ask them if they see you on the path to where you want to be, or if you on a path leading away. Listen to what they are saying to you, even if it is not what you want to hear. Remember, you picked this person because you trusted them and like where their life is headed.
It is important to realize that it takes two in order to have a toxic relationship. If just one person makes healthy changes, the relationship becomes healthier. This is true even if the other party stays the same, or even gets worse. A healthy relationship is not absolutely dependent on two healthy partners, just one.
Sometimes one party setting boundaries can save a relationship. Deciding what you can and will do is the first step. Far too often the tendency is to try to control the other party so they will conform to your expectations. You cannot control another party; you can only control yourself. Start by deciding what are the non-negotiable issues for you in the relationship and where appropriate share your thoughts, feelings, wants and needs. Once your expectations have been communicated, it is time to set boundaries. For instance, if the other party frequently asks you to do things which you are uncomfortable doing, and when you say no, they turn up the heat by ranting, arguing, threatening, or some other technique, you must first accept that you cannot stop their behavior. You can decide that you will not listen. You can leave the room. You can hang up the phone.
This does not mean that every relationship can or should be saved. Sometimes the effort needed to maintain a relationship by setting boundaries is more trouble than it is worth. It may be time to move on. Talk to your trusted helper to make these decisions.
Once you have made your decision, it is time to act. Make sure to maintain the support of others. Making changes in, or ending a toxic relationship is hard work. You need the support. Celebrate each step: from just making the decision to setting a boundary to ending a relationship. Keep your eyes one the vision you have for your future, and keep moving in that direction.