A common mistake many of us make is letting people stick around far longer than they deserve. Toxic people would rather stop speaking to you than apologize when they’re wrong. They do not thank you, compliment you, listen to you, or give you credit. Whether a friend, partner, colleague, or family member, toxic people feel entitled to be disrespectful.
“There are many types of toxic relationships such as a controlling or manipulative, negative, self-centered or narcissistic, dishonest, insecure, abusive, blaming or demanding and competitive, and secretive, and dramatic,” says Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and neurotherapist based in Chicago. Understanding what type of toxic relationship you’re in can help you end it in the best way.
1. Recognize that you’re in a toxic relationship.
Fran Walfish, PsyD, a psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, offers the following nine subtle signs of a toxic relationship:
- They exhibit excessively charming and ingratiating behavior.
- They use the silent treatment as a means of control.
- They force you to mind-read and guess, then act vindictive when you are wrong.
- They use “poison delegation” (asking you to do something for them, saying they can’t do it for themselves, but whatever you do is met with harsh criticism).
- They constantly correct you.
- They lie to you.
- They use “projective identification” (the abuser treats you as if you did something wrong, and if you deny it, they confirm your behavior as justification for the accusation).
- They use sexual manipulation.
- They use denial to convince you their actions are to help you become a better person.
It is common to be in a toxic relationship without even being aware that the relationship is toxic. “In a toxic marriage or romantic relationship, people are often told that the reason their partner is so angry, upset, unloving, or abusive toward them is because of something they did to cause it,” says Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, a psychologist based in Denver. It’s similar within a toxic work environment, where your boss will imply or outright state, The reason we are treating you this way is because you are not doing a good enough job. Regarding toxic romantic relationships, a key indicator is the marked difference between how your partner speaks to you in public versus private.
2. Look for patterns from childhood.
The type of toxic relationship that most concerns Carissa Coulston, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Sydney, is the parental bond from childhood that repeats in adulthood. “The effects of your childhood upbringing extend into adult relationships, where you find lovers who fill the void your parents created,” she says. “Maybe, like your parents, they never make you the number one priority, or always leave you feeling like you need to work harder to gain approval.” But, it’s not necessary to return to your parents for approval or reconciliation. “By releasing the past, it is possible for you to alter the way you look at potential partners in a way that enables you to achieve romantic success with a person who empowers you,” says Dr. Coulston.
3. Prepare your finances.
“Many relationships that are toxic, including with family, remain toxic because of financial control,” says Mary Joye, LMHC, a psychotherapist and counselor based in Florida. “Family members have less control over those who have their own independence financially and in all aspects of their life.” So, if that means you have to spend a couple months or even a year getting your financials in shape before cutting off contact, put your initial energy toward achieving that goal.
4. Seek outside help.
“It often takes an outside perspective of a therapist, coach, or insightful friend to help someone understand that they are not actually at fault,” says Dr. Bobby. If you suspect you’re in a toxic relationship, the best thing you can do is to find healthy, supportive relationships with other people to help strengthen you, shift away from blaming yourself, and help you start planning your escape strategy.” This premise is reinforced by Dr. Coulston, who emphasizes that, “an appropriate professional, such as a clinical psychologist, can help you learn how to challenge and re-shape your unhealthy core beliefs.”
5. Speak up for yourself.
Many of us ignore adverse behaviors simply to avoid confrontation, or because using reason and rationale with someone irrational can prove futile. Speak up confidently and say that you do not condone the disrespect directed toward you—particularly in instances of verbal abuse or physical abuse. In such situations, Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author based in California, recommends using a quick comment and an exit from the situation such as: “I feel hurt when you swear at me. I’m leaving the party now and hope that next time you will talk kindly to me.” Dr. Manly adds, “We can’t change the toxic people into non-toxic people, but we can work on being less reactive.”
6. Create boundaries, and stick to them.
Setting boundaries isn’t rude—it’s an act of self-care. “Most toxic people derive their influence because they prey on the difficulty that kind people have in setting boundaries,” says Forrest Talley, PhD, at Invictus Psychological Services. To start, Sherianna Boyle, MEd CAGS, an adjunct professor of psychology at Cape Cod Community College, recommends putting verbal limits in place. “For example, rather than allow a person to extensively vent their problems or opinions while you attempt to work, let them know you are not available right now.” And no, family isn’t an exception. “Never assume that just because someone is family they are allowed to mistreat you,” says Karin R. Lawson PsyD, a psychologist based in Miami. “All relationships need boundaries, which is the line you get to draw in each relationship you have.”
7. Do a digital detox.
You’ll need to manage your social media relationship with the person, too. We often fear unfriending or blocking toxic people on social media because of potential backlash. But sometimes, that’s what it takes. “You may want to make a clean break by quickly stating things are over and removing them from your social media and having no further contact with them,” says Dr. Jackson. If you’re not ready to remove someone from social media completely, you still have privacy options such as unfollowing or muting, and they never have to know.
Setting boundaries isn’t rude. It’s an act of self-care.
8. Prepare for the counterstrike.
When it’s clear to a toxic person that you’re distancing yourself from them or cutting off the relationship, they may try to “punish” you by avoidance, or they will redouble their efforts to keep the dynamic going. But you have to stick to your guns. “If you deviate from this role of the patient, boundary-less being that the toxic subject needs you to be (aka, you have needs, rights, feelings, boundaries or opinions that are not gratifying to the toxic person) you are punished,” says Dr. Bobby. Stay resolute in plans to extricate yourself.
9. If you can’t break ties, limit contact.
There are circumstances that require people to remain connected to a toxic person, like toxic coworkers, a narcissistic boss, or sharing custody of children with a toxic ex. Or, “they may choose to remain married to a toxic spouse in order to protect their children from having to endure the toxic relationship alone were they to split custody,” says Dr. Bobby. In such cases, it’s best to minimize the toxic person’s access to you and their ability to affect you. She adds that, “understanding that you will never feel loved or supported by them and that they are not emotionally safe people (and never will be) can be liberating in that you stop feeling upset or hurt when they behave the way they do.”
10. Try the Gray Rock Method.
“If you have to be around the abuser, try to stay neutral and unemotional,” says Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in California. “Abusers thrive on intensity, so making yourself as boring and uninteresting as possible can be a protective measure.” Nadene van der Linden, a clinical psychologist based in Australia, calls this response the Gray Rock Method. The idea is that you keep your head down and blend into your setting—like a gray rock. The toxic person will move on to someone else to get what they need instead.