Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 2-part series on Toxic Relationships by contributor, Bridget Holtz.
In this fallen world, we will encounter and experience pain. We witness from our earliest years that wounding, injury, and patterns of unhealthy love and relationships are a part of our existence. Some of us see this from young childhood, and others begin to experience hurt and humiliation in our school-age years. By adulthood, nearly all of us have encountered someone with whom, whether through family, friendship, professional or other affiliation, a relationship is challenging, unhealthy, harmful, or malicious. The word for it these days is toxic.
This world is a toxic environment. We are smattered with images, words, feelings, people, and senses designed to make us feel inadequate, question our beliefs, believe that truth is a relative thing, and cause us unrest. We seek stability with patterns we have seen modeled by our parents or other family. In my parents’ generation, and even more so the generation before, abuse, intimacy, boundaries, and the pursuit of healthy, balanced relationships were not discussed.
This toxicity still exists in many capacities today, as so many of us search for ways to break the cycles of imbalanced and unhealthy connections we have with others. The infatuation of a new friendship or relationship begins with the honeymoon phase, where everything is fabulous. We spend hours upon hours together, we start concluding that this person is the best version of everything we ever wanted, and we ignore or are oblivious to the warning signs. Once we attempt to find our footing again, we are in the midst of a cyclone and cannot see the ground.
Sometimes we choose these relationships, and sometimes (such as work or extended family) they are handed to us through no initiation of our own. How do we handle these relationships? How do we know when a relationship is toxic so we can guard our own health, hearts, and minds?
My own experience is based on a number of friendships that became toxic, and a brief dating relationship which stunned and traumatized me. I learned a pattern based on accepting the falsehood that I was not enough as I was, and that I had to earn friendships by providing “extras.” Two childhood friends I had from birth were, in my eyes, stolen from me by another friend with a stronger personality who had more to offer materially. I took from this that the only way to hold onto friends was to lavish them with reminders that I was always available, day or night. That I would always stand by in anticipation of their needs, which would make me indispensable to them.
I carried that toxicity with me to numerous friendships, because I knew no better at the time. Thanks to God’s mercy and years of restoration, I have learned what healthy love for friends is. Many of those friendships fell apart through life’s growth and individual circumstances, causing separation. Others came apart because they truly needed to, for the health of both myself and the other person. I have delved into my family history, meditated on the wounds both my parents brought into my childhood, and have decided the cycle stops with me.
What are the ingredients that make a relationship toxic? Other topics important to research and study include what characteristics make up a toxic person, particularly if you find yourself in a relationship with someone who is abusive, demeaning, possessive, or if there are pings on your heart telling you to hesitate. I will not have the time to dig into that subject here, but recommend that you reach out to a trusted person, therapist, or spiritual director if you feel a nudge or concern.
10 Signs of Toxic Relationships
- The relationship is not mutually beneficial. A friendship and a romantic relationship should nourish both of the people in it. There is give and take, confidence, support and input from both sides, and love. This is not to encourage scorekeeping in the least – but do you look forward to hearing from this person? Does their presence or do their words bring you edification? Is there a sense of safety and demonstrated effort to build on and grow the relationship?
- The friendship is not reciprocal. There is no clear effort and sustaining interest from both sides, and one person carries most of the weight of the friendship. If you find yourself reaching out consistently, calling with no response, making plans that are regularly broken, and expending much more energy, it may be time to question why you are allowing this one-sided relationship to continue.
- You find yourself waiting for the next bad thing. The relationship is strained, particularly if one individual is always in crisis and dependent on you for validation or encouragement (and unable or unwilling to recognize that we must own our own lives). There is a rescue needed on a frequent or consistent basis, and there is a promise of a pay-back or return of the favor, which you know not to expect. You groan or dread the next call or text and the expectation that you will meet the request.
- The relationship is changing you into a version of yourself you do not like. The other person is critical, controlling, or manipulative, whether it be with passive aggression (a favorite of many!), criticism of your home, physical appearance, abilities you may not have, or other friends or family members. Unwarranted digs are disguised as sarcasm or jokes, but the person is not afraid to call you out on your insecurities regardless of the audience, in private or in public. You find yourself on the defensive, and you find yourself second-guessing the choices you have made in good faith.
- Your time, needs, boundaries, and considerations are not met. You may even find yourself afraid to voice your opinions or desires because you know the backlash or lack of respect you will receive in return. Your time is not held as important, your needs are somehow held inferior to the needs or expressed wishes of the other party, and you are belittled when you speak up about something. You change plans and expectations to accommodate the other person’s schedule requirements again while ignoring or pushing aside your own.
- Your “no” is not accepted. If there is no understanding that we are each limited in what we can provide for our friends, family, and colleagues, and if the expectation and rule are always “yes,” take a hard look at the relationship. It is physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally impossible to meet all of the requests we see and receive in a day, and some things have to give. If you are only respected and honored when you give a yes, and receive criticism for saying no, this is a major red flag.
- There is a scorecard. Your weaknesses and mistakes are tracked and brought out in times of stress. You are reminded of what was done for you on this date or time, and that you need to make up for the other person’s effort with a favor of your own. Friendship, marriage, and professional relationships are not about the score! They are a mutual effort to grow the other person’s holiness, goodness, and bring them closer to fulfillment.
I heard a great radio program just last night about division of work in the household. The speaker is spearheading an effort to do away with the chore chart, and to help families re-learn how to divide labor and time together. It is not about the number of cards in your hand, but how you take ownership of each card from planning to execution.
- There is no resolution to any conflict. We, as humans, will inevitably have conflict with each other. We will butt heads, disagree on trivial to important things, and have to work through our differences. In a toxic relationship, nothing is resolved because there is no trust established that conflict can be worked through in a respectful way. Discussion is not possible, and arguments become buried. Resentment builds, and misery ensues for both parties.
- The relationship is established on or begins to be based on lies, comparison, and selfishness. When you share a challenging situation, the other person responds with how much worse their experience is or was. You find yourself not wanting to be honest about how you feel or where you are in your life, because comparison, the “thief of joy”, sets in, your feelings are invalidated, and the other person dwells entirely on themselves. When you share in confidence, you find yourself having to comfort the other person instead of receiving that comfort from them – it is a warping of the relationship as your story becomes the other person’s, and your experience is unimportant.
- Empathy and vulnerability do not exist. There is no willingness to sit in the pain with someone, or to listen and express what it means to have heard them, without offering silly platitudes. One person shares deeply emotional or painful sentiments or is just in a really tough spot, and the other person expresses no emotion, belittles the pain, or offers unwelcome fixes instead of being able to read the vulnerability and just be present to the other. This goes back to a sense of safety and confidence in the other’s love and respect for us.
I hope that this first post in the 2-part series on toxic relationships helps you to evaluate your own relationships and the behaviors that exist within them. We are all complex creatures, bringing elements of our personality, childhood, ancestry, and personal experiences into our connection with others. Becoming aware of those influences, we can identify and stay true to the relationships that are truly life-giving to us. Until next time, I invite you to reflect on Sirach 6:5-17, a Scripture passage on true friendship.