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Navigating Toxic Relationships Part 2

So, here we are. Perhaps you have sat with my last blog or have meditated on the verses from Sirach, which both caution us against false friends and comfort us with the qualities of true friends.

After my last post, I found myself again examining several of my relationships and thinking about how, and if, they bring me life. I thought about Facebook, with which I have a love-hate relationship, and the large number of people I have as “friends,” but who have little or no insight into my real life and circumstances. Why do we feel obligated to befriend someone in the digital world who we would not consider a friend in the real, interactive world? Why do we allow our hearts to feel such pressure and such obligation to so many? Why is the number of “likes” on an Instagram post so important? 

Let’s review the ten signs of a toxic relationship, which I expounded on in my previous post. 

  1. The relationship is not mutually beneficial.
  2. The relationship/friendship is not reciprocal.
  3. You find yourself waiting for the next bad thing.
  4. The relationship is changing you into a version of yourself you do not like
  5. Your time, needs, boundaries, and considerations are not met.
  6. Your “no” is not accepted. 
  7. There is a scorecard.
  8. There is no resolution of conflict in the relationship.
  9. The relationship has a pattern or develops into one based on lies, comparison, and selfishness.
  10. Empathy does not exist.

When I walked through two years of serious illness, I was a living construction project. I looked daily at how I lived my life and how I maintained my friendships. I strode through a period of feeling real shame for having strived so hard to prove myself in friendship. I ruminated on how I could have done things differently, as if I could change the past, and dwelled on my inadequacies in friendship. As I began to work with two excellent therapists who validated and affirmed me, and as I discovered the patterns I had been living for decades, my physical illness roared to the front of the battle. 

For weeks and months, I could not physically or emotionally keep up with friends, save for a very select few. One friendship had failed miserably, and more followed. At first, I hung onto the belief that I was “just too much” to handle. But, as I sorted through the dark, dusty, molded corners of my heart and spirit, I realized those friendships were damaged for years before their ruin came about. I realized God was protecting me, guarding the fortress against further infiltration and infection with more lies. I felt stripped to a raw version of myself, alone and quiet, isolated and withdrawn. 

From this solitude, a new and true heart emerged. I found myself seeking out the relationships which were mutual, edifying, deep, and where I found connection. I spent many hours in therapy, slowly churning through old haunts and fears, and I spent many more hours alone with my thoughts. My initial fear of shame or guilt for letting go of relationships, which were clearly detrimental to me, was replaced by relief that I was learning what truth in friendship meant. Learning that the toxicity I had glued to myself through a sense of obligation, resignation, and anxiety was no longer present. 

How do we guard ourselves against, or discern how to end or greatly limit, those relationships which we know are toxic to us? How do we live without fear of what ending these relationships will cause for us down the road? 

Sometimes it may be easy to discern and determine that a connection we have is toxic. There is clear breaching of boundaries, poisonous words and actions are evident, and we can see that there is no reason to continue in that relationship. 

Two questions to ask yourself are, “Has either party replaced God as our go-to when they or I are having a hard time? Do I use this person as a crutch, holding onto them instead of praying, seeking spiritual counsel, or looking inward?” 

Bridget holtz

Other situations, where toxic patterns have existed for months or years, or unhealthy attachment has developed, can be much more difficult to navigate. Whether the attachment is on your part or the other party’s, there is pain and a sense that healthy balance is off. Two questions to ask yourself are, “Has either party replaced God as our go-to when they or I are having a hard time? Do I use this person as a crutch, holding onto them instead of praying, seeking spiritual counsel, or looking inward?” 

Another way to look at it is whether the validation we seek and can only find within ourselves as children of God, is being sought from another person instead. Can you see the truth within yourself, or do you depend on the constant input and encouragement of someone else? Who is that someone else? Why does their opinion matter so much?

I only learned how many of my friendships were toxic when I examined them in therapy and could see the patterns I followed and the wounds I had allowed to fester. I believe counseling is massively beneficial when we are seeking answers to our brokenness. With another person helping me sort through my feelings and emotions, I began figuring out what toxic relationships have triggered within me. I identified how I let others control my time and space, how my priorities shifted so that I was lowest on the list, and how burdensome these relationships were. 

What are boundaries, and why are they important? In their book Beyond Boundaries, Dr. John Townsend and Dr. Henry Cloud define boundaries as:

Simply a property line. It clarifies where you end and the other person begins. You form boundaries with your words, with your actions, and sometimes with the help of other people. Boundaries help you to be clear about what you are for and against and what you will and won’t tolerate in your relationships.” 

There are two types of boundaries: Defining boundaries and Protective boundaries. Defining boundaries help ourselves and others know our true selves, the “person who has substance and stands for things that matter.” (Townsend and Cloud, Beyond Boundaries, 38). They also help guide our choices and the direction our lives are taking. Protective boundaries are those designed to guard our hearts, and ourselves, from potential peril and distress. Protective boundaries set limits. If the two parties come to acknowledge the hurt, and the bad patterns of behavior are modified or changed, the protective boundaries can then be altered or changed. 

How do we guard our hearts and minds? It sounds easy enough. Yet millions of inlets are thrown at us daily, and there are reminders of how inadequate we are or how a particular relationship hangs over us. I have found several questions that I ask myself when discerning these crossroads. 

  1. Does this relationship bring me peace?  
  2. Does this relationship bring me closer to God?
  3. Does this relationship have balance? Is there understanding and protection of boundaries?
  4. Does this relationship contribute to betterment of myself and the other person?
  5. Is either of us too dependent on the other?
  6. What about this relationship is painful? Are there patterns that I can attempt to change, or are changes not possible?

In situations where there is a clear need to end the toxic relationship, and it is within your power to do so, let your words be gentle but firm, and let your actions follow suit. I firmly believe that we make time for what we want to make time for, and if the other party does not acknowledge the need to change patterns, or that there is an issue at all, it is perfectly okay for us to cut ties with them. 

One example I am familiar with is a case of no reciprocation. One friend tried for years to maintain the friendship despite numerous broken plans, promises of “next time I’ll make it work,” and lack of communication. She sent an email stating her disappointment that the friendship was no longer a priority to the other party, thanked the friend for the years of healthy friendship they had, and wished the friend well in her life and pursuits. 

In another example, the toxic person had no acknowledgement and no willingness to take responsibility for the pain and invasion their behaviors caused. The hurt party simply wrote that the relationship was not healthy, due to numerous incidents of over-dependence and unhealthy attachment, and that she could no longer support it. She then asked that the toxic person refrain from all communication and respect her wishes. 

In any situation where there is an ending to a friendship, there may be concern about retaliation or revolt on the toxic person’s part. In these cases, I have found it challenging but necessary to maintain my ground, without responding to further communication or gestures unless it brings me peace. As a former toxic contributor to some friendships, I had the knee-jerk reaction to defend and justify every instance of hurt, to over-explain myself, and to “win back” the favor of the hurt friend. But these efforts only cut more deeply and established repeatedly that I was not able to objectively see the friendship for what it was. They brought no resolution. 

I make another plug for counseling and how, if we are willing to examine ourselves and truly root out the deeply-seeded patterns we have carried with us, we can heal. We can change those patterns. We can ask for forgiveness.

In those situations where a clean break is not an option, such as the case of extended family or in the professional arena, prayer and a personal commitment to what we will and will not tolerate must be done. With extended family, limiting interactions to those absolutely necessary, such as holiday celebrations and traditions, or acknowledging birthdays and anniversaries, is suggested. 

One friend stays at a separate location from the rest of her family, and if triggered for any reason, removes herself from the gathering and retreats to her own space. Another friend only spends the time needed during meals and gift-giving, then plans adventures and other social activities with non-family. If you are married or seriously dating, discussion and understanding between spouses/significant others are critical for mutual support and maintenance of boundaries.

In the professional arena, I faced a situation where I had been vulnerable with a supervisor, and that vulnerability and openness backfired. My challenges were used against me, and I was accused instead of being understood. While I was now still under this person’s supervision, I no longer trusted in the relationship we had. I limited any discussions to work-related items, removing any personal information from meetings. This supervisor moved on in her career, and I was grateful to have the tension ended. 

With toxic colleagues, I have found that limiting the interactions to those necessary has been the best way for me to cope with the tension the association added to my workday. I did try to resolve a conflict with one colleague who openly shared that she did not like working with me and that we would never get along. I wrote a letter sharing my personal experience and perspective and apologized for any hurt I had caused. We did come to some understanding and were able to be professionally appropriate with each other, but it was still difficult to approach her with questions or task delegation. 

Prayer and discernment are essential ingredients for dealing with the toxicity of others. Leaning into ourselves, seeking counsel, and listening for God’s direction are the only ways I have found to successfully detach from those relationships which were toxic to my heart. It is painful to realize that we each have these patterns within us, and that they can scar others. It can take months to years to work through those falsehoods and “false selves” we feel we must embody, to come to the knowledge that we are deserving of truth, love, respect, and kindness.

We often have to leave these relationships with no resolution between parties. The resolution must come from within ourselves. We will not be satisfied with perfectly resolved conflicts or Hollywood endings on this side of eternity. When we act in faith and believe that our choice is within God’s will and our desire for personal health, that action and choice will be honored. 

About Author

Bridget is a deep-thinking compassionate caregiver with a love for color, culture, travel, kindness and the encouraging word. Called to seek out and serve the lost, vulnerable, broken and oppressed. A pediatric nurse, she has worked in numerous inpatient and outpatient settings, and with the underserved domestically and internationally. She carries a particular call to stand with the impoverished, whether they be affected materially, emotionally, physically or spiritually. She currently lives in Austin, TX with her dog Nigel.

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