When therapists write, talk, teach, or counsel about relationships it is usually about strengthening them, increasing resilience, and finding balance in interpersonal relationships. We describe how and why to put effort into family and friendship to form lasting bonds. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to help others see destructive patterns in their relationships and provide them the wisdom and skills to break free. Not every relationship can or should be saved; recognizing the difference is critical.
Humans are social creatures, desiring and meant to be in relationships with others. Most of us share this pull toward relationship and have spent a lifetime searching for and connecting with others. Most of us will marry or otherwise join into a long-term, monogamous romantic relationship at some point or other in our lives and, when one of those relationships ends through separation or death, will seek out another.
Likewise with friendship. We search for those with similar interests, outlooks, and experiences, who provide affirmation and camaraderie, and with whom we can share trust. Whether exuberantly extroverted, with dozens of besties to feed the need for companionship, or reservedly introverted and content to (occasionally… very occasionally) hang with a select handful of truly deep friends, these social bonds are critical to our mental and physical health.
As long as they are emotionally healthy themselves, that is.
We all have our psychological baggage, the collection of negative emotional issues formed in the past and carried with us through life to let influence our present. This baggage might have come from family, friends (or enemies), past romantic relationships, the environment you grew up in or came to occupy, how you are wired emotionally, or some combination of the above. Emotionally healthy people recognize the issues of their past and how they can impact decisions and relationships today, and consistently rise above them to crat a functional and happy life. They own and control their baggage, aware of its existence but able to minimize or avoid its harm.
And then there are the toxic people. For our purposes here, let us define a toxic person as one who, by acting out certain pervasive personality traits in the form of habitual behaviors or destructive decisions, consistently creates a serious negative impact on others physically, financially, mentally or emotionally with whom (s)he is in relationship.
The toxic person, as the phrase implies, is like poison to others with whom they are in a relationship. It is easy to say, “Just leave!” to someone tied to one of these people, but it’s really not that simple. They may be a longtime friend or close family member who is truly loved, despite their toxicity. They may not have always been toxic – people go through difficult times, after all, and often default to dysfunctional or destructive behaviors under pressure – so abandoning them may not be the first or best option. And if they are a spouse, parent, sibling, or child, letting go of such a deep bond is nearly impossible. Instead, learning to set appropriate boundaries for yourself while keeping lines of communication and help open as long as possible may be a difficult but preferable choice. It may even be the impetus someone needs to get help or make positive changes.
But sometimes letting go is a must! Sometimes that friend, relative, or even close immediate family member is too much, too damaging, too far gone and refusing to turn around, or even hell-bent on your destruction if that’s what it takes to meet their emotional demands. Almost all of us have been sucked into a toxic relationship at some time or another, or discovered too late that what we thought was a healthy one was deceptive on the surface. It happens to all of us and, believe it or not, it happens to therapists and other mental health professionals, as well.
When leaving – not salvaging – a relationship is the goal
Leaving behind a spouse/significant other, close family member or friend, or even your very own child can be excruciating. Doing so should never be taken lightly, for your own good and theirs; for these people, learning to set clear boundaries with the hope for full reconciliation should be the first step. Should those boundaries fail or the destructiveness increase, and leaving behind someone you may truly love or feel intimately connected to is on the table, being absolutely sure before saying goodbye is critical.
For less intimate (but often still valued) relationships, letting go won’t carry the same emotional impact. Still, knowing when red flags are starting to fly and it’s time to pump the brakes on the friendship is important – and surprisingly difficult. Sometimes, since there is less closeness, it is easy to ignore the warnings until you find yourself once again chin deep in drama.
In either case, knowing when to say “When” is what this article is about.
Recognizing the Signs of Trouble
When counseling clients in the office or teaching relationships skills anywhere, we have come up with Relationship Red Flags that signal the possibility a bond may need to be broken. It is important to understand that the existence of the red flag doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship must or should end. Problems can often be fixed but, if requests or attempts to address the issue(s) are repeatedly rebuffed, the other person refuses to see the problem, sees it but refuses to change, the issues are pervasive and their consequences damaging with little or no hope for change, then it may be time to throw in the towel.
The red flags are:
Verbal, physical, and/or emotional abusiveness: Successful relationships require safety, and abuse destroys safety. When it’s clear the abuse is to be a permanent part of the relationship it is time to break free. When the abuse is ongoing despite repeated broken promises to change, consider that change is neither desired not realistic for the abuser. And when the abuse is clear and unambiguous but your reality is constantly denied or challenged, get out.
Repeatedly violating your requests, limits and boundaries: What someone consistently violates reasonable requests you make or the personal boundaries set they are telling you clearly that what you want simply doesn’t matter. They are bullies whose goal is to force your submission to their will.
Dishonesty/Lying: Ask most people what they most need for a healthy relationship and trust will almost always be at the top of the list. When trust is repeatedly violated emotional (and sometimes physical) safety is compromised, and when the relationship is marked by repeated dishonesty and deceit, is there really any hope for it?
Clinginess/Neediness: Many of us are natural caretakers and the drive to protect the less strong is inherent, admirable, and serves a valuable purpose. The danger, however, is being susceptible to needy, clingy people who’ll gladly suck you dry and leave an empty husk behind!
Being someone’s personal “hero” is certainly exhilarating … until it becomes a burden. This is especially likely if their neediness is pathological (i.e., they have a psychological need to be rescued over and over again, a fear of abandonment, or they seem to have no capacity to solve any problems themselves).
Teasing, ridiculing, taunting, or badmouthing others: We are not talking about good-natured teasing or viewing the world with a sense of humor or sarcasm, but rather dingo it with the intent to hurt or diminish someone else, elevate their own status or ego at the expense of another, or sow destruction in their wake. Big difference!
When someone’s humor is mean-spirited, or everyone is seen as worthy of their cutting spite (which will surely include you, sooner or later), this is a person to keep at arm’s length… or further.
Doing all the talking and none of the listening: Do you find yourself focusing on their problems, their worries, their interests, their ideas and their world without ever allowing the focus to fall on you? Healthy relationships cannot sustain that level of one-sidedness for long. Intimacy and friendship require reciprocity; when you are merely a sounding board whose world never becomes their focus – even when you try to steer it to the forefront or ask for their consideration – you are in a one-sided relationship that will drain your emotional banks without ever making a deposit.
Always looking for a favor: It is essential to guard against those who see your value only in the position or power you hold and how it can be exploited. We all eventually encounter one – or several – of these people who value your closeness only for how it can benefit them. If you find yourself always being the one loaning money or resources, fixing someone else’s problems, or as an inroad to another, more lucrative social or professional connection, get out!
Favor seekers always want free advice, the use of your (imagined) influence, or access to your stuff they’re too cheap to buy or rent themselves. Fine, once is a while, until it is obvious you are only as good to them as what they can get from you. With any of “red flag” it’s usually good to try and change behavior first. Sometimes they will be horrified at their insensitivity and truly change. But if your attempts are met with refusals or hostility, reevaluation of the relationship is in order. Leaving even a one-sided or abusive relationship can hurt, it’s true, but sometimes staying in one hurts much more.