Keep in mind that the toxicity of the above individuals is clearly a matter of degree. You may have experienced some, if not all, of these behaviors – hopefully in a mild form – occasionally in your relationships. And that’s the key word: occasionally. In a toxic relationship these behaviors are the norm, not the exception. Most of us manipulate once in a while, play helpless, induce guilt, etc. We’re not perfect nor are our relationships. What distinguishes a toxic relationship is both the severity of these behaviors and how frequently they occur.
So why do people behave in toxic ways and why do others put up with such behaviors? The answer is the same for both individuals: poor self-esteem rooted in underlying insecurity. Toxic individuals behave the way they do because, at some level, they don’t believe they are lovable and/or that anyone would really willingly want to meet their needs. Their partners stay with toxic individuals because they too believe they are unlovable and that no one would willingly meet their needs.
But aren’t controlling individuals often narcissistic, don’t they simply have inflated egos, believe they’re entitled to everything they want at no cost to themselves?
Occasionally, particularly in the case of the toxic user, narcissism may be part of the problem, but narcissism itself is often a reaction to underlying insecurity.
This brings up the question and the problem of what to do if you’re in a toxic relationship. Many of my clients initially come to me with the hope that I will give them a magical tool that will “fix” their toxic partner, or, at the very least, for me to sympathize with them and agree how bad their partner is. While catharsis may give temporary relief, it isn’t lasting. And while there certainly are things an individual can do to attempt to change the way a toxic partner behaves, most of my clients are often hesitant to do them, fearing their toxic partner may leave the relationship.
The paradox is this: If you want to improve your relationship with a toxic partner, you have to be willing to leave that relationship if nothing changes. If you’re unwilling to do so, you have very limited power available to you. Your toxic partner will know ultimately, regardless of what they do, you really won’t leave.
So before you attempt to confront a toxic partner, make sure your self-esteem and self-confidence are good enough for you to know that you will be all right if they end the relationship with you (or you end up having to end it with them). If you’re not there I strongly urge you to get therapeutic help and/or to join a co-dependency group.
wWhat to Do
The bad news is that you cannot change your partner. The good news is that you can change yourself which may lead you to behave differently with your partner, resulting in your partner deciding to change his or her behavior. Essentially what you do is calmly but firmly confront the toxic behavior. You do this by identifying the behavior(s) to your partner, letting him or her know they are no longer acceptable, and suggesting alternate behaviors that would work better. Simple, isn’t it?
Actually, it is. Once again, you have to believe you deserve to be treated with courtesy, compassion, and respect in a relationship or you will not continue the relationship.
When you first confront a toxic partner you can expect that he or she will actually escalate their controlling behaviors. You have to be able to handle whatever they do. You have to stay calm and firm and simply repeat your request. If your partner refuses to change, consider separating from the relationship for 30 days. You should then talk with them again, repeat your requests, and let them know that you will not stay in the relationship if they continue their toxic behavior. If they once again refuse to change, you need to end the relationship. If they promise to change but relapse, repeat the cycle one more time. The bottom line: you can attempt to seriously improve a toxic relationship only if you’re prepared to leave it.
A notable exception: I believe strongly in a “zero tolerance” policy for physical abuse. No matter how apologetic your partner is, if you’ve been physically abused you must separate from them immediately. If they then seek appropriate help and you have reasonable confidence that they will not physically abuse you again, you may consider whether or not you want to return to the relationship.
What if you have a parent(s) who behave in a toxic manner? Fortunately, as an adult child you do not live with them 24/7, and you likely have the support of a significant other in dealing with them. Essentially you need to deal with a toxic parent in the same way you would deal with a toxic partner: You confront the controlling behavior, offer alternative ways the two (or three) of you could relate, and see what happens. If your parent(s) refuse to change their behavior which, as mentioned above, will usually be control by toxic guilt induction, you will need to severely limit their contact with you. Since few of us would, or should, totally abandon an elderly parent who may need our help, you’ll probably maintain some contact with them, but you’ll need to take control of the relationship. Not an easy task, but by taking control – for example by limiting phone calls, or by you choosing when you do or do not see them, etc. – you may be able to offer them the help they need while keeping your emotional equilibrium.
We often label those who stay in toxic relationships as “co-dependent;” they may well be. Co-dependency is, in my opinion, a result of low self-esteem that can make it very difficult to follow the plan I’ve suggested. Again, if you’re in a toxic relationship and having trouble, or are reluctant to effectively confront your partner’s behavior, seek therapeutic help. You might well profit from joining a “co-dependency” group. By all means read books and/or use the Internet to find other techniques to help yourself develop the self-esteem and self-confidence you need to live without a toxic relationship.