I’ve had my share of toxic relationships over the years. Hell, I’ve even been the toxic one before. There was a time when I was a police officer, I was pretty negative. I went around complaining about everything repeatedly, “I keep saying it can’t get any worse, but every time I say that, it does.” In truth, as I came to learn, things weren’t that bad. In fact, they were pretty good. Sure I would have changed my shift or assignment around here and there and replaced a boss or two along the way, but overall, I had it pretty good and was doing what I had dreamed about since I was a kid. Still though, if I could take back some of my rants to people about how messed up my place of employment was, I would do it in a second.
A toxic relationship is one that holds you back, brings you down, or causes you to compromise your values. If you are expending much of your time, effort and energy and getting very little back in return, it might be time to reevaluate. Many times the relationships we’ve formed with people didn’t start off toxic, but as both people and the relationship evolved, they became toxic to one another. It’s equally important to note that no relationship is perfect and one can always find negative aspects to each of our relationships, but to what degree?
I always think of relationships as each having their own joint bank account. Are you making deposits into the account? Are you encouraging, loving, supporting, or doing something else that adds emotional credit to your joint account? Or, are you drawing credits out of the bank? Sometimes, when we are having a difficult time in life, we end up drawing more out of our accounts with our friends and loved ones than we put in, and that’s fine so long as it doesn’t become a permanent situation.
Then look at the the other person. Are they drawing credits out constantly? Are they putting anything of value into the account? If all they are doing is making withdrawals and there’s no end in sight, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate what you are getting from this relationship. I believe every relationship should be beneficial to both people. Both people should be putting something in and both should be getting something out.
Maybe you have that friend who is a great listener. That person fulfills a need for you by allowing you a safe place to talk about anything. That person is dedicating their time and energy to further your journey. Do you just call when you need to talk and never do anything for them in return? Maybe it’s time you made sure you’re doing something for them that they need also. It’s just as important to evaluate yourself as it is the other person.
Just because a relationship is toxic doesn’t mean anyone is a bad person. It’s no cause to judge or look down the finger of contempt at them, or yourself. Evaluating your relationships and making sure they are mutually beneficial is important. Are you encouraging, loving, supporting, caring, or having fun? Are you both making deposits and withdrawals? The tightrope to walk is to appreciate life and the path everyone is on, realizing that we all have issues we are working on, and accepting that at this time in your life, certain relationships may be detrimental. If so, the hardest part can be trying to end a long relationship.
I was friends with a man for over 10 years who was really an amazing person. He was caring, giving, fun and was amazing at living in the moment. He taught me a lot about seizing the moment and enjoying my life. Many times I got into situations where all I did was work. I would sometimes work for weeks without a day off. When he would come out for a visit, he had a way of snapping me out of my workaholic tendencies and opening my eyes to the preciousness of life, reminding me how to enjoy it. In return, I helped him focus and grounded him.
As the years went on, he became more and more self-destructive. He was spiraling and quickly picking up speed. He had health issues, wasn’t exercising, didn’t eat right, and drank too much. He became more and more isolated, slowly cutting himself off from people. Despite my efforts at helping him, he wasn’t interested in what I had to say. I tried to listen, offer advice and support, but unless I was agreeing with his sense of reality, my words went in one ear and out the other.
He began getting angry at me for a lot of trivial things. He took everything personally and he was convinced that all of my actions were a personal affront to him. Much of the time, it took a lot of my energy just to convince him I was still his friend. His insecurities were building and growing.
I was finding it more and more difficult to be around him. He began bossing everyone around and trying to take control of people and their circumstances. He began offending people. He would find the one thing about someone that bothered them most and call them out in front of others about it within the first few minutes of meeting them. When I pointed this out to him, he told me it was his job to help people work through their biggest problems, while ironically working on none of his own. He also began arguing and yelling at people in public, nearly getting us in fights.
A weird phenomenon began happening—his home began mirroring the barrier building and wall erecting he was doing emotionally. He put up fences and more fences, gates, and locks. He even put a locked, rolling gate across his driveway in a neighborhood that had never even thought of such a feature. His house was becoming a locked, heavily barricaded fortress with cameras. He began implementing different systems around the house so he wouldn’t need to be as dependent on services provided by the utilities. Normally I would say this could be a good thing, but the intention here was to be dissociated from needing to rely on anyone for anything.
His kindness began to erode. He began telling people about his former boss who had come down with cancer and was undergoing radiation treatment. It was unclear if the man was going to survive the illness. When my friend had separated from this employer, it wasn’t on great terms. Nothing illegal or immoral, just a hostile parting of the ways. I noticed, as he told others about the illness, he was happy, “That’s what you get when you’re an asshole. Karma is a bitch,” he would say with a big smile. At this point I thought it was going to be hard to continue to be friends with someone that would delight in the suffering and illness of anyone, regardless of their prior history together.
While I love this man and am compassionate about his struggles, I’ve realized that he isn’t at a place in his life where he is willing to look at himself or make any changes. It was difficult to realize I couldn’t force him to evaluate himself. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t snap him out of his funk as he had done for me so many times in the past. I realized the only reason he was able to snap me out of what I was going through was that I was open and willing to it. I allowed it.
I was so exhausted after hanging out with him. I got a feeling of dread when I found out we were going to be hanging out together. I was trying so hard to be a good friend. It got to where he didn’t really ask about me. I was no longer getting any need met from this relationship—it was a complete net loss for me. So, I had to learn how to love him from a distance. I handed him back the pretend reins of control over his life I thought I had possessed the entire time. I learned how to stop making deposits into an account which was only being drawn on by him.
One day, he was again mad at me again for a myriad of perceived trivial injustices, only this time I didn’t come swooping in with all of my energy and care, trying to fix it for him. I didn’t reassure him and tell him how amazing he was. I didn’t cater to his desires and let him control the situation anymore. I didn’t spend more time and energy placating him. I didn’t ignore his tantrum, bad behavior or victimization. I simply said I understood what he said and was sorry he felt that way. I drew some boundaries and didn’t enable him again by rescuing him.
After 10 years of friendship, he told me over a text message that he didn’t think our friendship was working out and that I appeared to be happier with my “new life and friends” and he wished me well. He blocked me, my partner, and friends on social media and I’ve never heard from him again. Putting our friendship on the altar was heartbreaking. I’m compassionate about his difficulties, but I realized that our relationship had become toxic. I was spending my time and energy with him futilely trying to keep him afloat. There was no good coming out of this relationship.
After some time of not speaking with him, I would hear he was out talking about me to anyone that would listen. At any chance, he would say he was right and I was wrong. He accused me of trying to use mind tricks on him. He spent a ton of energy and effort to try to convince everyone that he was an innocent victim (see my article on “Framing Your Perspective”). He even tried to blame my boyfriend. It was very difficult to hear. I got to a point where I found I was better off not knowing any gossip. Just as I couldn’t control his behavior then, I can’t do it now. So today, if someone begins to tell me about what he has said, I politely stop them and say, “I appreciate you wanting to tell me this, but I prefer not to know about anything he is saying.” I was determined not to get sucked in or engage him in any of his games. I truly let go.
I have another friend who is overwhelmingly negative. He still complains about the same five problems that he has had for the last 25 years. He hasn’t made any progress on any of these issues. His complaints are still the exact same complaints with the exact same words I’ve heard over and over like a broken record for years. I expressed a willingness to try to be more positive. I felt depressed after our phone calls. We had set up a pattern where we complained to each other about the parts of ourselves we hated. One day I decided I wanted to focus on what was right instead of the few things that were wrong. I wanted to break our pattern of negativity. I tried framing the situations differently and providing ways of working with and learning to accept life’s imperfections.
Despite my best efforts, the most change I’ve elicited is that now before the same speech about each of the problems there’s a disclaimer in which he says, “I know we are trying to be more positive, but I just gotta say… [insert same speech]” He believes his complaining and venting helps him feel better, and it probably does, for a little while. It’s a band-aid which gives him some temporary relief from his negative feelings, but it doesn’t solve them or fix them. What he is really accomplishing though is dwelling on his negatives, reliving his hurts, and focusing on what’s wrong. He doesn’t realize his speeches aren’t venting for relief, but instead are a reminder to him of the false construct and limitations he has built in which to live his life. Every single time he recites those words, it reinforces the same false barriers around his life that he originally constructed by believing they were true.
When it’s my turn to talk, I tell him about all that’s right. I don’t bring up and talk about what’s wrong with me. I have plenty of issues, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a waste of my valuable time and energy to tell anyone and everyone over and over what’s wrong with me and my life. I also don’t want to be a sounding board for someone’s pity party album on repeat. We are no longer inspiring one another. We aren’t challenging each other to do better. We aren’t making progress together. We are stuck in a rut of habitual, reciprocated enabling of toxicity.
Again, I don’t want any of this to come off as being high and mighty. I am also guilty of spending much of my life trying to work on others rather than working on myself. I have wronged others, made bad choices, treated others unfairly, and even delighted when bad things happened to people I didn’t like. I have been overly negative. I have had issues that I didn’t make any progress on for years at a time. The difference became I didn’t like that version of myself. I reached a point where I decided to do some evaluation and make some changes (therapy radically sped up this process). I didn’t want to be angry all the time. I didn’t want to get stuck. I didn’t want to struggle and not make any progress on the same issues for a lifetime. While I believe some of the things I’m dealing with may very well be lifelong struggles, I want to make as much progress on them as I can. Overall, I want to go as far as I can during my limited time here on Earth. I want to be happy. I want to be positive. I want to learn and grow. I want to change and evolve.
In order to do that, I have to make some hard choices, face some difficult things about myself, and let some people go. The hard part is remaining focused. It’s always tempting to again pick up the problems of others. This is especially true when I find areas of myself I spent years avoiding. It will always be easier to work on others rather than myself. I’m a work in progress—always will be. The reason I wanted to share what I am learning about my struggles and the world is to help others enrich their lives and give insight and guidance to those in the trenches fighting with their own struggles. We can do it!
**Steve Warneke is an award-winning author, writer, contributor, and speaker. Steve’s book and more are available at www.stevewarneke.com.