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Relationships – romantic or otherwise – can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, having a loved one within touching distance has been scientifically found to dull our responses to both emotional and physical pain. On the other, a single argument with a friend or spouse can set back healing processes by 150%.
Perhaps you’ve been friends for decades, but, lately, uproarious laughter has dried to brittle conversation. Or maybe your partner swears unending love and devotion but, if you’re brutally honest with yourself, something just doesn’t feel quite right. Is it simply a natural lull, or could you be in a toxic relationship? If you recognise at least two of the following signs, it’s time to act.
1. You’re suffering from emotional whiplash
The lows make you feel like crawling into a cave and never coming out. But the highs put you right back on top of the world, singing, ‘The hills are alive…’. This kind of inconsistency will undoubtedly be ringing alarm bells, but, since highs are even more seductive when tempered with lows, this kind of dynamic can be dangerously addictive.
2. It’s all about them.
They don’t ask about your day, but are thoughtful enough to give you a blow-by-blow account of theirs. And don’t worry – they’ve already got your weekend planned.
3. You like yourself less when you’re around them.
If the crafting of ‘well-meaning’ backhanded compliments was recognised as an art form, they’d be a grand master. And, somehow, they never fail to force that second piece of cake ever-so-graciously down your throat, whether you want it or not. Perhaps you give as good as you get; perhaps you suffer in self-loathing silence – either way, you’d rather be anyone but you right now.
4. You’re constantly walking on eggshells
You’re terrified of saying the wrong thing. Because you know that, if you do, there will be tears, tantrums and/or world champion-level sulking. If the person in question is over the age of three, you should be asking yourself some questions at this point.
5. You feel used
You’re paying. Again.
6. Other people in your life have expressed concern
Relationships can evolve so slowly that the people involved don’t notice the dynamics changing. Sometimes outsiders, especially those with a genuine interest in your wellbeing, may see things more clearly. If more than one person flags up a warning sign, it’s time to take a good, hard look at things from a more objective perspective.
7. You’ve started making excuses not to see them
Anticipation has become dread, and the encounter itself a chore through which you trudge, emerging voided of all energy and drive.
What Can You Do About It?
1. Work it Out
Try to see things from their perspective. Your friend or partner may not realise the effect their behaviour is having on you. Toxic behaviours tend to say more about the person perpetrating them than they do their ‘victim’, originating from their own deep-rooted issues and insecurities. But whilst you should try to avoid falling prey to emotional blackmail and mind games at all costs, do consider your own part in this dynamic, too. Is it really all their fault? If you are prepared to accept your own mistakes, they may be more likely to do the same.
Schedule a time to meet in a neutral location, on a neutral occasion – if you’re smack bang in the middle of a blazing row, it’s unlikely either of you will be thinking clearly enough to arrive at a productive conclusion.
Choose your words carefully. Let the other person know that you value the relationship and want to work with them to find a way to improve it. Speak calmly and avoid lashing out or meting out blame. Try saying, “I feel… when you…” instead. Give each other plenty of time and space to express thoughts and feelings, making a conscious effort to listen and respond to what the other person is saying. Try not to rehearse responses to what you expect them to say, but maintain an open, attentive awareness.
Try to arrive at a solution together. Pick two or three behaviours which each of you would like to modify and agree on a warning system which will come into place if the behaviour recurs. You might like to choose a neutral word, or use a traffic light system which either of you can invoke at any time. For example, ‘amber’ might mean that you take 5 minutes to cool down and gather your thoughts in separate rooms before reconvening to discuss your thoughts and feelings calmly. Remember, it may take a little time for ingrained patterns of interaction to change.
2. Let it Go
Perhaps you’ve tried to work it out but, a few weeks later, nothing has changed. Or perhaps you already knew, deep down, that you wanted out. So how do you end a toxic relationship?
If it’s a romantic relationship, don’t leave any room for misinterpretation. Be calm, be clear and stick to your guns. An emotional manipulator is likely to promise you the earth at this point – they might even believe they can give it to you. Don’t fall for it. Stay strong. If you’ve ever felt physically threatened by your partner, it’s perfectly acceptable to explain your reasons for ending the relationship by phone or email – remember, your safety is paramount. Try to make it a clean break. If your ex-partner continues to contact you, it might be wise to change your email address and/or phone number.
If it’s a platonic friendship, you may be tempted to fudge the ‘break-up’, gradually becoming ‘busier’ and ‘busier’ until your interaction dwindles to the occasional Facebook ‘like’ (or a covert ‘unfriending’). This approach can save blushes, tears and recriminations on both sides – not to mention future dinner party-related awkwardness. It may also allow you to salvage something of the friendship at a later date. However, if your friend refuses to fade gracefully into the background, you will have to be brave. An email may be appropriate for shorter friendships and/or particularly difficult associates. However, if the friendship is long-standing, you may feel that you owe them a face-to-face explanation. Try using the “I feel… when you…” framework to explain your motivations. Be clear that, although you will always value the positive things which the friendship brought to your life, you feel that, for the reasons you have discussed, it has changed and, as such, you no longer feel able to continue with it. Try to end the exchange on a positive note, if you can, by wishing them well for the future.