How to handle a toxic relationship
Last week, I had lunch with a friend. As we were walking out, she mentioned that she had to see someone who hadn’t always been kind to her, a relationship that caused her more stress and suffering than anything else. She’d been avoiding the meeting, but now it looked inevitable.
“She just makes me so anxious,” she said, gritting her teeth. I’ve been there myself. Lots of times. Seriously toxic relationships call for us to cut off contact altogether; others, though also toxic, seem impossible to avoid. Perhaps you have a constantly criticizing mother-in-law, or a neighbor who seems emotionally stuck in seventh grade. Maybe it’s a boss who belittles you when he’s stressed—or someone who is so under your skin you hold entire conversations with them in your head.
If you, too, have struggled with a toxic relationship, I hope this little instruction manual will help you.
1. Accept that you are in a difficult situation, dealing with a very difficult relationship
Your choices here are fairly limited, and, strangely, acceptance is always the best choice. You can judge and criticize the other person, but that will probably make you feel tense and lonely. Alternately, you could nurse your anxiety and despair that you’ll never be able to get along with them, which will make you feel stressed and sad. You can definitely deny their existence or pretend that they aren’t bothering you. You can block their texts and emails, and avoid every situation where they’ll turn up.
These are all tactics of resistance, and they won’t protect you. Ironically, these tactics will allow the other person to further embed themselves into your psyche.
What does work is to accept that your relationship with them is super hard, and also that you are trying to make it less hard. This gentle acceptance does not mean that you are resigned to a life of misery, or that the situation will never get better. Maybe it will—and maybe it won’t. Accepting the reality of a difficult relationship allows us to soften. And this softening will open the door to your own compassion and wisdom.
Trust me: You are going to need those things.
2. The other person will probably tell you that you are the cause of all their bad feelings
This is not true. You are not responsible for their emotions. You never have been, and you never will be. Don’t take responsibility for their suffering; if you do, they will never have the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves.
3. Tell the truth
When you lie (perhaps to avoid upsetting them), you become complicit in the creation and maintenance of their reality, which is poisonous to you. For example, they might ask you if you forgot to invite them to a party. You can easily say yes, that it was a mistake that they didn’t get the Evite, and did they check their spam folder?
But lying is very stressful for human beings, maybe the most stressful thing. Lie detectors detect not lies, but the subconscious stress and fear that lying causes. This will not make the relationship less toxic.
So, instead, tell the truth. Be sure to tell them your truth instead of your judgment, or what you imagine to be true for other people. Don’t say “I didn’t invite you because it would stress Mom out too much to have you there” or “I didn’t invite you because you are a manipulative drama queen who will find some way to make the evening about you.”
Instead, tell them your truth: “When you are in my home, I feel jittery and nervous, and I can’t relax, so I didn’t invite you to the party. I’m sorry that I’ve hurt your feelings.”
It takes courage to tell the truth, because often it makes people angry. But they will probably be mad at you anyway, no matter what you do. They almost certainly won’t like the new, truth-telling you—and that will make them likely to avoid you in the future. This might be a good thing.
4. If you feel angry or afraid, bring your attention to your breath and do not speak (or write) to the person until you feel calm
It’s normal to want to defend yourself, but remember that anger and anxiety weaken you. Trust that soothing yourself is the only effective thing you can do right now. If you need to excuse yourself, go ahead and step out. Even if it is embarrassing or it leaves people hanging.
5. Have mercy
Anne Lamott defines mercy as radical kindness bolstered by forgiveness, and it allows us to alter a communication dynamic, even when we are interacting with someone mired in anger or fear or jealousy. We do this by offering them a gift from our heart. You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you buy them a cup of coffee? Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?
Forgiveness takes this kindness to a whole new level. I used to think I couldn’t really forgive someone who’d hurt me until they’d asked for forgiveness, preferably in the form of a moving and remorseful apology letter.
But I’ve learned that to heal ourselves we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still hurting us. When we do, we feel happier and more peaceful. This means that you might need to forgive the other person at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.
When we find ways to show mercy to even the person who has cost us sleep and love and even our well-being, something miraculous happens. “When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves,” Anne Lamott writes, “we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp.”
Here’s the real miracle: Our mercy boomerangs back to us. When we show radical kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance—and when we tell the truth in even the most difficult relationship—we start to show ourselves those things. We realize that we can love and forgive and accept even the most terrible aspects of our own being, even if it is only for a moment. We start to show ourselves the truth, and this makes us feel free.
And, in my experience, this makes all we have suffered worth it.