Dealing with a “Toxic Relationship”: How to Change the Interaction

Have you ever dealt with someone who you have labelled as “toxic?”  Chances are, it’s unlikely that you saw yourself as the source of the toxicity in that relationship. Maybe the other person was draining your energy. Maybe they weren’t putting the same amount of work into the relationship as you are.  Whatever it may have been, you likely focused on the other person’s actions when you labelled your relationship as toxic. You lost sight of the fact that the relationship is reciprocal. You focused on the way that it affected you. You focused on the harm that you felt. You don’t consider the other. We call that self absorption, and it is almost always present in conflict.


These are symptoms of being off center. When you feel hurt or angry, you have the tendency to go on autopilot. When that happens, your vision narrows.  You sacrifice your rational thinking to your personal reactivity. The other person quickly becomes vindictive and toxic. As Heidi Priebe notes in her Thought Catalog article on the subject, we like to perceive toxic people to be monsters- trying to tear us down and make our lives wretched at all costs. These labels classify the toxic people that surround you as worthy subjects of your anger and resentment. You may even use these labels as justification for cutting someone out of your life entirely. They did this to me, so they don’t deserve to be in my life, you may think. And you may be right. But, then again, maybe not.


Being Relational, you might look at things differently. How can you change the interaction between yourself and someone that you perceive as toxic?


Dealing with people who you perceive to be toxic will likely require you to use all seven ways of being relational, but we would like to focus on the impact that being grounded can have on your perceptions of situation.


This starts with taking a step back and recognizing that your tunnel vision is a result of being self absorbed. Is the other person purposefully trying to ruin your life? Maybe, but maybe not. Priebe’s article serves as a reminder that in all likelihood you’ve been the toxic one yourself in the past. Maybe you didn’t even notice the impact you were having. So it doesn’t add up: how could you not notice that you were hurting someone, if you believe the toxic people in your life are intentionally ruining yours?


It is because you are not grounded that you do not realize that the other person might not be trying to be actively malicious. Priebe gives the example of over-involved parents who may not be forcing us into activities we hate because they obviously want us to be humiliated,but because they’re misinformed about what might challenge us.  The list goes on.  Priebe writes that very few people approach life with deliberately ill intent. Very few people make it a goal to make their loved ones miserable. Very few people deliberately set out to wreak havoc within their personal relationships and yet so many of us do anyway. Why is that?


It’s a problem with your thinking not being grounded. You see how others affect you, but not how you affect others. There is no way for your parents to know what actually challenges you unless you make the conscious choice to tell them why their current behavior is problematic.  But when you allow your personal reactivity to take over, you obstruct your own view of the situation at hand.  You make engaging with the other seem unrealistic and out of the question. There’s no way the other person would sit down with me, let alone listen to me, you might think. Even they were to listen to me, they would only end up working against me and try to undermine me even further.


That thinking is called conflict self-talk. But think about how you would interact with someone, a close friend for example, who came to you and said that you were hurting them in a way you didn’t even realize. Would you refuse to listen to them? Convince them they were wrong? Or would you be relational with them, engage fully in the conversation, and be open? Would you choose to explain that you didn’t understand the pain you were causing? Would you ask how you could make sure you aren’t hurting the other in the future? Would you try to find a solution to the problem? These are options worth considering.


When dealing with someone that you perceive to be toxic it can be very easy to assume the worst of the other. Everyone has the potential to be toxic, and interaction that values the self over other is often at the root of the problem. If we stop to think about how our perception of a situation may differ from other’s perceptions of that same situation, we realize they aren’t necessarily out to get us. There’s the chance that they are just processing the situation differently. We use relational skills to try to understand that difference. We look harder and focus on the other just as we do ourselves. Maybe it’s not the other person that’s toxic, but our perceptions of the other that are. By changing our thinking and staying grounded, we can change the interaction and radically change the path of a relationship.