We all know our toxic relationship patterns — or will once we take a moment to look closer. It happens in all sorts of relationships, be they romantic, friendly, or even work-based.
We see a partner taking up all the energy in the room, making everything about their needs and wants and interests, with ours never coming into play. And we see ourselves letting this go on because it feels like that’s the only way to maintain the relationship. Resentment builds, and it’s a vicious cycle.
Toxic relationships usually require both people to continue the same pattern of interaction and a lack of empathy adds to the impact of the negative interaction.
“Sit down and address specifics of what is making you feel bad. Not through accusation but rather through “when you say this, this is how it makes me feel”. Try to help them understand how it feels to be you. Ask them what you might be doing to contribute to this dynamic and be willing to make your own changes in response,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
It’s also important to recognize that some toxic relationships can’t be repaired and it may be better to end it.
Not every toxic relationship can become healthy because healing requires both people to take responsibility for their behavior, and not everyone is willing to do that.
If both people are on board, here are some steps to detox your relationship:
1. Each person understands and takes responsibility for their participation
“This means they each do some soul searching and an honest investigation into why they were behaving like that. What were they projecting onto the other person? What wound was getting triggered? How were they trying to protect themselves?” said life and business coach Tristan Gutner.
It’s not sexy or fun work, but damn can it move mountains in a relationship.
2. Knowing that it’s not really about the other person.
Regardless of what was said or done in an interaction, how we feel has nothing to do with the other person. The anger, sadness, hurt, etc. that we’re feeling is there because that interaction is triggering something from our past.
“It’s SO tempting to blame the other person or make them wrong, but really, they’re offering us a gift: the opportunity to identify and heal a very old wound,” said Gutner.
3. Honest communication
As simple as it may sound, this is the most significant step.
“Honest, clear communication puts all the cards on the table, allows old wounds to finally get some air, and helps get each person clear about what the interaction is actually about,” said Gutner.
This practice helps rebuild trust, intimacy, vulnerability, and safety.
4. Acknowledge that relationships don’t start out toxic
“I always lay that out there first because often times people remember the first month of their relationship and don’t understand why they can’t have that all the time. But that is just lust and potentially there are some red flags during that time but no relationship starts insta-toxic,” said Emily Davis, bestselling author and a relationship coach.
There are a few reasons a friendship become toxic however, and sometimes it’s that one or more person is letting the fear from their past failed friendships or other relationships dictate how they treat each other.
“I am speaking strictly about a toxic relationship, NOT an abusive relationship. Yes, toxic relationships are traumatic but the difference is that one partner is not intentionally harming the other for their own gain. If that is happening then it is an abusive relationship and not just toxic,” said Davis.
“Toxic” does not mean “beyond saving,” but fear is the enemy of growth
“The number one tip that I offer my clients it to get very very clear on what they are afraid of,” said Davis. “Take a half an hour and make a list of all their fears, everything from their grandmother’s basement to abandonment.”
The next step is to then communicate with their partner what they wrote down, and if they are comfortable enough, share the “why.”
“This exercise is not to make excuses for their toxic fear driven behavior but to create awareness amongst each other so that they can show compassion around each other’s fears and start to create a communication bond,” said Davis.
Communication without accusation is so important, so when speaking about your or your partner’s fears, so make sure that you do not under any circumstance use your friend’s fears against them. The way to make a toxic relationship healthy is through mutual kindness and teamwork.
“I know it can be scary but make sure that you both are vulnerable with each other about how the other can help you through what you struggle with,” said Davis.
5. Get support
“Either with just books, or a coach, or a therapist if you are both welcoming to that but find a support system that can help you on this journey,” said Davis.
6. Set boundaries
“In any relationship, we bring our past selves to the table — both the good and the bad. What we learn as children about intimate partnerships can be positive or negative or somewhere in between,” said Michelene Wasil, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
If our parental models growing up were toxic, we often carry those maladaptive patterns through to other relationships. ”This is why, when couples come to see me — if there is a high level of toxicity, I urge them to work on improving the damage from childhood by seeking individual help as well,” said Wasil.
In the end, be ready to let go.
“It is not always possible to save a toxic relationship because what often makes a relationship toxic is the inability to respond well to growth and change,” said Therese Yrani, a marriage and family therapist.
However, if you are willing to acknowledge the toxic patterns and put efforts towards changing, it is possible.