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NO MAN IS AN ISLAND: Recognising and dealing with toxic relationships | Anne-Bénédicte Damon MSc., Clinical Psychologist

No man is an island.” (John Donne, 1624)

Better to be alone than in bad company.” (Popular saying)

Now more than ever, after two years of a pandemic that made us isolate from the world, we are rediscovering the value of close relationships, whether they are with friends, lovers, spouses or family members. People – and psychologists – usually agree on the fact that those relationships are a positive thing, or even a necessary thing for every human being.

In some cases, though, instead of being a blessing, those relationships are toxic, soul-destroying, vampiric, crushing…or whatever other adjective you want to use. Mostly, these toxic relationships are one-sided, and one of the individuals is being manipulated by the other. What are the warning signs? How can you know what is happening and escape?

The first sign that not everything is well is usually a simple feeling – you are experiencing uneasiness, you can’t exactly pinpoint why. Sometimes, well-meaning outsiders will tell you things about your relationship you will be tempted to dismiss, but if you manage to think about those things with a clear head – which is not always the easiest – you get an inkling of doubt about what is really going on.

Most of these toxic relationships, however, share common warning signs you can learn to recognise.

1. You are not happy in your life with that person. That sounds obvious, and yet, if you’re always feeling exhausted or depressed, or anxious, if you just can’t finish and/or make projects, if you’re living in the grey zone, it’s time to ask yourself why.

2. You would like to end it, and you don’t because you can’t see your way out. Or rather, you don’t think there’s anything better on the other side of the fence.

3. Your self-esteem has gone down dramatically. Nothing you do is ever right for your partner. You’re a lousy cook. You’re a slob. You’re a bad partner/mother/friend. You flirt too much. You…well, you get the picture. They are always criticising you or making you feel guilty and inadequate. A phone call from them can destroy you.

4. And yet…If you ever mention those remarks, you’re “imagining things” – it’s “all in your head”. The other person is making you believe you’re living in an alternate reality – this is called “gaslighting”.

5. Moreover, the other person is trying to isolate you, so that those well-meaning outsiders can’t try to get you out of their clutches. They tell you you’re spending too much time with your friends/your families and not enough time with them. They’ll cast suspicion on those people to make you avoid them. They can even resort to threats or emotional blackmail.

6. This person wants to control you – you’re their toy. They phone you several times a day, asking where you are and what you are doing. You feel like you have no privacy.

7. They can also resort to making themselves the victims in the relationship. They are usually very self-centred, and everything has to be about them. If you had a bad day at work, theirs was worse. If you’re feeling sick, they have the worse headache ever. You get the drift. Sometimes, it’s barely perceptible “I’m so glad you’re going out tonight, darling. Of course, it means I’ll be all alone and sick at home, but as long as you’re enjoying yourself…”

8. Again…they are self-centred. Which also means that they know everything, and others know nothing. In company, they must be the centre of conversations. Their needs come first. They can be jealous. They also don’t handle criticism very well.

9. If you try to change to make them happy – as if that could ever happen, it’s never enough or exactly what they want, especially because they never communicate clearly – either their feelings or their requests.

10. But they do change – a lot. You often cannot recognise the person they were at the beginning of your relationship. The person who was so charming and considerate. The person who promised you the world. The person who told you you were wonderful. Or sometimes, you catch a glimpse of that person, but they quickly disappear again. However, they can be completely different in private and in public, when they have an audience. They can be the life and soul of the party, and a complete misery-guts at home, and blame you for it as well.  

“I have identified my relationship as toxic; what can I do?”

Run! Run far away, and don’t look back. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, but a toxic relationship is very difficult to fix, especially if you’re being manipulated. The Master/Mistress puppeteer – to avoid using the often wrongly-used “narcissist” or “pervert” or “sociopath” – will never change. You cannot tell them to go to therapy – they won’t go, because “there’s nothing wrong with them – you’re the problem.” To their “credit”, they don’t realise exactly that what they are doing is wrong, or is causing someone else to suffer. Nothing else matters except their own needs and well-being. Plus, they don’t actually want to change – and that’s the basis of a successful therapy. They know better, and they’re always right.

If you can’t run…you have to choose to counter-manipulate them, and that means changing your communication mode. You need to never let them know they have an impact on you. If you can use humour, all the better. They cannot know the details of your life. They cannot know what you are feeling. This is called grey-rocking. You make yourself as bland and smooth and uninteresting as a grey rock…But this is only a short-term solution and obviously will work mostly if you’re not living with the person

Most importantly – get help. From your friends, but also from a therapist. The first and most important thing is to recognise what is happening to you. The other person may be a sibling, parent, friend, other relative, not necessarily a partner, but finding a way to disengage and reduce the power they have over you is key. Talking to a therapist can help you to clarify the situation and show you that you are not the cause of the toxicity in the relationship.

Finally, if the other person easily becomes aggressive, and is, or threatens to be violent towards you, you need to seek professional help to protect yourself and any vulnerable people close to you.  Report threats or violence to the police, find a women’s group which offers support, or a refuge if you need to escape.

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