Toxic Relationships: Accept or Reject?

Most everyone has a person or two in their lives who absolutely pushes their every button or wrecks their last nerve. Seldom is anyone able to carve out an existence in an idyllic world where harmony reigns and kindness and respect flavor every interpersonal interaction. Some of us may be fortunate to spend most of our time with like-minded souls who view the world and relationships from the same vantage point and approach others in an inviting and accepting manner.

The rest of us, though, must move among individuals who seemingly take pride in their ability to irritate others or simply assume that being difficult and unpleasant is the most effective mode of operation. What are the options when you bump up against someone who takes pleasure in making others feel bad?

The “Friend”

What about the “friend” whose presence is more like a toxin than a tonic? Unfortunately, friendships are not always built for the long haul – some relationships have a shorter shelf life than originally anticipated. Most of us “know” when a friendship goes sour. We don’t feel the same pull towards the friend and spending time with the friend becomes something to be dreaded, not happily anticipated. Some of the signs that a friendship is approaching its expiration date include when a friend is only a friend when she is in need, or the friend needs to drag you down to make himself feel good, or the friend seems to treat you like the “back-up plan” when she can’t find someone else to hang with, or the friend is making excuses to avoid spending time with you or stops responding to your calls or texts.

When a friendship turns toxic, it’s not always necessarily a terrible thing. Some friends are simply not the type that are meant to be around for long. Sometimes toxicity shows up when the relationship has reached a natural ending point – but neither friend knows quite how to call it a day. If you feel that this friend is essential to your life, you will need courage to address the relationship breakdown with the friend. But know that when it comes to people, they can only maintain a façade for a limited amount of time – the glitter eventually rubs off and you’re left with whoever is underneath the façade. Don’t expect perfection if you want to be accepted with all of your own imperfections in return.

If you “need” that friend or simply cannot avoid the person, accept that they are not as nice as you had once thought they were and reshape your expectations of what the friendship will look like and how it will function. If the friend is no longer worth the bother that accompanies the relationship, reject their behavior and let go of the relationship. Most of us find enough struggles in our own lives that we don’t need to bring in relationship drama on top of the burdens we already carry.

The Stranger

Don’t you hate that pushy person behind you in line at the grocery store who is crowding you so tightly that the front of their cart keeps bumping your backside? Or the person with 28 items in the “20-item Express” lane? Or what about the person who cuts you off in traffic and even lays on the horn to prove that this was their intention, not an unhappy accident? These people may live their lives in states of dissatisfaction, narcissism, or disempowerment. Sometimes the only power folks can find in their lives is to take advantage of strangers in these ridiculously irritating ways. There is not a lot of “lesson teaching” that you can do in these situations. It’s not that they can’t read the sign or see that they are cutting you off or squeezing you out. When someone is intentionally mean, it’s a way bigger problem than anyone’s gentle reminder is going to fix. Getting just as rude with the person is also likely to backfire – when someone is “cruising for a bruising,” giving them what they’re seeking is only going to end badly for you.

Accepting that the world is full of different kinds of people – some like you and even more unlike you – can put someone’s toxic behavior into perspective. It’s not your job to re-educate others or correct others’ wrongs. If someone is displaying “public toxification,” it’s best to accept that this is her shortcoming and not your responsibility to correct and let it go. Engaging with someone who is making a power play when you just want to do your business and get on with your life can lead to consequences beyond reasonable expectations. When people are not behaving in reasonable ways – and that person is not your responsibility to manage – then avoid the potential of unreasonably upsetting consequences and do your thing and get on your way.

The Family Member

Perhaps the most distressing situation is when you must co-exist with a toxic family member. Whether it’s a parent who takes pleasure in making you feel small or an in-law who wastes no time in making you feel as if you are nowhere good enough for your partner, generational power plays can be the most difficult to handle. Respecting the members of generations ahead of you is pretty much a universally expected practice, yet some elders abuse the power their position provides. When you are locked into a toxic relationship like this, you may just have to accept that the circumstances are not likely to change unless a cataclysmic event unfolds and learn how to be physically present with the offender while not letting yourself become emotionally engaged with the person.

The Inverse Relationship between Desire and Power:

Whoever Wants the Relationship More Holds the Least Power

When you invest little into the relationship or the exchange, you have little to lose and, very likely, more power in the relationship. The person with the most invested in a relationship has the least amount of power, as a rule. So if you accept that a family member is unlikely to change, that the relationship is all that it is likely to be, and that you have the power to reject all of the negative “stuff” that the person is trying to heap on you, you have gained the power to simply accept the situation and reject engagement. You have freed yourself to focus your emotional energy in relationships in which there is mutual respect and emotional satisfaction.

Growing up, many of us probably heard our parents or other adults admonish us that “It takes two to argue.” This remains a hard fact – if you don’t buy into the toxic interaction, you are able to simply reject the negativity and accept that you have the power to emotionally exit the exchange.


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