Family is supposed to be our safe haven. Sometimes, however, it’s the place where we find the deepest heartache.
Letting go of (or breaking up with) a toxic friend, boyfriend or girlfriend is one thing, and there’s plenty of advice out there for doing so, but what about letting go of a toxic family member?
Most of us are not in a position to just walk away, nor do we feel that we want to, or that it’s the right thing to do. So what do we do when a family member is literally spoiling our lives with their toxicity? How do we deal with our feelings of obligation, confusion, betrayal and heartache?
First and foremost, you must accept the fact that not everyone’s family is healthy or available for them to lean on, to call on, or to go home to. Not every family tie is built on the premise of mutual respect, love and support. Sometimes “family” simply means that you share a bloodline. That’s all. Some family members build us up and some break us down.
Second, you must understand that a toxic family member may be going through a difficult stage in their lives. They may be ill, chronically worried, or lacking what they need in terms of love and emotional support. Such people need to be listened to, supported, and cared for (although whatever the cause of their troubles, you may still need to protect yourself from their toxic behavior at times).
The key thing to keep in mind is that every case of dealing with a toxic family member is a little different, but in any and every case there are some universal principles we need to remember, for our own sake:
- They may not be an inherently bad person, but they’re not the right person to be spending time with every day. – Not all toxic family relationships are agonizing and uncaring on purpose. Some of them involve people who care about you – people who have good intentions, but are toxic because their needs and way of existing in the world force you to compromise yourself and your happiness. And as hard as it is, we have to distance ourselves enough to give ourselves space to live. You simply can’t ruin yourself on a daily basis for the sake of someone else. You have to make your well-being a priority. Whether that means spending less time with someone, loving a family member from a distance, letting go entirely, or temporarily removing yourself from a situation that feels painful – you have every right to leave and create some healthy space for yourself.
- Toxic people often hide cleverly behind passive aggression. – Passive aggressive behavior takes many forms but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behavior. Instead of openly expressing how they feel, someone makes subtle, annoying gestures directed at you. Instead of saying what’s actually upsetting them, they find small and petty ways to take jabs at you until you pay attention and get upset. This is obviously a toxic relationship situation. It shows this person is set on not communicating openly and clearly with you. Keep in mind that most sane human beings will feel no reason to be passive-aggressive toward you if they feel safe expressing themselves. In other words, they won’t feel a need to hide behind passive aggression if they feel like they won’t be judged or criticized for what they are thinking. So make it clear to your family members that you accept them for who they are, and that they aren’t necessarily responsible or obligated to your ideas and opinions, but that you’d love to have their support. If they care about you, they will likely give it, or at least compromise in some way. And if they refuse to, and continue their passive aggression, you may have no choice but to create some of that space discussed in point #1. (Read Emotional Blackmail.)
- They will try to bully you into submission if you let them. – We always hear about schoolyard bullies, but the biggest bullies are often toxic family members. And bullying is never OK. Period! There is no freedom on Earth that gives someone the right to assault who you are as a person. Sadly, some people just won’t be happy until they’ve pushed your ego to the ground and stomped on it. What you have to do is have the nerve to stand up for yourself. Don’t give them leeway. Nobody has the power to make you feel small unless you give them that power. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but just as much to stand up to your family and friends. Sometimes bullying comes from the most unlikely places. Be cognizant of how the people closest to you treat you, and look out for the subtle jabs they throw. When necessary, confront them – whatever it takes to give yourself the opportunity to grow into who you really are.
- Pretending their toxic behavior is OK is NOT OK. – If you’re not careful, toxic family members can use their moody behavior to get preferential treatment, because… well… it just seems easier to quiet them down than to listen to their grouchy rhetoric. Don’t be fooled. Short-term ease equals long-term pain for you in a situation like this. Toxic people don’t change if they are being rewarded for not changing. Decide this minute not to be influenced by their behavior. Stop tiptoeing around them or making special pardons for their continued belligerence. Constant drama and negativity is never worth putting up with. If someone in your family over the age 21 can’t be a reasonable, reliable, respectful adult on a regular basis, it’s time to speak up and stand your ground.
- You do not have to neglect yourself just because they do. – Practice self-care every day. Seriously, if you’re forced to live or work with a toxic person, then make sure you get enough alone time to rest and recuperate. Having to play the role of a ‘focused, rational adult’ in the face of toxic moodiness can be exhausting, and if you’re not careful, the toxicity can infect you. Toxic family members can keep you up at night as you constantly question yourself: “Am I doing the right thing? Am I really so terrible that they despise me so much? I can’t BELIEVE she did that! I’m so hurt!!” Thoughts like these can keep you agonizing for weeks, months, or even years. Sometimes this is the goal of a toxic family member, to drive you mad and make you out to be the crazy one. Because oftentimes they have no idea why they feel the way they do, and they can’t see beyond their own emotional needs… hence their relentless toxic communication and actions. And since you can’t control what they do, it’s important to take care of yourself so you can remain centered, feeling healthy and ready to live positively in the face of negativity when you must – mindfulness, meditation, prayer and regular exercise work wonders!
- If their toxic behavior becomes physical, it’s a legal matter that must be addressed. – If you’ve survived the wrath of a physical abuser in your family, and you tried to reconcile things… If you forgave, and you struggled, and even if the expression of your grief had you succumb to outbursts of toxic anger… If you spent years hanging on to the notions of trust and faith, even after you knew in your heart that those beautiful intangibles, upon which love is built and sustained, would never be returned… And especially, if you stood up as the barrier between an abuser and someone else, and took the brunt of the abuse in their place… You are a HERO! But now it’s time to be the hero of your future. Enough is enough! If someone is physically abusive, they are breaking the law and they need to deal with the consequences of their actions.
- Although it’s hard, you can’t take their toxic behavior personally. – It’s them, not you. KNOW this. Toxic family members will likely try to imply that somehow you’ve done something wrong. And because the ‘feeling guilty’ button is quite large on many of us, even the implication that we might have done something wrong can hurt our confidence and unsettle our resolve. Don’t let this happen to you. Remember, there is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally. Most toxic people behave negatively not just to you, but to everyone they interact with. Even when the situation seems personal – even if you feel directly insulted – it usually has nothing to do with you. What they say and do, and the opinions they have, are based entirely on their own self-reflection. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Self-Love” and “Relationships” chapters of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
- Hating them for being toxic only brings more toxicity into your life. – As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” Regardless of how despicable a family member has acted, never let hate build in your heart. Fighting hatred with hatred only hurts you more. When you decide to hate someone you automatically begin digging two graves: one for your enemy and one for yourself. Hateful grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is for those who are strong enough and smart enough to move on. After all, the best revenge is to be unlike the person who hurt you. The best revenge is living well, in a way that creates peace in your heart.
- People can change, and some toxic family relationships can be repaired in the long run. – When trust is broken, which happens in nearly every family relationship at some point, it’s essential to understand that it can be repaired, provided both people are willing to do the hard work of self-growth. In fact, it’s at this time, when it feels like the solid bedrock of your relationship has crumbled into dust, that you’re being given an opportunity to shed the patterns and dynamics with each other that haven’t been serving you. It’s painful work and a painful time, and the impulse will be walk away, especially if you believe that broken trust cannot be repaired. But if you understand that trust levels rise and fall over the course of a lifetime you’ll be more likely to find the strength to hang in, hang on, and grow together. But it does take two. You can’t do it alone. (Read Loving What Is.)
- Sadly, sometimes all you can do is let go for good. – All details aside, this is your life. You may not be able to control all the things toxic family members do to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them in the long run. You can decide not to let their actions and opinions continuously invade your heart and mind. And above all, you can decide whom to walk beside into tomorrow, and whom to leave behind today. In a perfect world we would always be able to fix our relationships with toxic family members, but as you know the world isn’t perfect. Put in the effort and do what you can to keep things intact, but don’t be afraid to let go and do what’s right for YOU when you must.
The floor is yours…
What are your experiences with toxic family members? What have you done to cope with their toxic behavior? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
Photo by: Patricia Bru
Think of a time when you sat across from a friend and felt truly understood. Deeply known. Maybe you sensed how she was bringing out your ‘best self’, your cleverest observations and wittiest jokes. She encouraged you. She listened, articulated one of your patterns, and then gently suggested how you might shift it for the better. The two of you gossiped about your mutual friends, skipped between shared memories, and delved into cherished subjects in a seamlessly scripted exchange full of shorthand and punctuated with knowing expressions. Perhaps you felt a warm swell of admiration for her, and a simultaneous sense of pride in your similarity to her. You felt deep satisfaction to be valued by someone you held in such high regard: happy, nourished and energised through it all.
These are the friendships that fill our souls, and bolster and shape our identities and life paths. They have also been squeezed into social science labs enough times for us to know that they keep us mentally and physically healthy: good friends improve immunity, spark creativity, drop our bloodpressure, ward off dementia among the elderly, and even decrease our chances of dying at any given time. If you feel you can’t live without your friends, you’re not being melodramatic.
But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.
The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?
One explanation for imbalance is that many friendships are aspirational: a study of teens shows that people want to be friends with popular people, but those higher up the social hierarchy have their pick (and skew the average). A corroborating piece of evidence, which was highlighted by Steven Strogatz in a 2012 article in The New York Times, is the finding that your Facebook ‘friends’ always have, on average, more ‘friends’ than you do. So much for friendship being an oasis from our status-obsessed world.
‘Ambivalent’ relationships, in social science parlance, are characterised by interdependence and conflict. You have many positive and negative feelings toward these people. You might think twice about picking up when they call. These relationships turn out to be common, too. Close to half of one’s important social network members are identified as ambivalent. Granted, more of those are family members (whom we’re stuck with) than friends, but still, for friendship, it’s another push off the pedestal.
Friends who are loyal, reliable, interesting companions – good! – can also be bad for you, should they have other qualities that are less desirable. We know through social network research that depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll smoke and drink more.
Other ‘good’ friends might have, or start to have, goals, values or habits that misalign with your current or emerging ones. They certainly haven’t ‘done’ anything to you. But they aren’t a group that validates who you are, or that will effortlessly lift you up toward your aims over time. Stay with them, and you’ll be walking against the wind.
In addition to annoying us, these mixed-bag friendships harm our health. A 2003 study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University and Bert Uchino from the University of Utah asked people to wear blood-pressure monitors and write down interactions with various people. Blood pressure was higher with ambivalent relationships than it was with friends or outright enemies. This is probably due to the unpredictability of these relationships, which leads us to be vigilant: Will Jen ruin Christmas this year? Ambivalent relationships have also been associated with increased cardiovascular reactivity, greater cellular ageing, lowered resistance to stress, and a decreased sense of wellbeing.
One research team, though, found that ambivalent friendships might have benefits in the workplace. They showed that in these pairings workers are more likely to put themselves in the other’s shoes, in part because they are trying to figure out what the relationship means and what it is. Also, because ambivalent friendships make you feel uncertain about where you stand, they can push you to work harder to establish your position.
‘Frenemies’ are perhaps a separate variety in that they are neatly multi-layered – friendliness atop rivalry or dislike – as opposed to the ambivalent relationship’s admixture of love, hate, annoyance, pity, devotion and tenderness. Plenty of people have attested to the motivating force of a frenemy at work, as well as in the realms of romance and parenting.
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As with unhappy families, there are countless ways a friend can be full-on ‘bad’, no ambivalence about it. Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist in Denver, and Sharon Livingston, a psychologist and marketing consultant in New York, have studied the issue, and found some typical qualities: a bad friend makes you feel competitive with her other friends; she talks much more about herself than you do about yourself; she criticises you in a self-righteous way but is defensive when you criticise her; she makes you feel you’re walking on eggshells and might easily spark her anger or disapproval; she has you on an emotional rollercoaster where one day she’s responsive and complimentary and the next she freezes you out.
In 2014, a team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that, as the amount of negativity in relationships increased for healthy women aged over 50, so did their risk of developing hypertension. Negative social interactions – incidents including excessive demands, criticism, disappointment and disagreeable exchanges – were related to a 38 per cent increased risk. For men, there was no link between bad relationships and high blood pressure. This is likely because women care more about, and are socialised to pay more attention to, relationships.
Negative interactions can lead to inflammation, too, in both men and women. Jessica Chiang, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted a study showing as much, has said that an accumulation of social stressors could cause physical damage, just like an actual toxin.
Some of our most hurtful friendships start out good, but then became bad. Among teens, for example, the rates of cyber aggression are 4.3 times higher between friends than between friends of friends. Or as Diane de Poitiers, the 16th-century mistress of King Henry II of France, said: ‘To have a good enemy, choose a friend: he knows where to strike.’
The writer Robert Greene addresses the slippery slope in his book The48 Laws of Power (1998). Bringing friends into your professional endeavours can aid the gradual crossover from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, he warns, in part because of how we react to grand favours:
Strangely enough, it is your act of kindness that unbalances everything. People want to feel they deserve their good fortune. The receipt of a favour can become oppressive: it means you have been chosen because you are a friend, not necessarily because you are deserving. There is almost a touch of condescension in the act of hiring friends that secretly afflicts them. The injury will come out slowly: a little more honesty, flashes of resentment and envy here and there, and before you know it your friendship fades.
Ah – so too much giving and ‘a little more honesty’ are friendship-disrupters? That conclusion, which runs counter to the ethos of total openness and unlimited generosity between friends, provides a clue as to why there are so many ‘bad’, ‘good and bad’, and ‘good, then bad’ friends. In his paper ‘The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism’ (1971), the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers concludes that ‘each individual human is seen as possessing altruistic and cheating tendencies’, where cheating means giving at least a bit less (or taking at least a bit more) than a friend would give or take from us.
Good people do attract more friends (though being a high-status good person helps)
Trivers goes on to explain that we have evolved to be subtle cheaters, with complex mechanisms for regulating bigger cheaters and also ‘too much’ altruism. He writes:
In gross cheating, the cheater fails to reciprocate at all, and the altruist suffers the costs of whatever altruism he has dispensed without any compensating benefit… clearly, selection will strongly favour prompt discrimination against the gross cheater. Subtle cheating, by contrast, involves reciprocating, but always attempting to give less than one was given, or more precisely, to give less than the partner would give if the situation were reversed.
The rewarding emotion of ‘liking’ someone is also a part of this psychological regulation system, and selection will favour liking those who are altruistic: good people do attract more friends (though being a high-status good person helps). But the issue is not whether we are cheaters or altruists, good or bad, but to what degree are we each of those things in different contexts and relationships.
Perhaps this seesaw between cheating and altruism, which settles to a midpoint of 50/50, explains why 50 per cent keeps coming up in research on friends and relationships. Recall that half of our friendships are non-reciprocal, half of our social network consists of ambivalent relationships, and – to dip into the adjacent field of lie detection – the average person detects lies right around 50 per cent of the time. We evolved to be able to detect enough lies to not be totally swindled, but not enough to wither under the harsh truths of (white-lie-free) social interactions. Likewise, we’ve evolved to detect some cheating behaviours in friends, but not enough to prohibit our ability to be friends with people at all. As the seesaw wobbles, so do our friendships.
Should this sound like a complicated business to you, Trivers agrees, and in fact speculates that the development of this system for regulating altruism among non-kin members is what made our brains grow so big in the Pleistocene. Many neuroscientists agree with his conclusion: humans are smart so that we can navigate friendship.
The psychologist Jan Yager, author of When Friendship Hurts (2002), found that 68 per cent of survey respondents had been betrayed by a friend. Who are these betrayers? At such high numbers, could ‘they’ be us?
We somehow expect friendships to be forever. Friendship break-ups challenge our vision of who we are
That scary thought leads me to ask: are we really striving to forgive small sins? To air our grievances before they accumulate and blow up our friendships? To make the effort to get together? To give others the benefit of the doubt? Are we giving what we can, or keeping score? Are we unfairly expecting friends to think and believe the exact same things we do? Are we really doing the best we can? Well, maybe that’s what most of our friends think they are doing, too. And if they aren’t being a good friend, or if they have drifted away from us, or we from them, maybe we can accept these common rifts, without giving into a guilt so overwhelming that it pushes us to slap a label on those we no longer want for friends: toxic.
When a friend breaks up with us, or disappears without explanation, it can be devastating. Even though the churning and pruning of social networks is common over time, we still somehow expect friendships to be forever. Friendship break-ups challenge our vision of who we are, especially if we’ve been intertwined with a friend for many years. Pulsing with hurt in the wake of a friend break-up, we hurl him or her into the ‘bad friends’ basket.
But, sometimes, we have to drop a friend to become ourselves. In Connecting in College (2016), the sociologist Janice McCabe argues that ending friendships in young adulthood is a way of advancing our identities. We construct our self-images and personalities against our friends, in both positive and negative ways.
As much as we need to take responsibility for being better friends and for our part in relationship conflict and break-ups, quite a few factors surrounding friendship are out of our control. Social network embeddedness, where you and another person have many friends in common, for instance, is a big challenge. Let’s say someone crosses a line, but you don’t want to disturb the group, so you don’t declare that you no longer think of him as a friend. You pull back from him, but not so much that it will spark a direct confrontation, whereby people would then be forced to invite only one of you, but not both, to events. Sometimes we are yoked to bad friends.
The forces that dictate whom we stay close to and whom we let go can be mysterious even to ourselves. Aren’t there people you like very much whom you haven’t contacted in a long time? And others you don’t connect with as well whom you see more often? The former group might be pencilling you into their ‘bad friend’ column right now.
Dealing with bad friends, getting dumped by them, and feeling disappointed with them is a stressful part of life, and it can harm your body and mind. Yet having no friends at all is a far worse fate. Imagine a child’s desperation for a playmate, a teenager’s deep longing for someone who ‘gets’ her, or an adult’s realisation that there is no one with whom he can share a failure or even a success. Loneliness is as painful as extreme thirst or hunger. John Cacioppo, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, has found associations between loneliness and depression, obesity, alcoholism, cardiovascular problems, sleep dysfunction, high blood pressure, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, cynical world views and suicidal thoughts. But if you have friend problems, you have friends – and that means you’re pretty lucky.
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is a journalist and former features editor at Psychology Today. Her work has appeared in Discover and Scientific American Mind, among others. She is the author of Friendfluence (2013).