Relationships are hard to navigate even in the best of times. We bring with us a myriad of life experiences that can enhance or detract from what once seemed like a blissful union. As time marches on, we can settle into a place of comfortability with an unconscious, invisible permission slip that says, “Because I love you and you love me, I can treat you any way I please.” Tensions rise leaving individuals unhappy and unfulfilled. We start to tell ourselves little white lies to avoid accountability and conflict like, “It’s not that bad, some have it worse,” or “It’s just verbal abuse. I’d leave if it got physical.” 

My response? That’s like selling your soul to the devil and saying, “Well, at least I don’t have to pay rent.”

My mantra has always been, “You’re either going to be it – or marry it – unless you explore it.” Face it, human beings do what’s familiar, even when behaviors are unhealthy and toxic. That wounded little child inside of you who’s not feeling heard or feels emotionally unsafe can enter a challenging adult situation in an instant and turn it upside down. This creates havoc, utilizing emotionally debilitating behaviors that may be subtle, cunning and baffling. Below are some toxic behaviors that can create and perpetuate toxicity in relationships:

Passive aggression. Stephanie Sarkis, author of Healing from Toxic Relationships says, “This is when someone says, ‘Hey, I’m upset with you’ without actually verbalizing it.” Examples might be giving someone the silent treatment or when you’re sitting at the breakfast table and one of you says, “Go on babe, I’m listening” while continuing to read the newspaper. “Many people, particularly women, develop passive aggressive habits at a young age to cope with internalized anger or frustration,” says Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, founder of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver. We learn to stuff our feelings early when taught not to talk, share or feel.

Gaslighting. Gaslighting got honors for the 2022 Webster’s Dictionary Word of the Year. It is a form of psychological manipulation where the gaslighter attempts to convince you that you are misremembering, misconstruing or misunderstanding situations. This then creates doubt in your mind about who you are, what you believe and the authenticity of your reality. “You’re so sensitive, why can’t you take a joke?” or, “You’re crazy, I never said that!”

Narcissism. This is another term used quite frequently: “He’s such a narcissist! Everything’s always about him!” When behaviors cross the line and you serve as the emotional dumping ground for someone who has no sense of “other” and who is entitled and lacks empathy, you are in unhealthy and emotionally exhausting territory. It’s the “me, me, me” show and you’re only there to reflect back my essence to me.

The first step towards recovery from toxic people? When a challenging situation arises ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Once you identify your feelings (angry, fear, sad, lonely, pain, shame, guilt, confused, frustrated), then ask yourself, “What do I need to do to take care of myself right now in the present moment?” Check in with yourself frequently and gift yourself an empowering voice. 

One last suggestion…Make sure you are not the culprit. Be interested, curious and set healthy boundaries for more optimal self-care. Communicate more effectively by listening, really hearing what another person is saying. Healthy relationships have reciprocity. 

Emotional freedom is right at your fingertips. Remember, change takes time and can at first seem arduous, but I promise, the result is worth the time and effort.

Dr. Amy Austin is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFC#41252) and doctor of clinical psychology in Rancho Mirage. She can be reached at (760) 774.0047.

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