How to spot a toxic relationship
Getting some distance can be a lot easier said than done. If you are in the unfortunate position of being surrounded by family who are draining your energy reserves then you need to do some serious thinking. Let’s get one thing straight: being related to a person does not give them carte blanche to treat you badly. If you are going to break the cycle you will need to look long and hard at all your relationships and figure out who you are able to have in your life long-term.
Cutting ties with my mother was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make, but for the purposes of self-preservation I was left with no other choice. When I tell people that I don’t have her in my life the first reaction I usually get is shock. Once I give them some details, however, they begin to understand why I did something that seems so drastic. In the end I had to ask myself: ‘will I be able to live the life I want (and deserve) with her still a part of it?’ Sadly I concluded the answer was no.
Now that I’m a mum I can see how difficult her life must have been. Still a child herself, she gave birth to me at 18 and had three kids by the age of 25, without the help of a supportive partner. Determined not to make all the mistakes her own mother made, she went ahead and made plenty of her own. For example, moving house, sometimes twice in the same year to avoid paying debts, which meant going to eight schools. This played havoc with my self-confidence as well as my education.
She never thought her decisions through properly or considered the long-term consequences. Everything was done on a reactive level, only ever thinking of the moment she was in. This might be an acceptable way of living for a person without dependents, but as far as I’m concerned, when you have children it is not good enough. Honestly though, when all is said and done, I have genuinely forgiven my mother for the things that I went through. In spite of her numerous mistakes I believe she felt she had the best interests of her children at heart at the time. In reality, she was young, foolish and naïve – a disastrous combination.
When redefining the rules doesn’t work for your toxic relationship
Forgiveness and respect are two very different beasts though, and I got to the point where I didn’t like her anymore. Counselling opened my eyes to how much of a drain on my emotional resources she was and had always been. I’d essentially been playing the parent role to her irresponsible child for far too long. I was completely fed up of having to come to her rescue when she got herself into trouble.
While I was going through counselling I tried my best to redefine the rules of our relationship. I stopped giving her money every time she got herself into a sticky situation, and I stopped taking her phone calls while I was at work. After initially resisting the new boundaries she started respecting them. She soon realised that it wasn’t fair to view me as a never ending source of cash to be tapped whenever she found herself without enough.
That it wasn’t fair to interrupt me when I was at work to tell me her problems. I also started seeing her less which helped immensely because when we did spend time together I enjoyed her company much more than I had been. By the time I left the UK to go travelling we were in a good place and I was in email contact with her while I was away.
Crunch time came shortly after going back to Cambodia to set up the shop. I was contacted by my half-brother and told that she had run off to Canada with a man she had met over the internet just a few months before. She had made yet another hasty decision that meant walking out of her life to start a new one, leaving behind a trail of destruction and debt in her wake. She stole electrical items from the place she worked, and took out a massive loan with one of her sisters with no intention of paying her half back. She left the flat she was renting with most of her belongings still in it, including every photograph from our childhood – memories that were captured long before the days of digital photography and completely irreplaceable. She had deserted us and hadn’t glanced back.
The realisation dawned on me that over the course of the decade that followed my leaving home, I had lost all respect for her, and this was the final straw. In my heart of hearts I knew it was time to say goodbye to her for good because ultimately our relationship had become too toxic to save. That was in 2005. She didn’t come to my wedding. She has never met her grandchildren. I have felt sadness over the years for the loss of what could have been but I have never once regretted my decision. I could not allow her to bring such drama to my life any longer.
Some people are lucky enough to come from happy families. They don’t harbour resentment towards their upbringing and they love their parents and siblings unconditionally. For those that aren’t as fortunate it can be like navigating a minefield every time there is a family gathering. Rather than Christmas being a fun joyful occasion, it can end up being the very worst time of year. Treading on eggshells and feeling responsible for other people’s happiness.
When we are in the midst of a toxic relationship we have two options available. We can try and change the other person, or we can change the way we interact with them. As we discussed in the previous chapter, distancing ourselves a little and redefining the rules can be extremely beneficial when a relationship has become toxic.
Setting out new boundaries and changing our interaction can have a positive knock-on effect, which in turn prompts changes in the other person’s behaviour. This is the best outcome we can hope for.
Sometimes even after we have exhausted our options and tried our very best, it still won’t have sparked enough change in the other person. This is when you’ll need to start considering your mental-health wellbeing, because no-one is worth having a breakdown over.
If your emotional state is suffering because the other person is not willing to change, then I would suggest taking a huge step back from them. Time can often be the only true healer, and an extended break can be exactly what you both need to realise that your relationship is or isn’t worth fighting for. What I personally had to learn the hardest way is that above all else self-preservation must come first. There is absolutely no point in being a martyr. You will not thank yourself for it in the long run.
When self-doubt washes over you remember all the negative things that happened because of the other person. If you keep them in your life, will they destroy your confidence and leave you with no self-respect? Does their company hamper your ability to make good decisions and lead you down the path of mischief? Can you be the best you with them around? If their presence causes you nothing but upset, then they have left you with no other choice but to walk away. As long as you have been honest from the outset and maintained your integrity, your conscience should be completely clear.
If you do decide to cut people out of your life be prepared for the feelings of loss and sadness. If they were once an all-important part of your day to day then you will need to grieve over them. It’s important to be extra gentle with yourself during this time and allow yourself these feelings.
You might feel lonely and think you miss them terribly, but you must stay strong. Once you get through the initial difficulties you will soon realise how much better off you are without them. Now is the ideal time to start making all the positive changes that we have been talking about here in this book.
A suggested plan of action for calling time on your toxic relationship
– Ask yourself: Can I live the life I want and deserve with them still a part of it? If the answer is yes then try to redefine the rules in the first instance. Ensure you conduct yourself with integrity at all times and have full faith in the decisions you are making.
– If the answer is no or you try to redefine the rules but the other person is not willing to change, then self-preservation must prevail. You have been left with little choice but to exclude them from your life.
– If you do cut ties with people you must allow yourself to grieve over them. Time is often the best healer, and once the situation isn’t so raw and painful you can revisit your options.