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Toxic friendships & relationships

Medical & health articles 12 Feb 2019
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Friends and family are supposed to be your cheerleaders in life – supporting and celebrating the person you are, and the person you want to be.

So what do you do if a close connection brings you more harm than help? What actually is a toxic relationship and what are the signs that you're in one?

We spoke to Jean Hailes clinical psychologist Gillian Needleman to find out.

What is a 'toxic relationship'?

A toxic relationship is "basically an unhealthy relationship or friendship," says Ms Needleman. The relationship could be with a friend, family member, or even a partner or ex-partner. "You're unable to have a meaningful and positive connection with the other person and this often leaves you questioning yourself."

Often we can be caught unawares by this. "It can take a while to realise that a particular friendship or relationship is unhealthy," says Ms Needleman.

How to spot the signs

Emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping or constant criticism are key signs to look out for when working out if a relationship is toxic, says Ms Needleman.

Toxic relationships can also cycle through destructive patterns. One common scenario is where there is no giving back or no gratitude from the other person. "You may have a friend or family member who seems like they are always in crisis," she says. "You give, give, give and help as much as you can, because that might be in your nature.

"Then one day the shoe is on the other foot and you need help or a favour from them. For whatever reason they can't or won't give back, and suddenly you realise it's just a one-way street."

Ms Needleman says that in toxic relationships, the connection you have with yourself or the other person doesn't grow in a positive way. "You can get exhausted, always trying to save or rescue the other person. You neglect your own emotional needs because the focus is always on them."

A matter of degrees

It's important to bear in mind that many relationships – even healthy ones – go through stages where these types of behaviours occur, but in healthy relationships, the good aspects far outweigh the bad, and problems are usually resolved.

"The relationship is a toxic relationship when the destructive behaviour or pattern forms the whole relationship," says Ms Needleman. "If it's always a one-way street, if the messages that you're getting from a particular person are consistently negative, if you're always getting guilt-tripped, then there's a problem."

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Made to measure

How you feel before or after spending time with a person is a great way to measure if your relationship with them is healthy or not.

"In a toxic friendship scenario, you might always feel emotionally drained after seeing them; it can be a real energy drain, a feeling of heaviness," says Ms Needleman. "You might feel a huge sense of obligation or guilt for not seeing them enough. You might be dreading the interaction, knowing that a conversation all about them, or a stream of criticism, lies ahead."

Ms Needleman says that the impacts of a toxic relationship should not be underestimated. They can affect your sense of self and identity, damage your self-esteem, and even lead to feelings of depression and/or anxiety.

"You can be left feeling inadequate, or somehow flawed," she says. "If an important person in your life is always putting you down, you're getting direct criticism. In a toxic relationship, it can feel like who you are, or what you do, is never enough."

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Three steps toward change

Here, Ms Needleman guides us through a three-step process for getting an unhealthy relationship onto a healthier track.

1. Identify the emotions

"First of all, you need to be intuitive and aware of what's going on for you. Separate yourself from the relationship and work out what you're feeling. Identify the emotions and how the relationship triggers them."

2. Establish your ground rules

"Take some time to work out what is reasonable for you, or what you're prepared to accept in the relationship."

"For example, to a friend who always makes you feel that you are never doing enough, work out what you think is reasonable, and become aware of the ways they make you feel inadequate. At these times, roll out a pre-prepared response, or just remind yourself that you are doing all you can and that that is good enough!"

"You may be able to work out your 'ground rules' by yourself, or you might need help from a supportive friend or therapist."

3. Protect your boundaries

"After setting up what you will and won't accept in the relationship, then you need to protect these boundaries."

"You can do this by either practising it yourself and sticking within them, or by stating it to other person in the relationship. You could say to them: 'I'm not letting you put me down anymore'. In the case of a guilt-tripping friend, you might say, 'I can't see you every week and I don't want to be made to feel bad about it'."

Bumps in the road

These steps may seem simple, but Ms Needleman reminds us that navigating a toxic relationship can be a tricky and sometimes long process.

"It's not easy," she says. "Even in the most toxic relationships, you're already somehow bonded to that dynamic or that person."

Ms Needleman says it helps to have a supportive friend on call, to keep you clear-headed in what can be a confusing time.

"And remember, keep yourself healthy, look after yourself and have other focuses. Also take the time to recover and debrief yourself after interacting with the difficult person."

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To stay or to go?

Whether you try to steer a toxic relationship to a healthier place – or simply say goodbye to it – can depend a lot upon the nature of the relationship and your commitment to the person.

"If you've just met someone and they're constantly putting you down, or guilt-tripping you into doing things you wouldn't normally do, it can be much easier to leave," says Ms Needleman.

But when you have a toxic relationship with your parent, sibling or ex-partner, for example, the emotional bonds are often a lot tighter and harder to let go, she says.

"Many people don't want to cut a family member off, and often, this is where it may better to put the relationship at a distance. Find the place where it is still functional, but also manageable by you too."

As an example, Ms Needleman explains how you might deal with a problematic parent who is also an alcoholic. "Out of compassion, or a sense of obligation, you may not want to cut them out of your life entirely," she says. "But you work out what's doable for you."

You might commit to seeing them once a week in the morning when they're more likely to be sober. "Or you may tell them that you won't answer their phone calls after 9pm unless it's an emergency," she says.

"Work out a boundary that keeps you safe, mentally and emotionally healthy, and keeps the relationship at a level that's manageable."


Ms Needleman says a lack of respect is at the core of a toxic relationship; the other person does not respect who you are and who you want to be.

"But if you can effect change in a toxic relationship – if the other person can stop causing you harm or demanding too much from you – then you may be able to bring respect back into the relationship and be able to maintain it," she says.

Remember though – emotional or physical abuse is never okay and getting help to make change is important.