The Psych Central Report

Avoiding Toxic Relationships

By Alex Williams
January/February 2006

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In previous articles I have talked about the influence that invalidating parents can have upon us in later life and how we can come to carry debilitating beliefs about ourselves. These are issues planted in our past, but still affecting our present lives. This month I am thinking about how we deal with the present.

For many people who have suffered manipulation in formative relationships, it is very difficult to mark good boundaries in our adult lives. If our sense of self has been undermined, we find it hard to distinguish normal relationships from more toxic ones, and this is a weak position to be in.

There are plenty of manipulative and controlling people in the world, and it is a great social skill to be able to recognize these people and quickly step out of their way. Unfortunately, for the person who has suffered childhood manipulation, the controlling dynamic can be too frightening and we can be paralyzed by a manipulator’s attentions. It is vital to learn to distinguish between the normal rough and tumble of social life and the more sinister situation that a manipulator presents to us. A manipulator will never tell us his or her real agenda. They do not want us to see the game they are playing.

A good boundary starts with clear observation. If we find ourselves in a conflict with a person, we should ask ourselves if this person is behaving reasonably toward us. Of course, a healthy childhood helps us to know what counts as reasonable behavior between people and what doesn’t. Loving and guiding parents and extended family help children learn this.

But for those of us with a disrupted childhood, we will need to learn the skills in later life. We will need to learn what has been called ‘emotional intelligence’ by some psychologists. This includes the ability to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy ways of relating with people, as well as being able to read our own emotions more accurately.

So, we need to learn to look carefully at the situations we find ourselves in. What do people want from us? If we are in conflict, why are we in a conflict? Are we generating the conflict or is another person generating the conflict? Is he or she enjoying it? If another person’s aim is to control us by upsetting us, then no amount of reasoning with him or her will help.

Indeed, reasoning with a manipulator is useless, for it just allows him or her to continue playing his or her game. People who try to manipulate us want us to be what they want; they do not care about what we want, about our own interests.

In order to protect our boundaries we need to see other people as clearly distinguished from ourselves. If a person is angry with us, he or she is angry, if a person is trying to get us to do something we don’t like, he or she is doing it, if a person is disagreeing with us, he or she is disagreeing. The other person is not an extension of ourselves, and we are not part of their psychology. It is as simple as that.

A mental health professional once said to me “We are not responsible for what another person does.” This is an important point. Whatever manipulation is being done to us, from flattery and fake admiration to emotional blackmail, or straight bullying, it is another person who is doing it, and we have to learn that there is a boundary between them and us. No other person should have the power to decide how we feel about ourselves; it is not their place. Healthy people know this, and have the assertiveness to state their boundaries. Manipulators don’t waste time with assertive people, they move on to easier prey. It is our job to become assertive, and to learn to state our own boundaries.

There is a feeling in toxic relationships, a feeling of being pushed around or pulled in a direction we don’t want to go in. This might feel flattering; we might feel needed, and we may be enticed by that feeling, but it is dangerous. In healthy relationships we just enjoy each other’s company, coming away without any feelings of guilt or pressure. Healthy relationships are a positive experience for everyone concerned, and each of us is entitled to choose healthy relationships in our lives, and to avoid getting caught in unhealthy ones.

Once we learn to recognize toxic relationships, and it is a skill that can be learned, life will be much better. It is a great pleasure in life to see a manipulative person having to move on, as he or she realizes that we are no longer prepared to be anyone’s victim.


Alex Williams (aka Myzen) has a BA Hons in Philosophy and an Mphil in Moral Philosophy. He is an early retired teacher living in the UK, and writes regularly for an online philosophy journal.

Last updated: 4 Feb 2006
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Feb 2006
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