3 Reasons We Keep Toxic People in Our Lives

Why do we keep toxic people in our lives? Despite the emotional costs, many people chose to remain in toxic relationships. This post explores the emotional reasoning behind not letting go.

By Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP

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Recently, an acquaintance told me about breaking up with his girlfriend. Listening to his story, I both cringed and laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it. (Think The Break-Up meets Fatal Attraction.) His humorously-told narrative left me wondering, how on earth did it get to that?

It began when his at-the-time girlfriend “secretly” moved in with him. At first, she’d stay for a night or two, which eventually turned into weeks at a time, until all her stuff was there and my friend found himself with a live-in girlfriend. (It’s worth mentioning he’d seen a few “red flags” early on, but chose to ignore them… as we often do under the spell of infatuation.) Now living with her, he couldn’t turn a blind eye to the fact that she had some serious mental health and interpersonal issues. Furthermore, the relationship had taken a turn for the worse; they were constantly fighting.

So, my friend (wisely) broke up with her and told her to get out. And… she refused. (Really??) She claimed there was a law permitting her to stay since she’d been there for X amount of time. (Note: This is also when he found out she was homeless.)

He kicked her out of the bedroom (and she slept on the couch). To “encourage” her to leave, he took her parking pass, along with her new iPhone (which he undoubtedly bought in a more amiable era). To further “motivate,” he even shut off her cell service.

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Despite his efforts, weeks stretched on; she continued to live (rent-free) on his couch.

To make a long story short… she eventually left. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this blog) … but not until the apartment manager and police got involved. (It turned out her tenant rights claim, while valid, was not actually applicable to her situation.)

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My initial reaction to the whole fiasco was incredulity – Seriously, how could he let it go that far? – but after reflecting on past relationships… it was suddenly very easy to understand. (I’ve made my fair share of relationship mistakes.)

The reality is, it’s never as simple as “it’s over, get out.” Relationships require a certain level of emotional investment and commitment. Plus, there are multiple factors (such as debt, illness, or infidelity) that contribute to a relationship’s complexity.

Back to my friend… to be fair, the reason he remained in a toxic relationship was her refusal to vacate the apartment; his options were limited… but, instead of allowing it drag on, he could have taken action earlier.  Anyway, the story has a happy(ish) ending (for my friend, probably not his ex). He has his place back (hopefully a lesson learned) and got free blog inspiration. This post is 100% inspired by my friend’s toxic relationship. (Thank you for letting me share!)

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(Apart from “tenant rights”) what are reasons we allow toxic or difficult people (friends, family, and/or romantic partners) to remain in our lives? Why is it so hard to let go?

  1. Either you need them (or you can’t ignore them)

A recent study suggests we keep toxic people around simply because their lives are intertwined with ours. For example, your aging mother-in-law, who degrades and insults you, lives at your home, despite the negative impact this has on your life. Your options are limited because your husband is unwilling to put her in a nursing home (and you may also depend on her for things, like childcare or help with the bills).

Another example would be toxic co-workers; you don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to your boss or colleagues, and you can’t entirely avoid them or refuse to talk about work-related stuff (unless you’re okay with losing your job). If pursing a new position isn’t practical, your next best option is to find a way to effectively deal with workplace toxicity.

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That being said, you don’t have the power to change anyone else. To manage your reactions and interactions with toxic people, acknowledge the need for self-adjustment, including attitude and role. Examine your personal views. Lower expectations for others; accept that people will do and say things you don’t agree with… and it’s not something you can control. Once you’ve reached the point of radical acceptance, follow guidelines for effective communication (i.e. active listening, avoiding blame, being aware of tone and body language, reflecting for clarity, etc.) in conversations with toxic people, whether it’s your mother-in-law or your boss. By being proactive, you’re doing your part to avoid getting caught up in others’ toxicity.

In the face of unavoidable toxicity, I find switching to a “counselor role” to be a tremendous asset; I set aside my personal viewpoint, opening myself to alternative views, while seeking to understand (not judge) behavior. (You don’t have to be a counselor to do this!) I view individuals in terms of “what happened to you?” instead of assuming they’re malicious or intentional. (People act the way they do for some reason.) I don’t know what’s happening in a “toxic” person’s life or what they’ve been through. (Maybe that snarky co-worker is in an abusive relationship and lives in fear. Or maybe her son is in the hospital with brain cancer. Or, it’s possible she grew up in a home where her parents yelled and disrespected each other, shaping her view of relationships. The snarky attitude makes sense when viewed through different lenses.) While it’s never okay to be an asshole, I can understand why people are jerks. Somehow, this knowledge serves as an immunity when encountering a toxic person. Their behavior is the result of something bad that happened to them; it has nothing to do with me and I can choose whether or not to engage. They don’t have power to negatively impact me unless I give it up.

  1. It feels better to stay

When Joe Strummer of the Clash sang the question, “Should I stay or should I go now?”; he knew the answer. (Note: Firm boundaries and healthy decisions aren’t the stuff of chart-topping hits.) We stay in unhealthy relationships or continue to hang out with toxic friends because it feels good (at times, at least). The boyfriend who yells at you can also be incredibly sweet and caring. Or your gossipy friend who talks about you behind your back also happens to be the most fun person you know. Despite the sense that it’s unhealthy, you (like Strummer) can’t resist. And like my friend, you ignore the red flags because you crave the rush or the intensity… or maybe what you desire most is the feeling of being wanted. (Despite the toxicity, it’s worth it, just to feel wanted… or is it?)

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Beyond just feeling good, it’s entirely possible to deeply love a toxic person (no matter how wrong they are for you). You don’t want to give up on the person they could be; maybe you’re in love with their potential (or an idea of what the relationship could be). You believe it’s better to sacrifice your happiness (your dignity, your well-being, your independence) than to be without the person you love.

On the flip side, some people stay in toxic relationships because deep down, they believe they can’t do any better and/or the abuse is a preferable alternative to being alone. It could also mean they believe they deserve to be punished (which sometimes happens when a person remains in an abusive relationship for a long time). Or, they may reason that it’s better to hang out with a “mean girl” than sit and stare at the walls on a Friday night (with only the cat for company).

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If you can relate to staying in a toxic relationship because it feels good or are afraid of being alone, carefully consider and weigh out the long-term costs of a toxic relationship. There are far worse and more damaging things than being alone. If the idea of being alone terrifies you, maybe it’s an indication that something’s not right… that you’re not okay. It could be a sign of low self-worth or could point to an intense fear of abandonment. It may also signify a lack of understanding of what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Lastly, an intense fear of being alone is associated with some of the personality disorders and/or could be the result of trauma.

  1. It’s easier to stay

 Breaking up is messy and uncomfortable. In my experience, most people avoid conflict when possible. Despite conflict being a natural, everyday occurrence, it can feel unpleasant, even for those with expert conflict resolution skills. However, avoiding conflict in relationships does more harm than good. In a healthy relationship, it’s necessary to address problems in order to resolve them, thereby strengthening the relationship.

In a toxic relationship, conflict should not be avoided, but for different reasons. It may be easier to ignore the reality of your situation than to get honest, but this is detrimental (not only to you, but to your partner, who will never have the opportunity to change so long as you enable the toxicity to continue).

You may wish to avoid the emotional drain that accompanies confrontation, but in the long run, you’ll lose more emotional energy if you remain in a toxic relationship. (A steep, one-time payment is preferable to the ongoing, daily emotional sacrifices/abuses associated with toxicity; you’re slowly poisoned as time goes on.)

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If you choose to end a toxic relationship, be realistic; it’s not going to be easy… and it’s going to hurt. A lot. You may love this person a great deal (and maybe you’ve long held on to the hope they’d change). Go into it with low (or no) expectations. When things feel unbearable, remember that the easy things in life matter little; the difficult stuff is what leads to personal growth, success, and resilience.

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In closing, I’m sure there are multitudes of reasons people have for staying in toxic relationships; this post is by no means comprehensive. I’m also certain, whatever the reason, it seems justifiable to them. People don’t choose toxicity without some sort of justification (if not for others, than at least for themselves). Unfortunately, rationalizations don’t offer protection from harm. No matter the reason for remaining in a toxic relationship, it’s not worth the cost.

What are some other reasons people have for staying in a toxic relationship? Why is letting go so hard? Please share your thoughts in a comment!


References

Bar-Ilan University. (2018, January 17). Why we keep difficult people in our lives. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 14, 2018 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180117152513.htm

Offer, S., & Fischer, C.S. (2017). Difficult people: Who is perceived to be demanding in personal networks and why are they there? American Sociological Review, 000312241773795, DOI: 10.1177/0003122417737951

Author: Cassie Jewell

Cassie Jewell, introvert and avid reader, is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner with a Master's Degree in Community Counseling.

4 thoughts on “3 Reasons We Keep Toxic People in Our Lives”

  1. Hello Cassie. I was partially browsing through posts here on WordPress when I came across yours. I am actually here to share the good news of the gospel with you, however, I decided to read your post first. I think you have made some really interesting points here. Toxic people really can come from anywhere. Sometimes they are our friends, family members, significant others and so much more. I think the reasons that you have outlined here for why we put up with them is accurate. For a person who is willing to give God a chance, God can help with this situation. Firstly, a relationship with God would change us, the word of God teaches us how to deal with people who are toxic in a Godly way. Secondly, when we take the issue to him in prayer and tell him about this person whom we are struggling with, God is powerful enough to manifest peace in that relationship. If it is in the case of a person who is dating a toxic person, God can lead them to someone better for them. As a matter of fact, if they have a strong relationship with God, God can reveal it to them before they begin the relationship that the person that they intend on dating is toxic. God can help any situation.

    Like I mentioned earlier, I came to share the good news of the gospel with you. I do not know whether you have a relationship with God or not. If you already have a good relationship with God, congratulations, you are on the right path. You do not need to read this comment any further. Chances are high that if you have a relationship with God, you probably already know everything that I am about to tell you. I would say this, keep praying, keep obeying him, and keep trusting in him, and he would come through for you. However, if you do not yet have a relationship with God, you are in luck, here are some exciting details about God that you need to know:

    You may have heard that God is the creator of the universe and everything within it. This claim is 100% true. God did create everything in the universe, including us humans. Like a good father loves his children, God loves each and every one of us dearly. He likes to provide for us, to bless us, and to help us. His intention is to provide for us in this life and to also grant us eternal life. Eternal life is the life after this life that we are currently living, you can simply call it the after-life. Eternal life would last forever. Not everybody would gain access into the eternal life. Since that life would last forever and in it people would not die, it would not make sense to allow in violent people, liars, thieves and others. Since these people would not die, there would be no end to the problems that they would cause. Therefore, only the purest people are allowed in. We humans cannot be pure by ourselves. We are prone to envy, lying, cheating others and so much more. We learn to do these bad things from such a young age, by the time we reach adulthood, we are already too far gone in it. For this reason, God sent his son Jesus to die for our sins. So that we can be easily redeemed and saved. The blood of Jesus has made us pure and worthy. After the death of Jesus, all we need to do is to believe in Jesus and obey the Word of God, and those are the core for gaining access into eternal life. Like I mentioned earlier, God loves to bless us, and he desires to give us everything that we need. However, because God exists in the spiritual realm and we exist in the physical realm, we need to learn to understand how God communicates and to build a relationship with him in order to understand him. Over the course of building a relationship with him, you would understand how he works and how to locate the blessings that he has sent to you both in this life and for the next.

    God can help any situation become better, even situations involving difficult people. He is our creator and he created everything and everyone, both directly and indirectly. We can take our problems to God, and he would be happy to help us. Like a good father, he loves us and he wants us to love him, he also loves to help us whenever he can.

    The Bible says in Philippians 4:6
    “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”.

    Isaiah 40: 28 to 31 says
    “28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint”.

    If you wish to build a solid relationship with God, I would include below a lengthy and detailed suggestion on how you can do so. However, I find that many people get scared at the length of the suggestions. I want to say this, it is a step by step process, do not feel the need to execute it all in one day. Go at a pace that works for you and trust the process. Some people also get the impression that I am judging them or trying to tell them how to act or how to be, No! I do not want it to come across that way, because that is not my intention, I am simply giving friendly suggestions. Some people also get the impression that i am trying to say that if they do not do everything on my suggestion list that they would be doomed. I am not trying to say this. Also bear in mind, that although my suggestions seem lengthy, they would quickly become second nature to you. If you struggle with any of the steps, you can ask God for assistance and he would it make it easier for you.

    If you are ready, here are my suggestions:

    1. Confession of faith: you need to find a quiet space. Imagine that Jesus is in front of you. Ask him for forgiveness of your past sins and the sins of your ancestors. Ask him to give you the strength to forgive those who have offended you. Honestly, I suggest that you forgive the people who have offended you, because whatever they did to you is now in the past, and upon a confession of Jesus as your Lord, you become a new creation. In addition, God commands that we need to forgive others, before he can forgive us. You can also get a deliverance before your confession of faith. Deliverance will rid you off any ungodly spirits that have taken residence in your body and mind. A pastor with a deliverance anointing should be able to help with this. There are also videos on YouTube, where pastors with a deliverance anointing pray directly for people through the videos. You just need to search “deliverance prayer” in the search bar to reach these videos. Now, you need to tell Jesus that you want him to come and be your lord and personal savior, and surrender to him. You need to know that Jesus died for you. He died on the cross so that you may have a chance at salvation. The minute you give your life to Jesus, you need to know that you can no longer live as you wish, you shall live according to the stipulations in the bible. Believe in your heart that Jesus was risen up from the dead by God, and confess with your mouth that he is the messiah and your personal savior.

    2. Prayers: ask Jesus to bless you with eternal life. Tell him to make a place for you in his heavenly abode. You need to understand that praying for heaven is the best prayer that you can ever pray. Life on earth is so short, you need to be worried about eternal life, which is so much longer. God knows that you need clothes, food, shelter etc. He is your creator and he knows your every need. The bible tells us to pray for eternal life and God would provide our other needs (i.e. clothes, shelter etc.) according to his riches. If there is something bothering you, tell God in prayer, commit it to him and ask him to do it for you. However, bear in mind that this life is temporary and so are the things in this life. When you are praying, the devil will try to disrupt your prayers by bringing sudden disturbances such as sudden phone calls or loud noises and evil thoughts. An example of an evil thought that the devil tries to use to stop people from praying is by bringing the thought that Jesus is not present and that they are simply wasting their time. Jesus is there with you when you pray. So pray like you mean it. Pray the same way you will if Jesus was right in front of you because he is. You need to understand how prayers work as well. You see, when you pray, God answers prayers. God usually has three answers to prayers Yes, Yes but Wait, and No. God has a reason for every answer that he gives. He loves you and he will make sure that everything works out well for you in the end. When you get a No from God, sometimes it is not because that thing is not good for you at that point in time, but it may be because God is trying to draw your attention to something that you are doing wrong in your life. When you get a No from God, you need to evaluate yourself, what is the motive of your prayer? is it pure? Is it Godly? Is there an area of sin in your life that you need to work on? When you reflect on these things and you find something in yourself lacking, try to fix it. When God says Yes to prayers and sends you his blessings, trust me, there are spiritual forces of the devil in high places that work against people so that their blessings from God would not reach them. You need to pray against these spiritual forces. Rebuke them by the power and the name of Jesus. This way, your blessings would be able to reach you. Lastly, some people pray lazy prayers. For example, someone might pray for a job, without actually applying to any. God does not reward laziness. When you are praying for something, you need to be putting some work in as well. God rewards hard-work and we ought to strive to be hardworking. God’s role is to direct, bless, and make your path clear. However, bear in mind that sometimes God answers even lazy prayers and gives us undeserved blessings, that shows you the power of his love. He would always be with you. You need to make sure that you are close to God in prayer. Do not cease to tell him about what you are struggling with. If you are struggling with sins of the flesh that you believe are hindering your spiritual growth, you need to make sure that you tell God. Make sure that you pray for an increment in faith. Faith is important, you need to have faith in God. When we pray, we need to have faith, God does not like it when we doubt his ability to provide us with what we want, he is mighty and nothing is impossible with him. When you are low in faith, pray to God for an increment in faith. Remember to pray for your family, your city, your country and the world in fact, no prayers are too big for God. Pray that unsaved people would be saved. Pray for your non-Christian family members, pray that they see the light and become saved. When you pray, make sure that you take care of sins. The bible says that we need to forgive others if we want our sins to be forgiven. Make sure you forgive others, ask for forgiveness of your sins first before praying. Sins can block your prayers from getting to God. Try to avoid sin, but pray for forgiveness of sins everyday, because sometimes, we are not aware of the sins that we are committing. When you get answers to your prayers, remember to thank God.

    3. The Bible: You need to make sure that you are reading the bible and that you are obeying it. I suggest you begin with the New Testament because the coming of Jesus changed many of the things that were practised before. However, bear in mind that the old testament is also important. You can find free bible apps on google play. You can also find free bibles online. The New Living Translation is an easy to read bible version. However, the most popular one is the King James Version.

    4. Hearing from God: Trust me, God would speak to you. He would speak to you through dreams. Through people, through situations, through the bible and so much more. You need to practice and perfect the art of hearing God’s voice. Dreams contain a lot of symbolism. When you possess an avid knowledge of what the bible says, you would understand the biblical meaning of all the symbols in your dreams. However, for now, you can search online bible dream dictionaries for the meaning of things you see in your dream. You also need to know that although there are general meanings for some symbols, some interpretations are based on context. Take context into account. God does communicate via dreams. Sometimes, you might be asking God for direction on something. Pay attention to the words all around you during this time i.e, the things people say, words you see when reading the bible etc. Sometimes you might even just turn on your TV and the TV anchor would say something that directly relates to what you are going through. Pay attention to these things. You would know it is God’s voice when whatever is said is not in contradiction to the bible and God’s nature. If it is in contradiction then it might just be something random that popped up. You can also hear God’s voice by meditating on him. You can do this by finding a quiet space, you can play some background Christian music if you want. During this time, close your eyes and focus on God. Do some praise and worship in your heart first, then invite Jesus to come to you. Ask a question and pay attention to any bible verses that are brought to your mind, inner voices that you hear, any general feelings etc. If what is said is in line with the bible, then it is probably God speaking. It might take several weeks before you begin to hear God via meditation. If you keep trying one method and it does not work, try another method, like paying attention to the words around you. As you practise the art of listening and hearing, God might give you the gift of seeing visions or the gift of hearing an inner voice, and take you to deeper depths of hearing.

    5. Fasting: fasting is an effective way to get God’s attention. Fasting is a way to spend time with him. You deprive yourself of food because what you seek for is more than food. There are different types of fasting, and you need to plan what works for you. There is the:

    A. Avoidance fasting: This is a fasting form where you avoid something that you cannot do without i.e. Coffee.

    B. Daniel’s fast: In this sort of fasting, you only eat fruit and vegetables and drink water. You do not eat anything cooked or anything other than fruits and vegetables.

    C. Water fast: In this sort of fasting, you do not eat anything, you only drink water. No food, just water.

    D. Total fast: In this sort of fasting, you do not eat or drink anything. You do not drink even water.

    Make sure that you work out what works for you. You can pray to God for directions on the timing of the fasting to follow. However, as a general time-frame, on fasting days, many Christians fast from 6am to 6pm. Many Christians also use those moments when they feel hungry/ feel cravings as prompts to pray. You need to have increased prayers during fasting periods.

    6. Temptations: When you believe in Jesus. Trust me, the devil sometimes would throw trials and tribulations into your life, the goal of this is to get you to denounce your faith. The goal is to frustrate you. You need to pray and fast when trials and tribulations strike. God would never leave you or forsake you. He would be with you and with God, you will overcome this if it ever happens.

    7. Spreading the gospel: Now that you know the truth, you are chosen. It is now your duty to share the truth in the bible with others. Make sure that you save people from falling prey to Satan’s tactics. You need to join the fight to depopulate the devil’s camp, while populating God’s kingdom. With spreading the gospel, do not feel the need to finish reading the whole bible before you begin. You can teach people the little you know.

    8. Read: There is a lot of material out there. There are ministers of God who have practised for about 40 years. These people have a lot of stories about their ministry. Some of them have the gift to heal others, others see visions, some of them hear God’s voice. Many of these people have written books about how they accomplished what they have accomplished, and how they got their gift. Buy these books and read them. If you do not have money, some of these ministers have shared their stories for free on YouTube, take advantage of that.

    9: Reform yourself: begin to watch Christian movies and listen to Christian music. Make sure that your thoughts, actions, and words are in obedience to the word of God. Make sure that you are not doing anything sinful in your thoughts, actions or words. Refine your world, the space around you, the things you see and hear, make it all about God. You can also join a community of bible believing Christians. However, I need to tell you that there is sectarianism in the religion. Do not pay attention to sectarianism, pay attention to the bible. The bible is your authority. If a church seems to have too much sectarianism issue going on, if they are more focused on promoting their denomination than promoting God and the word in his bible, you need to stop going there. Get a water baptism, and pray so that God would baptise you in the holy spirit.

    (I know I have written this list in the order of 1 to 9. It is crucial that you begin with Step 1. Prayers are something that you need to do constantly, so is bible study, hearing from God and reforming yourself. However, you can start small with fasting and spreading the gospel. You can start by preaching to your family members in the beginning phase of spreading the gospel, but you need to expand on these over time. I know this list seems long and all these seem deep, but trust me, you would blend into it so easily and it would become second nature to you. Pray to God to make all of these easy for you, and he will. The devil would try to trick you into believing that God’s standards are too high and that you would never overcome sin, when in actuality, you can. So therefore, pray to God and believe and he would help you overcome sin).

    If you ever backslide and fall back into sin again while trying to follow God’s word. You need to ask him to forgive you and try to get back on track. You should also ask him to strengthen you, so that you can have more strength in withstanding and blocking off sin. God would hear your prayer and he would send help according to his will.

    If you have any questions, feel free to let me know. If you need to talk, I am here for you. God bless you. Have a blessed day 🙂

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  2. Such a huge comments you’ve got here Cassie. 🙂 Well, I love your post, it is really great point to think about life in different point. Thank you. 🙂

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