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