Overcoming toxic relationships

To overcome a toxic relationship, work out what it is supplying you with. Then find another, healthier source of that supply. Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash


‘Toxic’ is a word that has found its way into popular psychology in recent years.  It is a profoundly negative word to use about someone, judging them or their behaviour as to be avoided.  It also implies a degree of addiction-like cyclicality – toxic relationships, for example, are seen as having a force which keeps the relaters involved, even when it is not good for them.


‘Toxic’ is not a medical word.  It means ‘poisonous’, suggesting that a person’s behaviour is not good for those around them, and makes others less healthy.

If used about a person and not their behaviour, then the term ‘toxic’ implies that they have essentially negative qualities which cannot be changed.  If used about behaviour, it makes no judgement about the person, but does suggest that something systematic is happening which it’s best to avoid.


Because it means ‘poisonous’ the word ‘toxic’ implies that the situation is not in the observer, but ‘out there’ in someone else, or in a situation.  This means that ‘toxic’ is a label that can easily be used to blame others who are not in favour.  To say an ex-partner is ‘toxic’, for instance, is suggesting that no-one else should go near them, socially ostracising that ex-partner.


When we call someone’s behaviour toxic, what are we referring to?  Usually we are drawing attention to behaviours which are:

  • inconsistent
  • confusing
  • attention-seeking
  • energy-sapping
  • entrapping
  • dramatic
  • unboundaried
  • manipulative


Some people find themselves stuck in ‘toxic relationships’.  What is the payoff that keeps them there?  The main thing is that a toxic relationship supplies things which would otherwise be in short supply.

Imagine Kevin.  He leads an orderly, simple life, in a job which doesn’t tax him at all.  He is often ignored by others, and his days are boring.  He meets Linda at a nightclub.  She is chaotic, messy, demanding, draining, dishonest and disrespectful.  Suddenly his life is not boring any more.  His imagination is completely taken up working out when she is going to call, or disentangling the last confusing thing she said.

The attraction is that Linda supplies variety and interest to Kevin.  Kevin’s friends call Linda toxic, pointing out that the relationship is affecting his job and his happiness.  Even so, Kevin points out that he loves Linda.  He feels useful to her, and tries to improve her negative character traits.

Linda, in turn, knows how to wrap in a Kevin.  She always has a drama for him to solve, whether it be an addictive habit, a problem relationship, money troubles, or simply her own moodiness.  Kevin rises to the challenge because it answers the void of boredom within him.


How can Kevin overcome the so-called ‘toxic’ relationship with Linda?

Firstly, he can change his own life to supply those things which he is unconsciously looking to Linda to supply.  The more he introduces interest into his own world, the less he will have to rely on Linda to be the spice in his life.

Secondly, he can do Linda a favour, and stop filling in the gaps in her life which she can’t fulfil.  He needs to realise that he is not her saviour, not her rescuer.  He needs to find a dignified way of walking away when he is disrespected, so that Linda knows her manipulations have no effect.

Those two things – finding alternative interests, and learning to walk away – are the task of many who are tied into toxic relationships.  We don’t even have to end the whole relationship – we can just learn to reinterpret ourselves within it.  Once we discover our own interests, and our own self-esteem, the battle is won.


‘Toxic’ is a populist and blaming psychological term, which implies that a person or situation is extremely negative.

Instead of blaming others, we need to look at what the toxic person or situation is supplying us with.  We may be unconsciously going back for more because there is a payoff.

When we can find life interesting outside the toxic situation, and when we have sufficient self-esteem to walk away, we can regain our happiness and equilibrium.