The idea of the toxic relationship is often viewed through a one-dimensional lens. We think of someone who gaslights their partner, commits verbal or physical abuse, or generally makes them feel inadequate. In these cases, it is often only the person stuck in the relationship who cannot see how toxic it is. We believe that if they are only able to recognize the issues, they will know to let the relationship go.
However, relationships are generally a lot more complicated than this. A toxic relationship does not need to be a romantic one. It also does not necessarily include a malicious or manipulative partner. Sometimes, two friends can enable each other’s unhealthy habits, without there being anything objectively wrong about their behavior.
For example, you might have a friend with whom you only ever discuss their depression. You believe you need to be there for them because they are vulnerable. But on the other hand, listening to their problems might be leading to your own sense of despair. You may even feel like you are keeping them in a rut because they turn to you rather than getting professional help.
Can you end a relationship like this? What if the other person ends up hurting themselves? How do you know when it’s time to throw in the towel?
Forget easy answers
The unfortunate truth is that there are no easy answers to these questions. No one can say for certain whether it is better to hang on or to end a relationship. For most people, these kinds of relationships either continue in perpetuity or fizzle out, without ever coming to a head. I have had my own fair share of toxic relationships that were never quite resolved.
However, there are some red flags you can look out for that can give you a strong sense that a relationship should end.
The speaking cure
Before I dive into these red flags, it is important to point out that every friendship or romantic relationship is best dealt with through proper communication. It is rarely a good idea to simply drop friendships without speaking to them first. But when the speaking cure does not work, you need to consider whether there is any point in trying harder.
There are no easy answers. No one can say how things will turn out after making the decision to end a relationship. Speak to someone you trust and get their input before committing to a course of action. But be careful not to let your ambivalence keep you in a toxic relationship indefinitely.
Consider the following scenarios.
You only ever listen
Healthy relationships involve a balanced level of sharing. This is not to say there should always be a 50/50 split. Sometimes you will need more attention and sometimes they will. In certain healthy relationships, one member is something of a mentor or role model to the other, and sharing works in that context.
However, a relationship in which only one person ever shares is usually toxic. In this type of relationship, that person speaks about themselves and their problems without any real desire for your advice. They treat you as a therapist, except that you both know you are not qualified to help them.
If you have a relationship like this, you are probably starting to resent the other person, and at the very least you are getting bored. Ending the relationship gently may simply require you to make yourself less available over time.
It will be tough, as you cannot know how this will affect them. Ideally, they will take the opportunity to seek professional help. But they may not, and it is crucial that you appreciate that it is not your responsibility. You will feel guilt, but try to feel that guilt without seeking to resolve it.
You feel unhealthy after seeing them
Relationships do not need to revolve around the concept of mutual growth in order to be healthy. You can have friends who are a lot of fun, with whom you don’t share on a deep level. Sometimes, you will feel exhausted or worn out after spending time with them, but this is because you engaged in a little more excess than you usually would.
However, if you have friends who always push you to do more in the pursuit of fun, problems can emerge. You might enjoy their company, but feel unhealthy physically and/or mentally after seeing them. You don’t like who you are around them, but only feel the guilt once they leave. You drink too much, eat too much, or even gossip too much with them.
These kinds of relationships need to end because they are dangerous on a very real level. If that sense of ill health is only an occasional occurrence, they may not be toxic. But if you almost always feel unhealthy after seeing them, it is time to consider ending the relationship, or at least to spend less time with them.
You are in constant competition
If you are in constant competition with every person you know, that is something you have to work on. Relationships should be based on mutual support. Sometimes you will push each other and engage in friendly banter, but you want them to succeed even if they become more successful than you.
However, some types of people are very insecure about themselves and express that by trying to one-up everyone they know. These friends are very good at getting even the most self-actualized people to become competitive and unsure of themselves. They do so by boasting, putting you down, and often lying.
If you have a friendship like this, in which you never feel good enough and are beginning to resent their success, it might be time to consider ending the relationship.