Life without toxic relationships

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Image: Artwork text of black paint saying, ‘YOU ARE ALLOWED to walk away from TOXIC PEOPLE’. The background is an urban grunge textured wall in black, dripping light brown paint and a slash of a red paint.

One advantage to having my entire life wiped out and being forced to start over in almost every single aspect, is that I can rebuild it much, much more carefully. The thing I am doing differently this time is choosing the people who will be in it according to whether or not they have empathy, and whether or not they are manipulative. This article, How to never get involved with an abuser again, changed my life. It says to look at the way a person acts, not what they say, and don’t accept any excuses for hurtful behaviour.

When I read the list of signs that a person lacks empathy, I recognise people I have known. Here are some examples:

  • Inability to imagine how their words and actions may affect you;
  • Isn’t interested in finding ways to soothe your worries;
  • Becomes angry or looks at you with a blank face when you cry or get emotional;
  • Is hurtfully blunt and casually critical, and when you become upset, tells you they are ‘just being honest’. Honesty without kindness is cruelty.
  • Talks at length about a topic that clearly bores you, without noticing;
  • Brings up sensitive topics after you’ve asked them to stop;
  • Expects instant forgiveness;
  • Invalidates your thoughts, experiences, ideas and concerns;
  • Neglecting or ignoring you when you are sick;
  • Judgemental;
  • Believes they are always right;
  • Expects you to accomodate their needs and schedule, without regard for yours;
  • Doesn’t ask you how your day was or how your doctor’s appointment went;
  • Self-centredness – seems to have plenty of empathy for you but not for others. Watch out – you’re next;
  • Indifference to the suffering of others;
  • Doesn’t seem to care how their words or actions affect you.

I will add some red flags to watch for of my own:

  • Has a vision of how you are or should be, and is more interested in trying to get you to fit that vision than understand how you actually are;
  • Offers you something and when you take them up on it, acts like they never offered it;
  • Expects you to move out of their way rather than expecting to work around you;
  • ‘Forgets’ saying or doing things that upset you when you call them on their behaviour, and tells you it didn’t happen;
  • Tells you that you’re over-reacting or being too sensitive when let them know you feel upset or hurt;

According to the article, you can tell if you are being manipulated by looking at your own feelings about the relationship: 

  • You often feel guilty; your mood depends on the state of the relationship; you feel inadequate;
  • you never feel sure where you stand; you carefully control your words, actions and emotions around this person;
  • you do things that go against your values or make you feel uncomfortable;
  • expressing negative thoughts and emotions seem forbidden so you hide them;
  • the relationship feels complex and you can’t quite put your finger on what the problem is;
  • you try to figure things out but can’t get anywhere;
  • you want to please this person but keep getting it wrong;
  • you end up in no win situations where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t;
  • you feel afraid of losing the relationship;
  • you feel you are walking on eggshells.

I watch for the above in new people I spend time with, and if signs of manipulation or lack of empathy come up a few times, even in small ways, I choose not to continue the relationship. I am astonished to see that these traits can show up in the earliest encounters, often in seemingly positive ways. Some examples:

  • There was a guy who invited me on a date, telling me we’d go for a walk on the beach and that he had a puppy I was going to fall in love with. He did not ask to find out if I like walking on the beach, and he didn’t check whether I am into puppies. He assumed. Red flag: he has a vision of how I am supposed to be, not interested in finding out who I actually am.
  • I stayed with a woman who blindsided me with upsetting text messages during an important meeting. When I looked back I recalled a myriad of other small red flags. I decided to move out before things could escalate.
  • A friend showed me a series of videos on YouTube, and even after I had pointed out that I couldn’t understand them as they didn’t have subtitles, continued to insist that I would find them fantastic. She didn’t notice the bored expression on my face.

I’ve found I can tell a lot about a person by working with them in the kitchen. Say I’m washing the dishes, and the other person wants to wash their hands, what happens? Some people wait until a suitable moment for me, and then reach in quickly to wash. Others expect me to stand aside, or even stop washing the dishes altogether, because it is inconvenient for them that I am in the way. The former have empathy – they are thinking about my experience and taking care not to interrupt it. The latter are focused on their own experience and unconcerned with mine. I keep a very sharp eye on the people in the second group – usually there are other red flags which surface. By watching the small ways people interact with each other, I’ve found I can quickly pick up who has empathy and who lacks it.

Of course, some people are a mix – empathic in some ways and manipulative in others. I have noticed that if I call them on their manipulative behaviour or for crossing my boundaries, they will either respond with concern that they have upset me and a desire to understand better (and to change), or else respond defensively and maybe by pretending that the thing never happened. The people in the latter group get struck off my list. With the former, I watch carefully to see if their intention to change translates to actual change. Do they stop crossing my boundaries in the way I requested? Remember that behaviour speaks louder than words.

By pulling the brakes on these relationships before I become too invested, I have noticed a magnificent effect on my life: it is now filled with deeply empathic, caring people. I have never been so well loved as I am now.

When making new relationships, watch carefully for signs of whether the person has empathy or not, and whether they manipulate you or others. If you spot any red flags, watch carefully to see if this is a pattern of behaviour or just a one off. If it is a one-off, you could try calling the person (gently) on their behaviour and see how they respond. If their response is problematic or the pattern is strong, I encourage you to pull the brakes on the relationship if possible, and distance yourself. If that is impossible, take care to have very strong boundaries with this person and minimise day-to-day involvement.

If you recognise established relationships in your life that are clearly toxic, proceed carefully, as a person who lacks empathy or is manipulative may be quite mild while you are on their side, but become enraged and dangerous when they realise you are not. There are two key strategies to pull the breaks on toxic relationships – one is to establish boundaries and the other is to create distance. You could attempt to establish boundaries first, and go for distance if it fails. But maybe you know the person well enough to know that their behaviour is intrinsic and won’t change, in which case, distance is the only answer.

If it is a romantic relationship, imagine the worst case scenario and make preparations before you change the status quo. Hopefully it won’t come to that. But just in case, these are the kinds of ways you might prepare:

  • Ensure you have financial security, such as your own separate bank account with plenty of funds. If you share money with your partner, you could suggest a change of strategy such as having a joint account with enough money to live on monthly, and the remainder split into personal accounts belonging to each of you.
  • Place important documents such as house titles, bank statements, legal agreements etc in a folder in a safe place where they cannot suddenly ‘disappear’.
  • Talk to a friend or family member, preferably one who does not have a relationship with your partner, and make a plan to stay with them or call them if you need help.

Tried any of the ideas in this post? How did they go? Leave your comments below.

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