Like a smelly, scratchy, unpleasant blanket, a toxic relationship

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Like a smelly, scratchy, unpleasant blanket, a toxic relationship Powered By Docstoc
					                    Beauty and the Weeds: Setting Limits on Toxic Relationships
                                        David Webster, June 26, 2009

              We warmly greet the irises springing from gardens, what joy! Much labor gives us this
bounty. Our gardens flourish because we work to keep the invasive unwanted weeds out.
        These irises are like the positive and energizing parts of close relationships, weeds like the
negative and toxic parts of relationships. The weeds can easily crowd out the beautiful and health-
giving irises. Relationships grow and prosper only if we continually weed them of negativity and
        You have had relationships with toxic aspects and know friends tangled up in negativity. You
know of toxic relationships that can swallow your sense of self, literally shorten your breath, and keep
you from seeing or listen to your feelings. When weeds overrun your life, the irises of good
relationships are lost.
        The good news is that you are not as powerless as you may feel to change relationships with
toxic aspects. You can cast away that which causes you harm. Facing and naming toxicity is one
beginning; this article explores how a single intimate toxic relationship bruises our heart/minds more
than any three good relationships can heal. It suggests ways to set limits and end toxic aspects of
What is a toxic relationship?
        We are humans and humans are social mammals. We are borne by our mothers and fathers
into a larger society. We live and then die in a web of current and past relationships. Naturally, when
we are rejected or treated badly we can shrivel, react emotionally in ways we don’t like, and/or
become upset in other ways. Because the social mammal in all of us hungers for love, acceptance,
and connection, we are vulnerable to being hurt by human relationships of intimacy and connection.
The rich soil of an open heart nourishes both flowers and weeds, both love and pain. The main
alternative to an open heart is isolation and retreat from vital life.
        Toxic relationship is a term descriptive of energy flow; it is not a value judgment that one
person is evil or another fool. Toxic relationships are intimate ones that consistently leave you less
energetic and less happy when you connect to them. Toxic aspects of relationships are the parts of
relationships that sometime leave you less energetic and less happy.
        Emotional logic allows us to love and hate the same person at the same time; some intimate
relationships are sometimes very giving, and energy-draining and destructive at other times. Even
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                                            David Webster, June 26, 2009
seemingly good relationships can contain toxic aspects: a parent who is usually a loving, nurturing
individual, but rejects your same-sex life partner or your other-side-of-the-tracks friend; a respected
supervisor who is being forced to squeeze more work from you.
Extreme toxicity: abuse
       Many of us have had traumatic or neglectful relationships. The baggage of these relationships
carries forward within us. Past traumatic, visceral, memories can be triggered by new toxic
relationships; new relationships are shaped by past trauma. Violent toxic relationships are an extreme
power of another over you; they are often very hard and dangerous to leave. Advocates for ending
domestic violence note that shame, economics, abuse/neglect history, and social pressure prevent
many from even naming the experiences of abuse or neglect. Children are entirely powerless to
prevent abuse/neglect.
It takes two.

     There is a balance between naming relational abuse and exploring how both parties tolerate
toxicity in a relationship. It takes two. Judgment of good/bad is not the point here. Toxic relationships
can be mutual tolerations-- two siblings fight bitterly for 40 years before they look at each other and
say, “Oh, I always thought that you were Daddy’s favorite; how can you think that I was Daddy’s
favorite?” As humans we get used to old patterns, however unpleasant. Someone acting in a toxic
way usually makes sense within their own life, within their historical emotional web. That toxic actor
might be you as well as anyone.
How do we know we are in a toxic relationship?
       Most people in toxic relationships know that they are in major emotional upset, being “not
oneself.” People can also be in chronically toxic relationships; emotional upset can become the
expected and usual. It is easier to see toxicity when it is a new relationship. At a fundamental level,
when you are connected with someone or imagine them do you feel distressed, worn out exhausted,
disrespected? Is your learning and growth, your happiness, an important focus of that relationship?
       Two related processes keep us in thrall of toxicity; shut down and tolerating the familiar keep
us from weeding our psychic garden.
       Shut down: Our very nerve impulses and hormones are part, through our heart, of our human
relationships. Neurocardiology tells us that the heart is an organ of great importance and with a larger
electrical field than the brain; it reciprocally guides the functions of the brain. When you are being
emotionally or physically mistreated, or when you are in great turmoil for other reasons, hormonal and

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                                           David Webster, June 26, 2009
nerve messages to the brain fundamentally shut it down. The brain works at less than half speed
when the heart is broken. Remember when you last lost keys or left your child on the bus? Usually
those foolishnesses are markers of emotional upset. That pain in the heart we feel with the death of a
pet or when seeing cruelty to humans is no poetic metaphor. Our thinking and emotional skills greatly
diminish when we most urgently need them to make good choices about relationships.
       Tolerating the familiar: Your wife, for example, may praise you in public and generously provide
for you, while being a human mirror at home that says, “you are a loser, fat, and a lousy husband.” If
you tolerate the familiar ugliness as part of a package of intermittent caring you take both messages
into your being. That undercutting message becomes you. It is magical thinking to believe that
generosity can balance out toxicity; only weeding allows you to flourish. Yet you are not alone in that
wishfulness; many are swept up in the social acceptance of familiar yet toxic relationships—“at least
she doesn’t drink or beat you.”
Vision of keeping toxicity out of your personal garden

                     Preventing toxicity and being intolerant of existing negativity requires believing
that you can grow your irises, that you are capable and worthy of love. A loving human relationship is
like a living iris cupped between your hand and another’s. Either of you can, in a moment, can crush
the flower forever. It takes both of you paying good attention to hold the iris of love and mutual
learning. In contrast, a persistently toxic relationship is more like a bounteous weed; it prospers
because you tolerate it and don’t act.
       The powerful toxic relationship between you and a close friend is much harder to crush than
the iris of your heart held mutually between your hands. Fragile intimate relationships can be
destroyed by meanness, by lack of attention, by shame and poverty, by parenting a child with severe
problems, by the lure of mind-altering substances, by geography, and by so many floods and
tornadoes. There are at least two historical reasons for toxicity—yours and hers. You know your
reasons well.
Setting and enforcing limits ends toxicity.

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                                           David Webster, June 26, 2009
       Researchers on social relationships consistently find that toxic relationships decrease your
happiness more than positive relationships increase your happiness. If we cannot set limits by saying
“no” then our lives will seep energy out of them. Like weeds to irises, toxic relationships suck our joy
and our healthy relationships from us. Once we tolerate the toxic aspects of close relationships we
are seeking health at the same time as our brain/thinking skills are slipping away from ourselves.
       Weeding, setting limits within our relationships is a key first step. The process of enforcing
respect for limits can reduce or end toxicity in relationships. For example, one teenage woman
jumped out of a car and then stopped talking to her father for two years after he abused his power as
driver to verbally attack and make fun of his wife. Another woman protecting her sobriety told a dear
friend that he could not drink around her; when he crossed that boundary she said goodbye entirely.
       The gains from easing an abusive relationship out of your life battle with the fear of the
unknown and the other person’s reaction. You are likely trading familiar toxicity for a lot of loneliness
in the short run. Saying goodbye to an established toxic relationship will rarely make for a Hollywood
movie or best selling book. It takes effort and a long, long time. Peers within domestic violence
organizations, are available to help with safety and support.
        Building limits and ending all kinds of toxic relationships are eventually rewarding. Be practical.
Use all your real-life tools. Use friends’ support, cognitive behavioral techniques, safe place, joyful
physical activity, journaling, calming, etc. to get out of the emotional maelstrom of toxicity. WRAP and
peer support are powerful tools for building healthy relationships.
You can…

            be kind to yourself and to others trying to weed toxic relationships from gardens. It is hard
to set limits or leave intimate and important relationships. The hardest place to see the ugliness of the
routine is standing in the middle of it.
       You can be kind and gentle to yourself as a vulnerable mammal, born and dying in human
embrace. Closeness and touch are rare things in our world. It is hard to limit or say goodbye to any
relationship, however destructive, that include intimacy and years of caring. It is a great loss to give
up the relationship you worked hard to build.
        Be kind to both of you in the relationship. Is there a chain of negativity running deep in your
family history? Are you bringing home the toxicity of work life? bell hooks is a wise social critic who
wonders—what forces in society benefit from our unhappiness and emotional ill health? Sadly, there

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                                            David Webster, June 26, 2009
is not space to look at that big question here. Simply applaud yourself if you are still growing the
garden of connection and love; congratulate yourself for not retreating into lonely isolation.
       This article tries to speak to you, as someone in relationships; and to you, as a friend to people
in relationships. It is hard to write without being able to hear your voice in this conversation. There are
many veils here. A seemingly positive relationship may be permanently scarred by the one time that
the husband pulled a knife when crossed. Another man may appear emotionally abusive in-the-
moment because he is thrashing about in confusion, but will back off when he realizes that it causes
pain or damage to his husband. There is a huge range of toxic relationships and toxic aspects of
relationships, from mutually toxic dating to the abuse enforced by guns and fists. Yet we all have
some tools and can learn more skills to end toxicity.
       The take-home message from this article is for you, as a person in a toxic relationship. The
message is also for those who love and care for people stuck in toxic relationships. As a friend to
someone in pain, you may feel helpless, frustrated, and even angry at your friend for allowing herself
to be hurt and hurt again.
       That take-home message is that saying no, setting limits, ending toxic relationships can be
learned-- trainable skills if you will. You learned to tie shoelaces, you can learn to set limits and/or say
goodbye to parts of intimate relationships that are toxic. You can learn how to set limits in
relationships by noticing what drains you of energy and life. The weeds of toxicity will shrink your
attentions. Your garden of relationships will flourish; irises will bloom gloriously. Weeding toxic
relationships allows you to connect with people seeking your love and affection.
       Love is easy, easy to give. Love is hard if you need or expect it back.
You can
             Set limits on being mistreated; end your toleration of the toxic aspect in any
              relationships. Weed.
             Say goodbye to toxic relationships if limits are not respected. Weed.
             Get help from friends, domestic violence counselors, your loved families. Use WRAP,
              peer support, and life-giving relationships to step out of mutually toxic relationships.
              Soak in the sun.
             You are human, your experience is normal; that stew of emotions is your self right now,
              but not forever. It is hard to leave or limit the familiar; including toxic aspects of intimacy.
              Be kind to yourself and seek kindness from others. Soak in the sun.

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                                           David Webster, June 26, 2009
             Once you step away from toxic parts of relationships there is an iris of love waiting for
              you with petals that will kiss your cheek, and purple your vision when you end the
              churning. Love is easy to give. Once the tumult in your mind/body is quieted you will be
              able to feel the petals’ kiss and see that delicate beauty. You are worthy of love.


See for more about your heart, neurocardiology, and wonderful ways of creating
love and positive regard.
For support and more information in domestic violence situations, see ;
focuses on Mass. Resources, but has useful safety suggestions.

bell hooks is a cultural critic; one of her many useful books: “All About Love: New Visions.”

David Webster interviewed 15 women for a doctoral dissertation; they told stories of learning from
depression. He has introductory training and some experience in WRAP. He is an Occupational
Therapist with a Sc.D. in psych rehab from Boston University, VA Boston employee, and sometimes
user of MH services. With deep gratitude to those 15 women and many other teachers.

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                                          David Webster, June 26, 2009

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