If you are defined by your relationships, what would yours say about you? Are they mostly honest, fulfilling, and reciprocal? Or is there someone in your life who always seems to add strife? If the answer to the latter is yes, it might be worth reevaluating their role. But how do you know when to cut someone off or when it's worth your while to try to make it work? Relationship experts have pinpointed a few signs to look out for, plus they can guide you into the most amicable ways of letting go.
As a marriage and family therapist at Playa Vista Counseling, Rachel Thomasian often helps clients deal with their dysfunctional relationships. In fact, she's even started a breakup support account and is working on a book on the subject. That said, she's noticed a few clear patterns when it comes to friends, partners, coworkers, or family members who aren't serving you.
And while the first and foremost signs seem fairly obvious, she notes that often times it's easy to ignore. "The number one sign that someone is a toxic presence in your life and should be cut off — whether it's a platonic or romantic relationship — is if you notice negative feelings associated with them," she explains. "If you experience anxiety, sadness, frustration, or depression when hanging out with or even just thinking about the person, this is a huge red flag." In other words, if you're feeling triggered by someone, there's probably good reason for that.
It's understandable that you may be hesitant to cut off a loved one, even when they are causing unnecessary conflict for — after all, they're loved. However, Thomasian mentions that if someone in your life is putting pressure on you despite boundaries you've attempted to put in place, it may be all the more reason to put some distance between you. "Another sign [that someone is toxic] is if the person makes you feel guilty for setting boundaries or sticking to your morals or ethics," she says. "When you read that out loud it may sound very obvious, but toxic people are often manipulative enough to make you feel like not bending your boundaries for them make you a bad friend, partner, or [family member]."
And that's where codependency comes into play. Thomasian explains that in some dysfunctional relationships, the person puts you in a position to feel responsible for them, which also means you may feel guilty to take the space you need from them — regardless of the fact that it's what's best. "Sometimes this shows up by someone making you feel like you're the only person who can help them or even save them from hurting his or herself," she says. "Know that this is not any one person's responsibility and unhealthy for anyone to expect that of any friend or family member."
However, Thomasian does agree that some difficult relationships are salvageable — but will require clearer and better communication between the two of you. And you may find that it's easier to be direct if you actually write it out. "Sometimes it's easier to send a letter that is followed up with an in person conversation," she explains. "I advise being clear and direct about what bothers you and follow it up with how you value your relationship enough to try to salvage it."
So, based on the aforementioned warning signs, what do you do if you've deemed the relationship beyond repair? One approach Thomasian suggests is slowly easing up on time spent with the person, versus cutting them off cold turkey. You can do this by limiting the length and frequency of phone calls or visits.
Secondly, if you feel like they'll be open to hearing it, you can be honest about your reasoning for taking a step back. One tip? Make it about prioritizing yourself, which is true, but also may be an easier pill for them to swallow. You can also gently recommend therapy or speaking to a professional if you think that they might benefit from that and won't be set off by the suggestion. "Usually, people who we view as toxic are experiencing pain themselves, if you can gently suggest them getting help in a way that is kind instead of attacking that could be extremely helpful," says Thomasian. "I recommend saying something like 'therapy was very helpful when I was going through these emotions' instead of 'You need help!'"
In an ideal situation, they'll hear your genuine concern, and take steps needed to be a healthy presence in your life. And if not, you're still taking care of yourself — with or without them.