Before Christmas, some friends and I saw August: Osage County. Predictably, a conversation ensued about dysfunctional families.
"I can relate," one friend said. "No one but my family can make me go from complete calm to instant rage with just a look or an off-hand comment. This time of year, it's insane. All year we avoid each other. At Christmas we're supposed to get together for two or three hours of fake jollity and tense politeness. After 20 minutes, we're hissing and spitting at each other like a nest of vipers. Then we reel away for another 12 months of polite avoidance." She sighed, "For the past three years I've told the family I'm working. I'd much rather spend that time with people I want to be with, instead of seething with resentment."
While my friend's family is possibly not as vitriolic as the Westons of Osage County, dysfunctional families are one of the major sources of toxic relationships.
If they're bad enough, avoidance can be the best recourse. How can we tell?
1. Identify relationships that might be toxic
Any relationship in which we feel drained or constrained to act in ways not necessarily of our choosing may be toxic. These unequal relationships feature emotional blackmail, domination of one over the other or a tacit struggle for dominance. One or both parties might feel controlled, abused, not safe or taken for granted. We might feel drawn into mind games against our will, or feel manipulated by the other's overly dramatic, erratic emotions. At work, we might realize we've been cleverly maneuvered into an untenable position we didn't foresee- - perhaps even into something unethical -- by a boss or fellow employee with few scruples. Communication designed to address issues seems to go nowhere, or is twisted into more blame.
Often, we find ourselves inadvertently repeating the habitual relational patterns of our family of origin. Being aware of this can allow us the space to make different decisions about how we want to be. But it's hard work. Old emotional ties can make this a sticky process.
When my friend characterized her family as a nest of vipers, she was simultaneously recognizing that individuals in her family are unable or unwilling to change. Treating them as she would dangerous creatures helped her decide her course of action and not to be fooled by sweet, manipulative ploys.
2. Decide how important this relationship is for you
It might seem obvious that we should get away from a toxic relationship as quickly as possible, but there are reasons we might decide to stay for a time. Loyalty to family or friends, needing employment, legal contracts or compassion might figure here. Be aware of the toll on you, and that your goodwill can be exploited. Find a way to balance what you feel is right for you. Less healthy reasons for staying are the comfort of familiarity, habit, an external locus of control that means we feel powerless or a deep, secret belief that we do not deserve happiness.
3. What's your time limit?
"I can only bear to be with my malicious-tongued great-aunt for half an hour before I begin to foam at the mouth," declared another friend. "I visit because I'm her sole remaining family. I manage it once a week, but only for 30 minutes. One second more than that and I'm car-screaming all the way home."
It's a great idea. If you've decided to stay in the relationship for whatever reason, have a time limit, be it minutes or months. Be careful not to underestimate the demeaning attrition of spirit that we experience in a toxic relationship. It can take months or years to recover ourselves.
4. Stress management
Another friend made us shriek with laughter as she described her industrial-strength strategies so she could work out her 12-month contract in a toxic workplace. Tellingly, her favorite movie is The Devil Wears Prada -- another film in which the fabulous Meryl Streep plays a consummate toxic matriarch.
Regular gym sessions featuring the punching bag or kickboxing classes; running, swimming, sport, dance, yoga, tai chi, Pilates or a favorite hobby are safe, responsible and healthy ways to de-stress physically, emotionally and mentally.
5. Good hard self-reflection
In some cases, we might be unaware that we're in a toxic relationship or believe it's our partner who's at fault. It's important to know that, to some degree, we may be unconsciously contributing to an unhealthy dynamic through our insecurity or low self-esteem. Are we too accommodating? Too anxious to please? Believe they need us or that only we can understand them? If so, are we really helping or just maintaining our own exploitation? Be honest. A deeper level of discernment might pick up that we are actually immersed in our partner's emotions, neediness and insecurity -- and that we've been unconsciously coerced into maintaining their equilibrium, keeping them happy. We need to differentiate: what is our stuff? What is theirs? Who are we apart from the relationship?
6. Staying away from toxic relationships
Congratulations if you've decided you don't need them and have developed a toxicity radar to spot the covert manipulator and super-nice passive-aggressive friend. An uneasy gut feeling can be a distant early warning signal. Other signs are in intense reactive emotions or that honest, open communication is ineffective. It's an interesting phenomenon that healthy, differentiated individuals don't engage with toxic people if they can help it.
7. Maintaining a toxicity-free relationship
Sometimes, assertiveness and clear communication free of game-playing means an unequal relationship can be rectified into one that is more equal. It takes courage to be in the moment and not default into habitual ways of relating, to take responsibility for honest communication and to expect reciprocal respect.
If that's not possible, move away. Make 2014 your year of breaking free.
Transpersonal psychotherapist Avril Carruthers is the author of the just-released Freedom from Toxic Relationships, from Tarcher/Penguin.
© Avril Carruthers.