Reality Check: The Other Toxin

If you pay attention to health-related matters, then you’ve heard of toxins. Whether in air, food, or water, toxins are often suspected of causing disease.

There’s another toxin that can have a significant impact on one’s life: the toxic relationship! This can be particularly troublesome in families. Why?

If you have a toxic friend, you have options. If that relationship is not working for you, you can withdraw. By making yourself unavailable, you’re effectively “unfriending” that person.

Not so with families. Kin is always kin. And if the toxic connection is with someone close—perhaps a parent or child—ongoing misery may seem like the only option.

Jacki and her mom, Doris, have always had an uneasy relationship. Doris had a difficult time with her in childbirth, and she’s never forgotten it!

Doris belittles Jacki and then accuses her of not caring about her poor old mom. She gossips about Jacki to her siblings, and then finds fault when Jacki is uncomfortable at family gatherings. Doris’s conversation with Jacki is a list of complaints, nags, or blames.

Doris says she behaves this way because she is trying to help Jacki.

Perhaps Doris truly believes that. Or, perhaps she is just a miserable woman who can’t stand to see Jacki happy. Regardless of motive, the effect is: Doris is Jacki’s toxin.

Now, Jacki could cut ties with her mom. However, from Jacki’s perspective, Doris is the only mom she has. For better or worse, Jacki wants to maintain that connection.

Is there a way for Jacki to have some kind of reasonably satisfying relationship with her mom? Or is she doomed to be trapped in her mother’s misery?

Mike Bechtle, in his aptly titled book, “People can’t drive you crazy if you don’t give them the keys,” says, “We might not be free from the presence of that person, but we can be free from their toxic impact on our lives.”

How? As is often the case, some of choice theory’s caring habits provide helpful suggestions for this situation.

  • Respect. (in this case, self-respect) When the conversation starts getting toxic, Jacki can step away. There’s no need to be angry or dishonest. Jacki could say, “Mom, when you talk to me like that, I will leave. We can continue talking in a respectful way, or I can leave. It’s up to you.”  If Doris doesn’t stop, then it’s important that Jacki follow through and leave.
  • Listen. Doris wants to talk. Jacki has heard it all before. Doris nags; Jacki lets it in one ear and out the other. Instead, Jacki could try listening more actively. It’s hard for Doris to continue nagging if Jacki is engaged in the conversation without arguing.
  • Acceptance. Jacki’s efforts to control what her mom says have only brought her frustration. Jacki cannot change her mom. She can only control how she interacts with her mom.
  • Perspective: Jacki could choose to look for joy in the relationship. Even a fleeting connection—a conversation that is less negative than usual—is something to take joy in.

Have you observed or been involved in a toxic relationship?

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