Treatment and the early stages of recovery are a time when many people start to take inventory of their lives. It’s important to recognize the blessings and strengths one possesses, but it is also valuable to recognize the areas that need improvement. For many people who are new to recovery, this means engaging in the difficult and potentially painful process of assessing relationships.
One study of 178 adults in treatment for addiction in the United States and Australia found that 84 percent of them had been victims of child abuse and neglect. Suffering from this type of trauma teaches children that they should expect people who claim to love them to treat them poorly. These children often grow up to be adults who feel it is normal for people they love to mistreat them.
Portrait of a Toxic Relationship
WebMD offers five signs of a toxic relationship:
- Gaslighting –when one party tries to convince the other that something they experienced did not occur or happened differently than they remember, in order to undermine their confidence in their own ability to understand the world around them.
- Emotional Abuse – put downs, manipulation, and punishing the loved one by withdrawing from them.
- Isolation – keeping other people away, being jealous if people outside the relationship want to be around the other person, sometimes even including family members.
- Hot-Cold Dynamic – this is also called intermittent reinforcement and it happens when a person showers someone with love and then withdraws it until the person starts to become upset. They then give some affection, but not as much as before and then ultimately withdraw it until the other party becomes upset again. The person using this tactic is essentially seeing how little they can give the other person and still keep them around.
- Controlling Behaviors – might include things like trying to prevent the other person from being themselves, or from talking, dressing, thinking, and living how they want.
Relationships of Every Type
While many people think of couples when they think about a toxic relationship, all kinds of relationships can be unhealthy. Friendships, parent/child relationships, and sibling interactions can all be bad for the well-being of the people involved. Some examples:
- A friend who won’t respect your boundaries when you say no.
- A parent who teaches their child codependent behaviors and then continues to interact in this sort of pattern after their children reach adulthood.
- A brother or sister who tries to play family members against each other by creating drama.
- A boss or co-worker who is hypercritical.
How Recovery Suffers
As a person re-enters the outside world following detox and treatment, they need to be encouraged and supported. If they instead receive criticism, are pushed to ignore boundaries they set to keep themselves sober, don’t feel safe, are using their emotional energy to appease someone who is never happy, etc. they won’t have the resources they need to stay on their long-term recovery path.
What to do About a Toxic Relationship
There are a number of ways that a person can choose to address an unhealthy relationship, according to Christine Carter, PhD. Dr. Carter is a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at The University of California – Berkeley. These include:
- Cut the person off altogether – in the most extreme cases, the situation may be so severe that you and the other person need to permanently part ways. This option can be very painful, especially if it means losing other relationships as a result.
- Acceptance – if it’s not feasible to extract the person from your life (perhaps you married into their family or they are someone you work with), you may need to come to terms with the fact that you are in a difficult situation and just do your best to cope.
- Be honest – this is especially important if the other person tries to shift blame onto you that you don’t deserve. It is possible to be both kind and truthful by using “I” messages to share what you feel when the person is being difficult.
- Don’t let your anger control you – don’t engage with the person when you are upset. This only increases the chances that you will say something you might regret later and that the situation might unnecessarily escalate.
- Forgive – if possible, try to find it inside yourself to acknowledge that the things this person does to hurt you probably has far more to do with their own inner turmoil than it does with you; this can help you let go of the pain you’ve experienced as a result of their actions.
At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we assist our clients with each of the steps in building a strong recovery plan personalized to their needs. We work to assist clients in using the strongest, healthiest relationships in their lives to further their goal of living a sober life. We offer education and guidance to friends and family who want to be part of our client’s healthy support system.