How to deal with a toxic relationship

All of us have had the experience of having to deal with someone who just rubs you the wrong way. The simplest way to deal with them is to cut them out of your life but sometimes, for a variety of reasons, you cannot do that. How should you deal with them in a way that does not make you grit your teeth and leave you stressed out afterwards? Christine Carter offers five suggestions.

  1. Accept that you are in a difficult situation, dealing with a very difficult relationship.
  2. The other person will probably tell you that you are the cause of all their bad feelings.
  3. Tell the truth.
  4. If you feel angry or afraid, bring your attention to your breath and do not speak (or write) to the person until you feel calm.
  5. Have mercy.

For me, items (3) and (5) would be the hardest to implement in practice. Telling someone to their face that they aggravate you (or worse) is not easy and we tend to find other excuses for not wanting to meet them. But Carter says that lying is stressful for most people

Be sure to tell them your truth instead of your judgment, or what you imagine to be true for other people. Don’t say “I didn’t invite you because it would stress Mom out too much to have you there” or “I didn’t invite you because you are a manipulative drama queen who will find some way to make the evening about you.”

Instead, tell them your truth: “When you are in my home, I feel jittery and nervous, and I can’t relax, so I didn’t invite you to the party. I’m sorry that I’ve hurt your feelings.”

It takes courage to tell the truth, because often it makes people angry. But they will probably be mad at you anyway, no matter what you do. They almost certainly won’t like the new, truth-telling you—and that will make them likely to avoid you in the future. This might be a good thing.

As for what having mercy entails, she goes into some detail.

You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you buy them a cup of coffee? Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?

Forgiveness takes this kindness to a whole new level. I used to think I couldn’t really forgive someone who’d hurt me until they’d asked for forgiveness, preferably in the form of a moving and remorseful apology letter.

But I’ve learned that to heal ourselves we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still hurting us. When we do, we feel happier and more peaceful. This means that you might need to forgive the other person at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.

When we find ways to show mercy to even the person who has cost us sleep and love and even our well-being, something miraculous happens. “When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves,” Anne Lamott writes, “we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp.”

I must admit that I take the cowardly way out when dealing with toxic people and relationships. I use avoidance as much as possible, and if that does not work, I try to minimize the time spent, be somewhat passive during the encounter, and make a quick getaway, hoping that after repeated experiences like this, the other person will get the hint and perhaps see me as toxic and start avoiding me.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Believers love their “forgiveness” psychodramas w/out the slightest regard to whether they solve problems or provide a model anything at all like actual human psychology. It’s all about that short-term endorphin/oxytocin-inducing “great spiritual moment that can make us gasp”.

    Never mind that the problematic behavior persists, now with another mechanism for abuse.

  2. kestrel says

    Haha. Sounds like you are a follower of my grandmother’s advice, which was, “Smile and walk fast”. Of course back in her day society really frowned on telling people the actual truth, so I am happy to see #3 on the list.

  3. Timothy says

    Truth telling to a toxic person can be hazardous to your health. I’m far more a fan of Mano’s avoidance, minimization and passive strategies.

    Also, not a fan of the apology at the end of the truth telling.

    Interesting article, Mano. Thanks for posting it.

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