Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

When It’s Not You, It’s Them: The Toxic People That Ruin Friendships, Families, Relationships

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When It's Not You, It's Them: The Toxic People That Ruin Friendships, Families, Relationships

One of the joys of being human is that we don’t have to be perfect to be one of the good ones. At some point we’ll all make stupid decisions, hurt the people we love, say things that are hard to take back, and push too hard to get our way. None of that makes us toxic. It makes us human. We mess things up, we grow and we learn. Toxic people are different. They never learn. They never self-reflect and they don’t care who they hurt along the way. 

Toxic behaviour is a habitual way of responding to the world and the people in it. Toxic people are smart but they have the emotional intelligence of a pen lid. It’s no accident that they choose those who are open-hearted, generous and willing to work hard for a relationship. With two non-toxic people this is the foundation for something wonderful, but when toxic behaviour is involved it’s only a matter of time before that open heart becomes a broken one.

If you’re in any sort of relationship with someone who is toxic, chances are you’ve been bending and flexing for a while to try to make it work. Stop. Just stop. You can only change the things that are open to your influence and toxic people will never be one of them. Here are some of the ones to watch out for.

15 Versions of Toxic People

  1. The Controller.

    Nobody should have to ask for permission or be heavily directed on what to wear, how to look, who to spend time with or how to spend their money. There’s nothing wrong with being open to the influence of the people around you, but ‘the way you do you’ is for you to decide. Your mind is strong and beautiful and shouldn’t be caged. Healthy relationships support independent thought. They don’t crush it.

  2. The Taker.

    All relationships are about give and take but if you’re with a taker, you’ll be doing all the giving and they’ll be doing all the taking. Think about what you get from the relationship. If it’s nothing, it might be time to question why you’re there. We all have a limited amount of resources (emotional energy, time) to share between our relationships. Every time you say ‘yes’ to someone who doesn’t deserve you, you’re saying ‘no’ to someone who does. Give your energy to the people who deserve it and when you’re drawing up the list of deserving ones, make sure your own name is at the top.

  3. The Absent.

    These versions of toxic people won’t return texts or phone calls and will only be available when it suits them, usually when they want something. You might find yourself wondering whether they got your message, whether they’re okay, or whether you’ve done something to upset them. No relationship should involve this much guess-work.

  4. The Manipulator.

    Manipulators will steal your joy as though you made it especially for them. They’ll tell half-truths or straight out lies and when they have enough people squabbling, they’ll be the saviour. ‘Don’t worry. I’m here for you.’ Ugh. They’ll listen, they’ll comfort, and they’ll tell you what you want to hear. And then they’ll ruin you. They’ll change the facts of a situation, take things out of context and use your words against you. They’ll calmly poke you until you crack, then they’ll poke you for cracking. They’ll ‘accidentally’ spill secrets or they’ll hint that there are secrets there to spill, whether there are or not. There’s just no reasoning with a manipulator, so forget trying to explain yourself. The argument will run in circles and there will be no resolution. It’s a black hole. Don’t get sucked in.

    You:   I feel like you’re not listening to me.
    Them:
      Are you calling me a bad listener
    You:
      No, I’m just saying that you’ve taken what I said the wrong way.
    Them:
      Oh. So now you’re saying I’m stupid. I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. Everyone told me to be careful of you.

    They’ll only hear things through their negative filter, so the more you talk, the more they’ll twist what you’re saying. They want power, not a relationship. They’ll use your weaknesses against you and they’ll use your strengths – your kindness, your openness, your need for stability in the relationship. If they’re showing tenderness, be careful – there’s something you have that they want. Show them the door, and lock it when they leave.

  5. The Bullshitter.

    They talk themselves up, they talk others down and they always have a reason for not doing what they say. They’ll lie outright or they’ll give you versions of the truth – not a lie, not the truth, just that feeling in your gut that something is off. You can’t believe a word they say. There’s no honesty, which means there’s no intimacy. At worst bullshitters are heartbreakers. At best they’re raving bores.

  6. The Attention Seeker.

    It’s nice to be needed. It’s also nice to eat peanut butter, but it doesn’t mean you want it all the time. The attention seeker always has a crisis going on and they always need your support. Be ready for the aggression, passive aggression, angst or a guilt trip if you don’t respond. ‘Oh. You’re going to dinner with  friends? It’s just that I’ve had the worst day and I really needed you tonight. Oh well, I suppose I can’t always expect you to be there for me. If it’s that important to you then you should go. I just want you to be happy. I’ll just stay in by myself and watch tv or something (sigh). You go and have fun with your friends. I suppose I’ll be okay.’ See how that works? When there’s always a crisis, it’s only a matter of time before you’re at the centre of one. 

  7. The One Who Wants to Change You.

    It’s one thing to let you know that the adorable snort thing you do when you laugh isn’t so adorable, but when you’re constantly reminded that you aren’t smart enough, good-looking enough, skinny enough, strong enough, you have to start thinking that the only thing that isn’t good enough about you is this loser who keeps pointing these things out. You’ll never be good enough for these people because it’s not about you, it’s about control and insecurity – theirs, not yours. As long as they’re working on changing you, they don’t have to worry about themselves, and as long as they can keep you small, they’ll have a shot at shining brighter.

    These people will make you doubt yourself by slowly convincing you that they know best, and that they’re doing it all for you. ‘You’d just be so much prettier if you lost a few pounds, you know? I’m just being honest.’ Ugh. Unless you’re having to be craned through your window, or you’re seriously unhealthy, it’s nobody else’s business how luscious your curves are. If you feel heavy, start by losing the 160 pounds of idiot beside you and you won’t believe how much lighter you’ll feel. These ones aren’t looking out for you, they’re trying to manage you. The people who deserve you will love you because of who you are, not despite it.

  8. The One You Want to Change.

    People aren’t channels, hairstyles or undies. You can’t change them. Someone who snarls at the waiter will always be the kind of person who snarls at the waiter – whether they’re snarling or not. People can change, but only when they’re ready and usually only when they’ve felt enough pain.  It’s normal to fight for the things that are important, but it’s important to know when to stop. When a relationship hurts to be in, the only thing that will change will be you – a sadder, more unhappier version of the person you started out as. Before it gets to this, set a time limit in which you want to see change. Take photos of yourself every day – you’ll see it in your eyes if something isn’t right, or check in at the end of each week and write down how you feel. Have something concrete to look back on. It’s easier to let go if it’s clear over time that nothing has changed. It’s even easier if you can see that the only thing different is that the lights have gone out in you.

  9. The Abuser.

    The signs might be subtle at first but they’ll be there. Soon, there will be a clear cycle of abuse, but you may or may not recognise it for what it is but this is how it will look:

    >>  There will be rising tension. You’ll feel it. You’ll tread carefully and you’ll be scared of saying or doing the wrong thing.

    >>   Eventually, there will be an explosion. A fight. There will be physical or emotional abuse and it will be terrifying. At first you’ll make excuses – ‘I shouldn’t have said that/ did that/ gone out/ had an opinion/ said no.

    >>  Then, the honeymoon. The abuser can be wonderfully kind and loving when they need to be, but only when they need to be. You’ll be so desperate for things to get better that you’ll believe the apologies, the tenderness, the declarations of love, the promises.

    >> The tension will start to rise again. Over time, the cycle will get shorter and it will happen more often. The tension will rise quicker, the explosions will be bigger, the honeymoons will be shorter. 

    If this is familiar, you’re in a cycle of abuse. It’s not love. It’s not stress. It’s not your fault. It’s abuse. The honeymoon will be one of the things that keeps you there. The love will feel real and you’ll crave it, of course you will – that’s completely understandable – but listen to this: Love after abuse isn’t love, it’s manipulation. If the love was real, there would be mountains moved to make sure you were never hurt or scared again.

  10. The Jealous One.

    Your partner is important and so are other people in your life. If you act in a trustworthy way, you deserve to be trusted. We all get insecure now and then and sometimes we could all do with a little more loving and reassurance, but when the questions, accusations and demands are consistent and without reason, it will only be a matter of time before your phone is checked, your movements are questioned, and your friends are closed out. Misplaced jealousy isn’t love, it’s a lack of trust in you.

  11. The Worse-Off One.

    These people will always have problems that are bigger than yours. You’re sick, they’re sicker; you’re exhausted from working late every night this week, they’re shattered – from the gym; you’ve just lost your job, they’re ‘devastated because it’s really hard when you know someone who’s lost their job’. You’ll always be the supporter, never the supported. There’s only so long that you can keep drawing on your emotional well if there’s nothing coming back.

  12. The Sideways Glancer.

    Ok. So the human form is beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with admiring it, but when it’s done constantly in your company – in your face – it’s tiring, and it feels bad. You deserve to be first and you deserve to feel noticed. That doesn’t mean you have to be first all the time, but certainly you shouldn’t have to fight strangers for your share of attention. Some things will never be adorable.

  13. The Cheater.

    Infidelity doesn’t have to mean the end of a relationship – that depends on the circumstances and the people involved and it’s not for anyone else to judge whether or not you should stay. It’s a deeply personal decision and one you can make in strength either way, but when infidelity happens more than once, or when it happens without remorse or commitment to the future of the relationship, it will cause breakage. When people show you over and over that they aren’t capable of loving you the way you want to be loved, believe them. Move them out of the damn way so that better things can find you. 

  14. The Liar.

    Let’s be realistic – little white lies happen. In fact, research has found that when lying is done for the right reasons (such as to protect someone’s feelings) it can actually strengthen a relationship. ‘So that’s the orange cocktail dress you’ve spent a month’s pay on? Wow – you weren’t kidding when you said it was bright. Oh, it has pandas on it. And they’re smiling. And the shop doesn’t take returns. And you love it. Well keep smiling gorgeous. You look amazing!’. However, when lies are told with malicious intent and for personal gain, it will always weaken relationships. Relationships are meant to be fun, but none of us are meant to be played.

  15. The One Who Laughs at Your Dreams.

    Whether it’s being a merchant banker, a belly dancer, or the inventor of tiny slippers for cats, the people who deserve you are those who support your dreams, not those who laugh at them. The people who tell you that you won’t succeed are usually the ones who are scared that you will. If they’re not cheering you on, they’re holding you back. If they’re not directly impacted by your dreams, (which, for example, your partner might be if your dream is to sell everything you both own, move to Rome, and sell fake sunglasses to the tourists) then you would have to question what they’re getting out of dampening you.

Being human is complicated. Being open to the world is a great thing to be – it’s wonderful – but when you’re open to the world you’re also open to the poison that spills from it.  One of the things that makes a difference is the people you hold close. Whether it’s one, two or squadron-sized bunch, let the people around you be ones who are worthy of you. It’s one of the greatest acts of self-love. Good people are what great lives are made of. 

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294 Comments

Uthp

I don’t know how to write , but I love my husband a lot. We known each other for 16 years married for 7 years. He has lot of mood swings and about 2 years ago started calling me names , suspecting me for stupid things . Even started hitting me saying I am a bitch. He has issues with his father , he also drinks , also had a meth addiction too . Today he hit me a lot. My puppy almost rescued me . He is a good , smart guy .. I don’t know what to do .

Reply
Anon

This is confusing for me because I’m not sure if I was the toxic one. The person said I was left brokenhearted.

I really liked this girl. I thought she felt the same. I would always tell her nice things, write her poems and send her flowers because she seemed a little down at times.

Moving into a sexual relationship was easy and fast with her, but saying I love you was really hard for her. She would never open up & always left me having to guess about things. Then she would get upset whenever I brought it up. Like I was attacking her personally.

It was so frustrating. After awhile she started ignoring me a lot. I missed her and just wanted to talk to her. She would say things like I make her smile all day and her heart flutter one day and the next she’d be cold & mean.

When she finally said I love you it was a big deal for me to hear. After seeing how hard it was for her to say it I thought she meant it. But it seemed like everything was always about her. I didn’t answer my phone or text her back one time because I left my phone at my moms house for a whole day.
She got really upset and I apologized. Later she said maybe she was just having a bad day but she felt like none of the men her life ever time for her.

After that day I made sure nothing like that ever happened again. But she would ignore me, sometimes for days and weeks. She acted like it was no big deal. I tried to tell I feel hurt when she does that. I didn’t know if she was mad at me or if she was ok.

I asked to her stop nicely but she didn’t care. Finally I started getting upset and she said I was toxic. Then she just never talked to me to me again. She blocked me from every way of contacting her. I feel like I ruined things.

She had agreed to marry me and I even bought a ring. She over reacted to a lot of things. Obviously she had been hurt before so I thought she would understand when I tried to tell her I was feeling hurt.

When I finally lost my cool I told her the things she was doing seemed very narcissistic. That was it. She never wanted to talk to me again. I really loved her too.

I’m scared to be with anybody now because I guess maybe I am a bad person.

Reply
Rick

I have been through a friendship where 1) I’m not sure it was a real friendship, 2) my awareness and expectations of who this person really was was entirely wrong, 3) I’m not sure if I did anything to bring about her rapid change in tone with me, and 4) I’m sure I was dealing with a person with one or more personality and mood disorders.

Let’s call this friend (or should I say “friend”?) Tara. Tara works with me in the same company. She’s a couple years older than me, now in her mid-40s, and has been in this company a couple more years as well, not a supervisor, more of a senior colleague. Tara was divorced/single when we met, and I am married.

Some background: Tara had married young, she married her husband when they were classmates in grad school, and then were classmates during an arduous 5-year training program, and then another year in practice working together until they had – what I heard to be – an ugly divorce (he had taken money from her, I heard). She never spoke much about him, occasionally mentioned she thought he was an alcoholic, but said they probably would have stayed together if they had had kids (they never did, she didn’t talk about that).

So she had been in her early thirties, divorced and single. She proceeded to go through several relationships, none lasting more than two years (one man she mentioned she had been “almost engaged” to, not sure what that means). She had also been through several jobs in the same field, with different companies.

At our company, she worked two floors above me for the first couple years after I joined. She was always friendly and cordial with me, I only saw her occasionally. But I began to hear that there was some rift between her and our other staff on her floor. I never heard what exactly had happened, but know Tara to sometimes be defensive, irritable, and territorial about her work – which she occasionally expressed in angry emails to the team!

The chiefs of the department had to switch her office for other purposes, so they transferred her downstairs to my floor, a quieter floor.

Our friendship started pretty quickly then. I had been one of the few coworkers who she had been casually friendly with even before she came downstairs and I felt sorry for her about how the others were treating her upstairs. Although I didn’t know the details about what happened up there, I felt that she was a good worker who was being unfairly maligned.

We hit it off quickly. Mornings and afternoons chatting in each others’ offices, lunch together in the team breakroom, went to conferences together, walks to the company store together. We began emailing and texting quite frequently. Text conversations almost every day. Book and movie ideas, political discussions, you name it, fun chats. Her mother passed away and I spent several long phone conversations with Tara, although she later told me she generally did not like to talk on the phone. Tara describes herself as an introvert, she certainly is, and when she had her door closed and needed to just get her work done on her own, alone, I let her be. Some days she wouldn’t show up to work and I’d text to see if she was ok, she’d tell me she was having “a really bad time” and just needed to be alone.

We saw each other at concerts, where she hung out at intermission with me and my wife. Went to a few company excursions with her, she was friendly with my wife too.

Occasionally, I now realize more clearly, she didn’t treat me as a friend, though. Couple times going out with others from work, she drove me to the venue, and then just left me there without a ride at the end of the evening (once some boyfriend she was all nuts about came and took her away from our group, once she said she just needed to leave, and left me standing there alone in the parking lot calling Uber!). I asked her a couple times if she wanted to join me and my wife for dinner before a concert, and she always said she “didn’t want to be a third wheel.” When my wife and I went on a double-date with her and her then-boyfriend (later fiancee), to a festival (an excessively PDA-filled showing on their part), they just suddenly declared in the middle of the day they were leaving since he didn’t feel well. Another time we went on another double-date with them to dinner and a concert, at the end of the music, they just left without staying a minute to say goodnight. Except for one evening when I invited her (single at the time) to join me and my wife and my parents for a Christmas garden festival and nice dinner, I realize now she never wanted to go out with us unless it was to serve as a double-date for her and a guy! She never invited me out or over to her house.

She shared with me here and there some relatively private details about her life and family (although I now realize she left a lot of details about prior work and relationship life to herself). I used to ask about how she was doing all the time. I really felt more and more that I cared about her. In a purely platonic way, I’m happily married! But I cared and felt sorry for hardships she was going through and wanted (and offered) to help in any way I could.

One notable time I offered her advice I now realize may have been a major mistake. Thing is with Tara, she is very self-assured and confident that whatever she is doing is the right and smart thing to do, no matter what common wisdom says. She had embarked on her newest relationship and after only a few weeks of dating, he had moved into her house, she was planning to buy a baby grand piano to convert her home office into a music room for him, they went ring shopping, and she was planning on quitting her job and moving with him across the country in about a year to live closer to his parents. I only suggested to her that this relationship was moving very fast and she should keep her head on her shoulders – if she was sure it was the right thing, fine, but I was just hoping she wasn’t making rash decisions. (of note, I have kind of made the “instant relationship” mistake myself, and it didn’t turn out well!!). She became quiet – noticeably perturbed at my suggestion to merely think carefully about what she was doing – and tersely told me she had been through many relationships and could easily see that she had found the right man. After just over a month of dating, she knew everything that was bad about him and could live with those things.

On the other hand, I told her about some private health issues I had. And a few months into our “friendship” my wife had a baby, my new son. And she never once asked me about how those things were going, about how I was doing or the baby or my postpartum wife! Not once!

It’s remarkable to think now, but in the months before my son was born, I asked her (at first casually, then with a heartfelt written letter) if she wanted to be the Godmother to my son. She said yes, she was honored.

The major rift happened about a week before my son was born. She had been dating a guy for about 2.5 months and was very content and excited to be in a relationship (the same boyfriend from the double-dates I mentioned). On Monday she was friendly, joking around with me, had a nice chat and walked to the store with me ….

Tuesday morning … not a word. No good morning, no nothing. She shut her office door all morning, seemed very angry when I saw her come out of office in afternoon, I tried to talk to her and she abruptly and rudely cut me off in mid-sentence, closed her door in my face. And she remained like that the next week until I had to leave work for the birth.

I texted her a few times, I was concerned about her very sudden change in behavior. After my son was born, she never texted back. I was reading about depression and noticed her symptoms seemed to match almost entirely (at least from an external view). She finally wrote me a text saying she was overwhelmed and needed some space. Although she said she knew I was trying to be a good friend to her, my periodic checks on how she was doing were increasing her stress, she needed space. I understood. I sent her an emoticon text every week or so to let her know I was there if she needed to talk, but I otherwise kept silent and gave her space all that time.

When I got back to work a few weeks later, I found out from another coworker that after a couple weeks when she was very upset, people had thought she and the new guy had broken up, she came in one morning to announce they were engaged. Other than flashing the ring at me with a smirk over her shoulder, she never mentioned it to me.

Continued silence from her. A few weeks later I wrote to her, congratulated her again, but said I hoped we could clear the air between us. I said I had valued our friendship, and hoped we could resume more cordial interactions, if only for workplace harmony. She eventually replied, again stating that she was an introvert and my interactions with her were making coming to work difficult. My “constant need for attention from her” were “very draining.”

Brief list of possible reasons for all this:
1- self-centered, borderline/narcissistic personality disorder(s)
2 – insecurity/desperation being single for so long
3 – involuntary/circumstantial childlessness
4 – jealous/controlling boyfriend/fiance

I’m curious your thoughts on this painful/confusing situation.

Thanks!

Reply
Kgirl

Great article. I got out of a relationship this year. He started off fast and furious. I can’t say I was flattered at the start but he’d had a long term marriage and seemed kind on the surface. He is unusual in that he spent hours talking on the phone in the beginnng You know how most guys will text you- no Tim would talk and talk. He fancied himself as a player- Said he had been scouted out for the Patriots but had an injury in training. He had so much baggage. Nothing that would fit in an overhead bin (that’s for sure) Tim Fox from San Diego. He started to lose weight and even though he drinks and smokes cigars (cough cough) which is such a contradiction to good health (in my opinion) I never felt I could date a guy who has such huge mother issues.In fact my mother always said ” Don’t date a man who doesn’t get on well with his mother” Having said that- there are men who adore their mothers and aren’t good relationship material either. He comes on so strongl. I really liked him initially- comes across as being a big bear of a man kind and spends time listening.You wo’nt find a better listener( at the beginning) He is in therapy and yet he is severely in need of intensive therapy as a relationship with him has to be all about giving him positive affirmations. In other words it’s a lot of hard work and then POOF!!! he gets cold feet- he is a non finisher- Don’t waste your time with him.

Reply
robbie

hi read all of article and comments at end of day we are all responsible for own actions and if things arent working .best to move on .not always easy .and im no youngster .been through life and on 3rd marriage lost my elder son nearly 6 years ago .but always been the giver listener supporter but when i lost my son who was there for me friends disappeared and husband had had an accident which overshadowed sons death but he is able to work and is able to do things my son hasnt got that choice. whether you call this toxic or not even i dont know answer to that but i think it is way people are now no time for anything but what they want and other peoples needs are not considered .just really selfish people in selfish world

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