The primary goal of any relationship, whether it’s a friendship or a romance, is to enrich your life. We oftentimes forget this. We meet someone who just knocks us of our feet. Or we have a family member we feel obliged to serve. Or a friend we’ve known for a long time and feel like we owe them something.
But when we meet someone who is detrimental to our mental health and well-being, we cannot seem to let go.
A “toxic person” is someone whose actions actively lower your happiness and self-esteem. Over time, you get sucked into the drama so much that you start believing this kind of behavior is “normal”. And the longer you keep the relationship alive, the worse it gets.
When you start thinking about whether a relationship is toxic, it probably means that you should have thought about this two months ago. When an idea has been implanted in your mind, there’s no going back. You can try, and most people do try, to ignore these doubts. What inevitably happens is that a month, a year, or a decade down the line, you realize you made the wrong choice.
No matter how hard you try to ignore it, deep down, you know that something is wrong. But actually pointing to someone in your life and saying “that person has a toxic influence on my life and happiness” is hard. It’s really hard. It’s really, really, really hard. And there’s nothing I can say to make it easier.
All I can do is give you a guiding tenet throughout this process: The hardest decisions are usually the right ones. That’s what makes them so hard in the first place.
Since your subjective evaluation cannot be trusted when it comes to relationships, I’ve created a step-by-step process you can use to filter out toxic relationships. I call it The Relationship Test.
This test is a series of questions to which only you know the real answer.
Why not just tell you what to do? Well, I’m just some random guy on the Internet. I don’t know you and I don’t know your relationship. What these questions will do is push you in the right direction and explain why certain behavior is bad. What happens next is up to you.
The first step is to write down a list of people you spend the most time with. This refers to all types of relationships, including family members and people from school, work, gym, or wherever. If you spend a significant amount of time with them, they’re going on the list.
The second step is to take each of these people, one by one, and run them through the test below. Start with the first question and follow the instructions. Good luck!
NOTE: The behavior that causes someone to automatically fail the entire test is abuse (physical, emotional, psychological). If someone in your life is abusing you, the correct course of action is always to completely and unapologetically remove them from your life. No exceptions, no second chances, and no remorse. Somebody who would ever treat you like that can never bring anything good to your life.
Question #1: Is this a one-sided relationship?
One-sided relationships are those in which one person gets significantly more out of the relationship than the other. They usually don’t reciprocate the same amount of effort and support. They expect a lot while providing little in return.
Be blunt and ask yourself: “What do I get out of this relationship?”
If this sounds selfish to you, good. Being selfish is necessary to an extent because, if this is your first thought, you are likely the person who lets others walk over them. Every relationship, apart from maybe family members, should add something to your life.
If your primary purpose in a relationship is to exist for someone else’s benefit, you will always be miserable. You need to be the most important person in your life. A relationship with someone should add good things to your life, not just be an additional source of stress and anxiety.
All toxic relationships are one-sided, so this is the perfect metric for automatic disqualification. If you cannot find a real, long-term, and legitimate reason for keeping someone around, do not keep them around. If you spend more time on the other person than on yourself, especially if they don’t appreciate it, that relationship is toxic.
- YES: If the relationship is one-sided, it’s toxic. Go to QUESTION #5.
- NO: The relationship is not one-sided? Go to QUESTION #2.
Question #2: Does the negative outweigh the positive?
Just because the relationship isn’t one-sided, it doesn’t mean it is healthy. People can be a good influence on you in some aspects while being a terrible influence on others. Like that friend who will invite you out and encourage you to socialize, but will also mock you in front of people and be unsupportive of your goals. That’s not the type of person you should keep in your social circles.
Every relationship, even a toxic one, has some upside to it. But in a healthy relationship, the positives always outweigh the negatives.
Positive Relationship Traits
- Having the same or similar values as you.
- Having the same or similar aspirations as you.
- Having proven themselves to be reliable, loyal, and supportive.
- Being an inspiration and a positive role-model.
- Being honest with you, even when it hurts.
Negative Relationship Traits
- Having contrasting or opposing values as you.
- Having radically different aspirations as you.
- Having proved themselves to be unreliable, disloyal, and unsupportive.
- Being discouraging, unmotivating, and unwilling to improve.
- Lying to you and not being completely honest.
Now, how many strikes does someone get with these negative traits? The answer is one. Just one.
If a person has two or more negative traits from the list above, they are not a good influence on you. Having one of these big negative traits will still impact the relationship, but it’s something that can be worked on. Different aspirations? Not a dealbreaker. Different aspirations and contrasting values? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, my friend. Lying to you? Okay, there can be many reasons for this. It can be worked on. Lying to you and proved to be unsupportive? I’m not sure this is going to work out.
Pick any two elements from the list above and you’ll come to the same conclusion. If someone has more than one big negative trait, that’s not a healthy relationship.
- YES: If the person has mostly negative traits, the relationship is toxic. Go to QUESTION #5.
- NO: The person has predominantly positive traits? Go to QUESTION #3.
Question #3: Does the person share the same values as you?
Spending time with people who have different views and ideas than you do can be a good thing. After all, being open-minded and willing to change is what allows you to grow in the first place.
Values, however, are a different sport.
The values you hold are more than just opinions, they are the highest ideals you measure everything against. They define who you are, what you believe, and what you stand for. If someone has different values than you do, it’s not necessarily bad. If you’re mature enough, you can influence each other and expand each other’s views.
However, in most cases, having contrasting values eventually kills the relationship. If you have opposing views on important things in life, you will probably just pressure each other to change. It’s more likely that both of you will be stubborn and stuck in your ways, eventually turning the relationship toxic. Be wary.
- YES: The person shares your values? Awesome, go to QUESTION #4.
- NO: If the person doesn’t share your values, the relationship could be unhealthy. Examine further to determine. Go to QUESTION #4.
Question #4: Does the other person respect your boundaries?
A healthy relationship comprises of otherwise stable individuals who positively influence and respect each other.
Even if your values differ, a relationship can still be healthy. This depends on setting and enforcing your personal boundaries, the lines you are not willing to cross and the behavior you will not tolerate. Any strong and confident person knows their boundaries, even if they never consciously think about them. If someone acts in a way that you will not tolerate, if they cross a line you don’t want crossed, you need to be willing to walk away.
This goes for every type of relationship.
Oftentimes, people think this is actually unhealthy. A “real” relationship is unconditional right? Loving someone no matter what, always being there for your friend, never abandoning your family. All of this sounds good in theory. Romantic comedies often portray toxic behavior and dysfunctional, immature people as examples of “true love”. In real life, this will only bring you constant drama and low self-esteem. This kind of thinking is exactly what breeds toxic relationships in the first place.
How to set healthy boundaries
- Accept responsibility for your own actions and emotions and expecting the other person to do the same. In toxic relationships, the other person tries to make you responsible for what they do or how they feel.
- Be clear about the behavior you will not tolerate. This usually corresponds to your personal values.
- Enforce the boundaries you set. This means showing that breaking your boundaries has consequences, including you walking away from the relationship.
If you haven’t clearly set your boundaries, you must do so in every relationship. If people cross them, understand that they have shown you their true face. And if you do not enforce your boundaries, they are meaningless.
Do you really want to love someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries? Do you really want a friend who constantly crosses the line you clearly set? Do you really want to excuse your family for all types of behavior, no matter how destructive to you personally?
- YES: The person respects your boundaries? Your relationship appears to be healthy. Awesome!
- NO: You need to either establish them or enforce your personal boundaries. If the other person refuses to respect them, your relationship with them is toxic, even if they share the same values as you and influence you positively. Go to QUESTION #5.
Question #5: Do you choose to spend time with that person?
If you concluded that the relationship is toxic, congratulations.
Why congratulations? Because acknowledging this is an important first step. The way you deal with this, however, will depend on whether that person is someone you can actually remove from your life. Once you gather all relationships you deem toxic, separate them into two groups: the people you choose to be a part of your life and the people that must be a part of your life.
- CHOOSE: Friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, etc.
- MUST: Family members, coworkers, etc.
Most people will fall under the “choose” pile. There may be other factors that make it harder to see your relationship with someone as a choice, but unless there is absolutely nothing you can do to change this, then you can put them in the “must” pile. For the majority, the “must” pile will include only family members.
It’s natural to second-guess your decision, but this doesn’t mean your decision is wrong. It simply means that the intense fear of the unknown is clouding your judgment. But as soon as you start moving away from the relationship, you will start feeling better.
Remember, you already concluded that the relationship is toxic. Now it’s time to break those chains and walk into the sunset.
There’s more: This article is an excerpt from The Social Gladiator, my guide to overcoming insecurity and improving your social circles.