Toxic Relationships in Addiction and Recovery
People are fundamentally social beings. Without social contact, our well-being quickly declines. Social isolation leads to a variety of negative outcomes for our physical and mental health, however, this doesn’t mean that all our relationships lead to positive outcomes. An important topic to consider in addiction and recovery are toxic relationships, which may be important sources of stress rather than support in our lives.
What are toxic relationships? This is a general term that refers to those relationships that are primarily negative for us and tend to be characterized by negative emotions more than positive ones. Toxic relationships may be those where instead of support we receive criticism, manipulation, and abuse. We can have toxic relationships with a romantic partner, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a colleague, a boss, and many other people. What is important is how we feel in that relationship and what are its effects on our health and well-being. Other people can provide us with much love and support but also with terrible experiences.
How can we identify our toxic relationships? Consider how you mostly feel after spending time with a person. Do you feel mostly good or mostly bad? Is the relationship characterized by conflict or by dialogue? Often, especially with family relationships, there is the sense that a relationship is just how it is, good or bad, but identifying toxic relationships is very important for addiction and recovery.
Toxic relationships can be a consistent source of stress and negative emotions. They may frequently involve abuse, verbal, physical or sexual, or manipulations. For example, the person might purposefully seek to upset you and know how to do it. This means that the relationship can frequently lead to distress and, as such, contribute to substance abuse since distress is a common trigger. In recovery, toxic relationships can serve as stressors, as some people might encourage the person to go back to old habits, induce guilt and shame in a way that is excessive, or promote unhealthy strategies in coping. A constant stressor may be an important contributor to relapse.
So, if you think you may be in toxic relationship, what can you do? The first thing to evaluate is whether you would like to continue with this relationship. For example, giving up on a casual acquaintance is likely to be an easier solution but if your main toxic relationship is with a parent or a spouse, it might not be viable to just end the bond, although sometimes it is still necessary. If a relationship is consistently fraught with abuse, leaving it may be the better option in most situations, even when it is difficult to do so.
When you have decided whether you want to continue with the relationship for now, the next step is to identify what are the toxic patterns that harm you and that cause you distress. There are several strategies that you can try to reduce them. First, set boundaries and enforce them consistently. Walk away if the person violates them or shut down discussion on a topic that is likely to get heated. Let the person know what you need from them and how you would like to change the relationship going forward. Have a meaningful conversation with the person about what is going on. Sometimes, the other person will be invested in improving the relationship and take steps to do this. However, often you can be met with resistance.
If the relationship continues to be toxic and the other person is not interested in changing this, there are not many things that you can do to change this. When there is still a desire to maintain the relationship, you may need to focus on several aspects. First, it is important to make the relationship less stressful for you. This can be done by minimizing contact, avoiding specific situations (for example, being alone with the person), or developing new coping strategies for talking to this individual. You may, for example, ignore anything they say on a particular topic or reroute the conversation whenever it comes up. You should try to enforce boundaries as much as you are able to, for example, by hanging up, walking away, or not answering specific questions. Often, people find that they are able to minimize the stress from these toxic relationships when they cannot leave them.
However, it is always up to you whether the situation is sustainable long term. Sometimes, it may be. Other times, it may be placing your recovery at risk. If the relationship is a constant source of distress, it could be worth minimizing its presence and even cutting it out completely. Even family relationships can be very distressing. Working with a therapist to sustain yourself and find resources to deal with any relationships that are harmful can be an important part of your recovery process.