Is Eliminating ‘Toxic’ Relationships the Right Decision? - Verily

When we have been hurt deeply by a relationship, either by one specific incident or by a series of rifts in the relationship, it can feel easier to just eliminate this person from our lives. It seems to make sense if we think about emotional wounds like physical wounds: remove the source of the pain. And when a nagging wound caused by a friend or family member brings with it perhaps years of pain in the background, it’s hard to imagine how we might even start to tend to the relationship.

In recent years, the idea of eliminating so-called “toxic” people or relationships from one’s life has become more and more popular. Just a quick Google search for “eliminating toxic relationships” offers plenty of articles (many of which were published in the last five years) on various sites on how to rid your life of toxic friends, family members, or relationships. Even the term “toxic” as applied to people has become increasingly popular, working its way into our vernacular—it’s not unusual to hear someone referring to a friend or former friend as “toxic.” While there are certainly unhealthy, one-sided, even dysfunctional relationships, eliminating a person completely from your life is not necessarily the best course of action. While it might feel like setting boundaries, this is often actually poor boundary-setting, known as emotional cutoff.

What boundaries are (and are not)

Boundaries, both physical and emotional, allow a person to feel safe. They allow a person to know, “This is where I end and you begin”—both physically and emotionally. Renowned author, speaker, and researcher Dr. Brené Brown defines boundaries as simply, “What’s okay and what’s not okay.” She goes on to insist that boundaries are the key to empathy, compassion, and vulnerability: “[Boundaries] are not fake walls, they’re not separation, they’re not division—they’re respect.”

The problem is, many of us were not taught about boundaries and how to implement them, so we often don’t. As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve worked with many clients on learning about healthy boundary-setting and how to implement these skills in their lives. Commonly in our culture—particularly for women—worrying about what others think or how we will be perceived keeps us from setting appropriate boundaries, such as telling a friend kindly but directly, “That behavior hurt me; I’m not okay with it.” Instead, we let things slide for the sake of so-called peace—until we don’t. When we’ve finally been hurt enough by the same person we might feel the only way to be safe, the only way to set a boundary, is via cutoff. Emotional cutoff is when you remove someone completely from your life, cutting off all forms of contact with the person, without addressing the emotional wound that caused the rift in your relationship.

When we choose to “eliminate a toxic person” from our lives, we likely are reacting to pain with what we perceive to be boundary-setting. Whereas healthy and appropriate boundaries involve being able to have physical and emotional distance while still being in relationship, cutoff is an extreme form of boundary-setting that involves ending the relationship completely.

The problem with emotional cutoff

The problems with eliminating a person from your life are many. Cutoff eliminates opportunities for personal and relational growth, but the pain left by the relationship remains. Resorting to cutoff keeps you from working on implementing healthy boundaries. Further, eliminating a person doesn’t make the past hurts go away. It might seem like an easy fix to avoid future pain caused by the relationship, but it doesn’t undo what was already done. Cutoff is treating the symptoms rather than getting at the root cause.

Additionally, simply eliminating someone rather than attempting direct communication (or therapy) about the issue denies you and the other person an opportunity to learn about yourselves. As opposed to getting to the root of the issue by learning about why something bothers you, why you typically respond the way you do and the other person learning why she behaves in the way she does, you simply cut off the symptom. Licensed therapist and author Richard Taibbi, LCSW, warns, when a person emotionally cuts someone off, “she never gets to hear their side of the story, understand how they see her, feedback that can help her ultimately be the better sister, friend. Instead, she is left with only her story, one of blame, one where she feels forever like the victim.”

Being able to address the wounds caused by this relationship, implementing appropriate boundary-setting, working on direct communication, and having hard conversations all contribute to growth. Avoiding all of this through cutoff may keep you from learning or practicing these skills, crucial for any meaningful relationship. Taibbi speaks to this problem: “If [a person] continues to rely on cutoffs to cope with difficult relationships, it’s not hard to imagine that her life will be a trail of broken relationships. And the relationships that she does have will likely be superficial.”

Because it is so extreme, it’s often best to wait before cutting someone off from your life and to keep it only as a last resort when other forms of boundaries have been implemented but have not been respected. An abusive relationship, particularly one in which your life is in danger, constitutes a reason to leave the relationship and necessitates cutoff—but that may be an exception to the rule rather than the norm. For many relationships, even if routinely difficult or “dysfunctional,” there may be another way.

What to do instead of cutoff

01. Seek out therapy for pain or trauma caused by this person.

If you’re contemplating cutting off a friend or family member because you deem them “toxic,” seek out the help of a therapist. First, a therapist is an objective third party to the relationship—unlike most other people in your life, who know you (or the other person) personally. But more importantly, if you’ve reached the point at which you are considering cutoff, this relationship has likely caused you (and probably the other person) a lot of pain. A therapist can help you with the self-growth and self-reflection piece of the equation, such as why this has hurt, what part in it you may play (such as difficulty setting boundaries), and help you to see if relationships like this have been a pattern in your life. In therapy, you may also be able to work toward healing the wound or trauma caused by the relationship—and the therapist can help give you the tools to do this healing work within the problematic relationship itself.

02. Work on direct communication.

In most “toxic” relationships, there was a first misstep or hurt that went unaddressed. This is often done in an effort to keep peace or because of a power differential within the relationship (such as parent and child): at the time, sweeping the incident under the rug seems like the easier solution. However, not addressing the issue and setting the boundary the first time can leave room to allow it to happen again, and to get progressively worse. When nothing is said after the first incident, or the second, or third, addressing the issue head-on feels increasingly awkward. Thus, using direct communication to address the problematic relationship may not only be awkward, but also may be difficult without the skills or practice of doing so.

If you are considering a cutoff, you might find that this rings true for your relationship, and that you struggle with direct communication and/or interpersonal conflict. For this reason, learning the skills of direct communication is necessary for being able to address the difficult person—and having the confidence to do so. A therapist can help you learn and practice these skills. You may even be able to have the “toxic” person come to one of your therapy sessions, in which the therapist can help facilitate the discussion between the two of you (in this case, look for a marriage and family therapist, or a therapist who is trained to work with multiple people in therapy sessions).

The first step of direct communication is worrying less about how the other person will react or what she will think of you and instead focusing on what needs to be said. While you should still speak calmly and lovingly, you have to let go of hurting the other person’s feelings in order to convey the hurts she has caused you. Other helpful resources to strengthen direct communication include books such as Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown, Ph.D., The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships and Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, both by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.

03. Strengthen boundary-setting.

As a part of direct communication with the other person, you will need to be able to state the boundaries that you need respected—ones that have not been respected up until now. First, this requires you to know which boundary of yours is being crossed. Does your friend always bail on you? Does your sister only call when she needs something? Then, be able to set the boundary with her going forward, “Kate, don’t make plans with me if you’re going to cancel,” or “Susie, you can’t call if you’re just going to ask me for help; you need to ask how I’m doing, too.” It helps to be able to articulate how Kate makes you feel when she cancels your plans (unimportant, disrespected) or how Susie’s one-sided phone calls make you feel (used). While these personal boundaries are not as obvious as physical ones, they are in fact boundaries, as an emotional need or personal line is being crossed. Remember Brené Brown’s definition of boundaries; if something is “not okay” it’s a boundary being crossed. Being able to articulate what is or is not okay for your relationship is another skill that can help you strengthen relationships and avoid permanent emotional cutoff.

Improving direct communication and implementing boundaries are not easy tasks. But it is likely that the phenomenon of eliminating “toxic” people has become such a popular remedy because cutting someone out who has hurt you seems easier than the discomfort of dealing with the person and the wounds she’s caused. While uncomfortable, this work pays dividends in this relationship and for you personally by helping you develop skills that will foster healthy relationships throughout your life.