I’m going to get straight to the point today. Let’s talk about setting boundaries in toxic relationships.
Whether it is at work, in your dating life, or with family and friends – we’ve all had to set boundaries before. I think that this is one of the hardest things to do in any sort of a relationship, because there is no exact way to do it. And, not to mention, nine times out of ten these aren’t physical, visible boundaries. They’re abstract, and the bounds tend to change day to day – or as our moods fluctuate.
But, some are easier to set than others. We tend to feel more obligated to maintaining certain kinds of relationships than others. It is a lot harder to deal with a toxic family member, than it is to deal with a toxic friend. We feel as greater sense of responsibility and commitment to certain roles. And family in particular, has been defined by society as something that is always going to be a constant. Whether tied by blood or family history, these relationships seem more permanent. And when you decide that you need to distance yourself from a family member, you are often met with criticism for doing so.
One thing needs to be made clear. Disrespect and harmful behavior does not discriminate based on what kind of relationship it is. You can be mistreated and abused by a family member – and in fact are more likely to be in a familial relationship than in any other kind of relationship. But we put up with the abuse because, “they’re family.”
This is incredibly unhealthy, and only serves, in some instances, to continue the cycle of abuse. As a society we have interjected a degree of power dynamics into the structure and institution of family. We weight these relationships much heavier than those between friends. This can make it all the more hard to establish boundaries when you need to.
My Experience with Boundaries
A year ago I had to establish a firm boundary with a family member. In fact, my mental health depended on it. But I will not pretend that it has been easy. I still struggle with it today. I feel a sense of obligation to this person, and because of the norms and values of our society I often feel like I am being a bad daughter, or just plainly, a bad person for establishing a boundary between myself and my father.
But the fact of the matter is, I have been vastly more mentally stable and happy since I have created that line. I continually have the conversation with my therapist where I debate tearing that wall down, and using the concept of wise-mind, come to the conclusion that that would be extremely unhealthy for me. I have to work everyday to love myself despite that decision.
Now, this does not mean that I do not love my father. It means that because I love him, I too often allow his mistreatment and poor behavior to affect me at a really deep, and harmful level. And for a long time I justified that for him. I allowed the relationship to continue because I thought that I had to. But after I tried to confront the behavior to no avail or understanding, I eventually reached a limit that I did not know that I had.
I had gotten to a point in my mental health journey where I was a lot stronger than I had been in over a decade – and I saw that if I put my emotion mind aside, and considered some of what my rational mind was telling me – I needed to set a boundary. Here are some things to consider if you think that you may need to do something similar.
How are the person’s behaviors affecting you?
A landmark study found that there is a very real link between toxic relationships, stress, and your health. In fact, those in unhealthy relationships were at greater risk of developing heart problems, including dying from strokes or heart attacks, than those who weren’t in negative relationships. Our brains have a gene expression called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), that is associated with inflammation and low immunity. Originally a part of our flight-or-fight response, CTRA provides short-term benefits such as increased healing, physical recovery and the increased likelihood of survival. But, long-term activation of CTRA can cause chronic inflammation, which increases our risk for a multitude of health problems.
Outside of the biological effects of toxic relationships, how else are they affecting you? Do they constantly make you feel bad about yourself? Do you feel like there is an unequal amount of give and take? Are you constantly drained from interacting with this person? Do you feel emotionally or physically unsafe?
If so, there are a couple of options: (1) feel hopeless and drained constantly, (2) accept the relationship for what it is, (3) create boundaries, or (4) end the relationship.
I suggest that you sit down and define for yourself what you want your relationship NOT to be. This will help you to identify what behaviors are of issue for you, as well as how the toxic person is making you feel. By knowing what you will not tolerate, you are priming your brain to recognize and avoid those behaviors and situations in the future.
Envision what the ideal relationship with this person would be. When I say ideal, I mean imagine what it would be like if it was perfect and healthy. Then take that image and identify the stuck points – the things that the individual does not seem to be able or want to change. This really helped me to see that it was rational to set a boundary with my dad. I had tried many times to express what I needed from him and what made me upset, but he refused to take responsibility, made abusive comments, and continually lied to and gas-lighted me. Unfortunately, I knew that he didn’t have the desire to stop those things. But that made setting the boundary justifiable. I was able to define what a healthy, respectful relationship should look like, and I knew that this relationship wasn’t that.
Decide the bounds. This is where there is a plethora of options, that truly depends on the individual situation. For me, I had to completely cut off communication. I had to engage the “block” function. Every interaction disappointed and drained me. And my mental health took a severe blow when it came to anything that had to do with him.
But this can look like many different things. Maybe you just can’t hang out with this person alone, or you need to decrease the frequency. Maybe you need to make it clear that you cannot constantly be available over phone or text. This could also take the form of setting ground rules about topics that you are not willing to discuss. At a recent event I attended, a woman spoke about how she had to tell her family that her body and weight were not to be topics of discussion, and nor did she want to talk about other people’s bodies. Instead she challenged them to have different conversations.
Decide if you need to communicate to the other person what the boundary is. In some situations, cutting off communication is the boundary that needs to be formed. If that is the case, you may not want to communicate what the boundary is going to be. I knew that my dad would not understand, respect, or agree with the boundary I was setting, and I knew that that conversation would not be a healthy one.
But if you are in a situation that you need to make the boundary verbally clear – stay clear, calm and consistent. Don’t feel the need to over-explain yourself, don’t place blame, and don’t become defensive. Be a broken record, and stick up for yourself. If you know that you can’t easily do that in person, send a text or a letter. You are in charge here.
Surround yourself with people that make you feel good. People that support you and respect you. Keep close the people that make you feel safe, and that help you to grow. In the past year, I learned that even family can be toxic, and even family can make their love for you conditional. But I also learned that I could find family in other people. By surrounding myself with positive and healthy relationships, I have been able to maintain my mental health and overall grow as a person.
You Are Worthy
Now I want to be clear, this isn’t an expansive step-by-step process – and I’m not a licensed, health-care professional. This is just a brief overview of how I set boundaries. Be aware that there may be situations where the individual doesn’t respect those boundaries, and at that time you may need to consider other options. If you, or a loved one, is in any sort of abusive relationship and need help, reach out to a local women’s organization or utilize the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (1-800-787-3224).
If you take anything away from this, remember that anyone can be a toxic person: a parent, a sibling, a boss, coworker, or friend. Know that you have choices, and that there are people who will support you – whether that support comes from close friends or community organizations. You are worthy of healthy, respectful, positive relationships.