Recovery is a time of new beginnings, which means you’ll need to look at your relationships with a critical eye. If someone is engaging in toxic behaviors that pose a threat to your sobriety, it’s best to end the relationship and focus on the more positive aspects of your life.
Identifying Toxic Relationships
A healthy relationship is a partnership where both individuals support and care for each other. A toxic relationship is one that involves behaviors that are damaging to the mental and/or physical health of one or both persons.
Toxic relationships can come in many different forms. Romantic partners, friends, and even family members can be toxic, depending upon the circumstances associated with your relationship.
Common types of toxic relationship behaviors include:
- Belittling: This person makes fun of you and your accomplishments on a regular basis. If you’re new to recovery, they may express doubt about your ability to stay sober or put you in situations that pose a high risk of relapse.
- Guilting or shaming: This person uses guilt and shame to try to control your behavior. They may frequently bring up incidents where you behaved poorly while under the influence and suggest you “owe” them continued expressions of remorse even though you’ve already made an honest effort to make amends. People in recovery are often dealing with a fair amount of guilt and shame, so this behavior can be dangerous in a relationship.
- Overreacting: This person sees life in black or white. They are prone to viewing small problems as massive obstacles, will view simple mistakes as unforgivable, and thrive on creating unnecessary drama. In the most extreme cases, overreacting involves physically aggressive behavior.
- Distancing: This person never seems to be around when you need them. They cancel plans at the last minute, don’t return your calls, and always seem to be focused on something else when you’re together.
- Enabling: Often the most difficult type of toxic relationship behavior to recognize, enabling involves saying or doing things that make it easier for someone to engage in behavior that’s not in their best interest. If you’re in recovery, someone who is enabling may make excuses for you when you miss vital therapy appointments or swoop into handle tasks that are part of building a sober life for yourself. This prevents you from learning to be fully independent and responsible for your future.
Additional signs that a relationship might be toxic include:
- You’re always “walking on eggshells” or afraid to speak openly.
- They ignore your preferences and opinions in favor of getting their own way.
- You catch them lying to you on a regular basis.
- You spend your time together complaining or gossiping about other people.
- You seem to argue constantly, yet nothing ever gets resolved.
- Spending time together starts to feel like a chore, instead of an activity you genuinely enjoy.
- After you spend time together, you feel moody and insecure.
- Other people have expressed concerns to you about the nature of the relationship.
Ending a Toxic Relationship
If you’ve decided that you’re involved in a toxic relationship that is having a negative effect on your recovery journey, you have three options for how to address the situation.
- Let it end naturally. Sometimes, a toxic relationship only persists out of a sense of obligation. For example, we often keep in touch with former coworkers, college roommates, or high school friends out of a sense of nostalgia as opposed to shared interests, goals, or values. If the person is someone you’re no longer very close to, all you may need to do is stop making an effort to initiate contact. People grow apart over time for many different reasons, so there’s no need to feel bad about letting this type of relationship run its course.
- Put the focus on your sobriety. In the early stages of recovery, self-care needs to be your top priority. Honestly admitting that you’re busy managing your mental health and need to cut back on other obligations can help you disengage from the relationship with minimal conflict. If it turns out that the toxic behaviors are based in addiction stigma or a misunderstanding of what substance use disorders involve, this approach leaves the door open to rekindling the relationship when you’re ready.
- Advocate for your needs. People treat you poorly when you allow them to. Directly confronting someone about their negative behavior can be uncomfortable, but this approach may be necessary when the person is someone you can’t easily eliminate from your life—such as a family member or a key part of your social circle. Pick a quiet place to chat, then calmly state what behaviors are causing a problem for you. Reaffirm that you’re making changes in all aspects of your life as part of the recovery process and that you’d appreciate this person’s support going forward.
If you’re not sure what approach is best, discuss your concerns with your therapist. A balanced third-party perspective can help you see the situation more clearly and move forward with confidence.