Coping with Toxic Relationships
by Clinton W. McLemore, Ph.D.
Most relationships have moments of magic as well as moments of misery. There is always an interpersonal dance going on. Each person makes moves and countermoves. Some of these are nourishing. Others are toxic. Understanding these moves and countermoves can save us a lot of grief and pain. When people interact, each person tends to move either one-up or one down in relation to the other. We take control or allow ourselves to be controlled. We also tend either to move toward or to move away/against. So, we can move one-up and toward, one-up and away/against, one-down and toward, and one-down and away/against. There are actually eight basic kinds of toxic behavior. Here they are, along with recommendations on what to do and what not to do when you encounter them in other people:
CONTROLLING: People who major in controlling train others to obey them. Controllers give orders. They tell those around them what to do and how to think. The more you defer to a controller, the more he or she will direct your life. So, the best countermove is to assert yourself. Refrain from asking for advice, caving in, or going along with the program. The more you do these things, the more you will end up being controlled.
DRIFTING: Drifters try to make you into the controller. Such people have "no mind of their own" and, so, rarely know who they really are or what they want. They ask you to make their decisions, from what to wear to how to vote. If you are relating to someone who drifts, resist the temptation to take over. The more you give advice, the more they will drift. Force them to assume responsibility for their own lives by refusing to do it for them.
INTRUDING: Intruders stick their noses into other people's business. If you let them, they will move into your living room and never leave. On the surface, they are often very generous people. And that's the problem. They buy the right to intrude by giving gifts, whether in the form of cash or time-both of which create obligations in you. Refuse their gifts. Set firms limits on how much you will allow them to crowd and smother you.
FREELOADING: The natural partner for an intruder is a freeloader who clings and depends. Freeloaders don't pull their own weight. They want someone else to provide for them and, in return, they are often willing to have that person run every corner of their lives. With a freeloader, scale down what you give. Don't be so quick to reach for the check. Wean them. And, whatever you do, never try to buy their love because it doesn't work.
HUMILIATING: Some people specialize in making others feel bad. They needle and criticize and, in general, induce in others a deep sense of inferiority. Such people are quick to one-up you. They will tell you, in a thousand ways, how superior they are. They can afford something you can't, or do something better than you can. Stay away from appeasing them, or going along with their hostile jokes at your expense. The more you're a "good sport" about humiliating, the more you'll get humiliated.
SCURRYING: Many people spend their lives taking abuse and whining about it. Often, they seethe with anger but hold it in. They are filled with passive hostility and unexpressed resentment which devours people from the inside. When relating to someone who scurries, refuse to ridicule or devalue him or her-which is what you will be tempted to do. Ask for their opinions and assistance, since this can move them from cold submission to its opposite, warm assertion.
VICTIMIZING: Victimizers are predators. They love to inflict pain. Some of them do this physically, while others do it psychologically. This is the stuff of which sociopaths are made. Many stalkers are victimizers who can quickly turn homicidal. The most important thing about relating to a victimizer is not to form the relationship to begin with. Once you're involved with a victimizer, they may become even more aggressive if and when you begin to back away.
AVOIDING: Some people refuse to engage. They withdraw into their own worlds and make few emotional connections. If you try to get them to talk about a problem, they run the other way. Avoiders specialize in emotional malnutrition. Many of them are angry, stubborn people who dig in their heels and say "no" to life. They are often more disturbed than they seem. Refrain from berating them, which out of frustration you may want to do. Backing away from them will sometimes cause avoiders to move toward you.
Clinton W. McLemore is the author of the new book, “Toxic Relationships and How to Change Them” (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2003). He is also the president of Relational Dynamics, Inc., a California-based management consulting firm ( with a large suite of leadership development products. Dr. McLemore is also a nationally recognized psychotherapist who has published widely and appeared on many television and radio shows.