By Andrés Muñoz
In the past number of weeks, I’ve met several people who have had a difficult time with their relationships and seem to attract the same type of person over and over again. While many have had good fortune when choosing a partner, it’s much harder for others.
For them, it might seem that they are “jerk magnets”, unlucky individuals who never “get a break” and must deal with the same social patterns over and over again when it actually goes far beyond mere casualties. There are solid psychological reasons why we choose a specific type of partner and put up with particular kinds of people. But why do we put up with toxic partners and people in general, and what steps can we take to improve the quality of relationships in our lives?
While most of my insights below come from a romantic perspective, many elements can also be adapted to difficult people in our workplace and friend groups.
- Denial: When there is a problem, the first step is to admit it exists, and some folks are just not ready to do it. Professor Robert I. Sutton, author of The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt, has come up with some explanations for why we put up with toxic people in our lives—one of which is denial.
Professor Sutton says that denying a terrible situation is to live in a fool’s paradise. Whether it is because one has had worse experiences and this one is less bad or because we are scared of admitting it, coming clean is the first step to improve this situation. There is also a feeling of false hope as you wait for things to improve, and they never do.
- Psychology and Attachment Styles
The way we grow up is a combination of everything we experienced as children. This learning translates to an unconscious search for a relationship style we had with our primary caretakers when we were little, mentions Sarah Schewitz, founder of couple therapy practice Couples Learn.
Another element is the similarities and differences in the different attachment styles that exist, as written by neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller in Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. While some individuals might require lots of reassurance and closeness, others might be a bit more distant, and strangely enough, these two styles attract each other a lot.
Be advised, there are many more reasons as to why people keep putting up with others, according to Dr Sutton.
How do you identify these toxic traits? Sarah Fielding of insider.com provides us with a series of signs that you are in a toxic relationship. They are not just present in a romantic environment but also in the workplace and in your group of friends.
First, there’s no trust. From the moment one party in the relationship lacks trust, you can’t have a sense of security and second-guessing takes over. This usually ends up with hostile communication between both parties, from physical outbursts to subtle forms of communication like blaming and the silent treatment.
Toxic relationships also rely very much on power dynamics, and controlling behaviour is the norm in these cases. Trying to control your money and telling you what to do or not do are signs of someone trying to be excessively controlling.
There are also lots of lies, and most importantly, the dynamic doesn’t feel reciprocated. Instead of nurturing and making you feel energized, it drains you. This happens when people only take and never give back.
How do we break free from these issues? By establishing boundaries in the relationship. Jennifer Litner, PhD, and Chantelle Pattermore of PsychCentral suggest these strategies to develop boundaries in a relationship. The first is to start early.
The sooner you establish the rules of the relationship and why you need them, the easier it will be to make sure that they are respected.
Secondly, have constant and open conversations. This may have been stressed repeatedly in self-help books and articles across the internet, but it is still a problematic issue for some. Even if they feel awkward about opening up or being in touch with their emotions, people need to verbalize their feelings. This way, nobody assumes what the other person is thinking, and the dynamics are clear from the get-go. Also, when you’re talking, use “I” statements, hopefully starting with “I feel”. This will give your listener a direct insight into your emotions.
Once you have your boundaries well established, you’ll be able to figure out if the other person will respect them and make your life better. If they don’t, it might be a good time to say farewell.
So make 2022 the year you stop attracting and allowing jerks into your life and lead a happier, emotionally healthier life without the toxicity.