Creating in the Shadows: Navigating The Toxic Partner or Negative Friend

I received the following question about negative and toxic people from a reader a few weeks ago and have been thinking about it quite a bit. Having certainly experienced the frustration she describes during various times in my life (even when I supposedly ‘knew better’ and recognized the relationship between my own energy and the events and characters around me), it strikes me as a good topic for discussion. So please, if you’ve been there too, share your comments, ideas, and stories -- I’m interested in how many other people find this a concern, and also am so excited to hear how you may have approached and made progress on the issue. (Many thanks to L.P. for your provocative question.)


Q: My question is about negative and toxic people.  I have no trouble being energetically uplifted, happy, positive and so forth.  My problem is that so many of the people around me are in a negative space.  How do you deal with a negative husband or partner, or very close friend?  It is really hard to be patient.   I am good at compromising, but he is really stuck in the lack energy.  I can see us leaving this space and being very prosperous, but it is like dancing with someone you have to drag around the floor.  What are your thoughts on this?

A: L., I hear you.  And I love your dancing metaphor -- it really describes the feeling. . . !

I, too, am generally a pretty upbeat, happy, positive person, and there have been times where I wondered if this vibe was acting as some kind of beacon to all the heavy/downbeat/bummed-out characters who occasionally gravitate toward me. When fully surrounded, I sometimes find myself inspired to redouble my efforts, pushing the positive agenda even harder, getting chirpier and even more determined in my choice of a sunny worldview. (Have not had a lot of luck with that approach, fyi.)

Like you, I then turn to examining own attitude and energy: I try to take note of where I might be more patient, where I could compromise, where I can work on my own thoughts and focus and stop concentrating on areas where I’m unhappy. This can work! Sometimes. If it doesn’t, I might direct my efforts into cajoling, coaxing, acquiescing, validating, or even ignoring the person or the negative behaviors and comments. Still, sometimes negativity persists (and can drive you crazy). If you’re deeply involved with a very negative or toxic person, what’s really going on?

When faced with a toxic person in my life, I’m pulled -- as many of us creative people are -- to try to fix the energy, to analyze and resolve the problems, to single-handedly shift the vibe for ourselves and everybody else!   But sometimes a little detachment can go a long way, whether that means creating some space or seeing things in a different way.

Here are a few questions/thoughts/ideas about how to reframe a situation in which someone close to you is mired down in negativity.

Is it possible that it’s not about you?
Because it may not be about you.  At all.  If the negative person in your life is going through an exceptionally emotionally or physically stressful time -- i.e. moving, grieving, post-partum depression, menopause, a mid-life crisis, caring for an aging parent, changing careers, going through a divorce or bankruptcy, whatever -- there can be dramatic shifts in behavior, values, attitude, and self-identity.  Major transitions in life often spur massive internal shake-ups, stirring up questions and changes that need time and personal space to resolve.  When someone we love is in pain, the helplessness we feel can be overwhelming (along with the desire to fix-and-solve-and-get everything back to normal), but pulling out of make-it-better mode may be the only path that allows healing.

If you’re unsure of the real issue at hand, go ahead and ask your partner or friend what’s wrong or what’s going on, and be open to an authentic answer.  Ask what you can do to help, and then do it. Give space and time. Use that extra time and energy to focus on parts of yourself and life that have been neglected.


Is it possible that you are getting something out of someone else’s negative attitude or behavior?   (Whaaaaaat?  Me???)
Could it be that some part of you actually likes being around a terribly negative person, because it supports your opposite self-identity as a positive, upbeat person?  

My friend C. always seems to be on the brink of disaster.  Whether it’s money, her love life, or career, there’s usually something serious and dramatic afoot.   Mark used to wonder aloud why I spent time with her when her life always sounded like such a mess.  It hit me one day:  I loved being her confidante and counselor because it means I must know what I'm doing!  It makes me feel together and wise to hear her stories of a life in such disarray. . . in contrast, mine only seems mildly disheveled.  I always come home from time with C. feeling extra-thankful for my honey and current projects.

There might be other payoffs.  Maybe having a negative villain supplies an external reason for not making progress in specific areas of YOUR life.  It can be a huge relief to avoid holding responsibility for our own lives, especially when they’re not working particularly well.

Perhaps the most uplifted of us participate in a negative orbit as a form of self-protection.  If we choose a friend or partner who will absolutely not merge with our positive point of view, we can keep ourselves safe from potentially uncomfortable facets of intimacy and vulnerability.  By choosing to stay isolated in an ‘oblivious happy bubble,’ never acknowledging weakness, fear, or struggle, we blind ourselves to the full spectral range of life -- especially the scary dark and painful sides.  Life is defined by contrast; it grays and dulls without it.  It’s both empowering and energizing to learn to recognize frustrations and challenging issues in your life without becoming overwhelmed or engulfed in them.


Is it possible you’re experiencing a shift in the scale?
There is a natural balance, a yin and yang in the dynamics of our closest relationships.   As we seek this equilibrium, it’s the imbalances that take place (in things like vulnerability, fortitude, support, or confidence) that deepen bonds, show that we care for one another, and demonstrate multiple sides of an issue.  We need to need each other from time to time.  The way we reach this balance of needing and being needed can be subtly delicate or dramatically rocky, and we tend to choose the method we find most satisfying. (You may be surprised at what your subconscious finds satisfying, by the way.)

I have a dear friend, Jill, whose infectious smile and consistently upbeat energy is nothing short of spectacular.  When we began growing close, I noticed a strange tendency in our conversations; I frequently found myself taking a pessimistic view, settling into a more mellow energy than I usually felt.  I didn’t care for it one bit.  What's wrong with me?  Why am I being such a downer?  I wondered.  Over time, I’ve grown to interpret my behavior as a balancing mechanism in my identity and our friendship.  With Jill energetically ‘holding up the fort,’ I felt I could finally relax and admit misgivings or doubt in a way that felt refreshing and honest.  And I can do the same for her, in her rare weak moments.  Perhaps the person really getting on your nerves is merely needing you in a way that’s never happened before, relying on your energy to hold up the fort.  Hopefully the bond you’re forging as you work through difficult times will conversely support you in the future, too.


Can you step back and laugh, cry, or consider your situation as if it were a fairytale?
Are there absurdities that you’re missing because you’re so darn serious?  I remember when Mark and I brought Daisy home from the hospital after her arduous birth and first few days of life.  We were exhausted, just wanting to get home, and she began wailing at the top of her lungs. We looked at each other with concern and uncertainty, then both suddenly burst out laughing.  We had no idea what to do, what she needed, what was happening -- and it suddenly seemed ridiculous that they had given the responsibility for this child over to us.  It was either laugh or cry.  So we laughed.

Are you both holding back the floodgates, wishing for the catharsis that a fair fight or good cry might offer?  Many a friendship has disintegrated over a misunderstanding or assumption.  We spiritually-enlightened types pride ourselves on being patient and willing to compromise, but these strengths of character turn to flaws when they lead to overblown silence or resentment.  It’s hard to press for confrontation, but you can be brave.  Gently lure the monster out in the open, where at least you can figure out what you’re dealing with.

Where are the two of you like characters in a story?  What archetypes might you represent?  Are you the loving, sweet innocent babe being unfairly victimized by an evil step-mother, mother-in-law, or big-bad-wolf?  Are you the brilliant artist yearning to be free, kept from your adventurous destiny by your plodding, sensible spouse?  If so, try flipping roles in your imagination for a moment.  Could you compassionately tell the same story, walking through the exact same incidents or comments, except from the opposite point of view?  How might you interpret things differently when released from your usual role? (Carolyn Myss’ book “Sacred Contracts”  explores this concept in great depth.)

Or are you on a hero’s journey, walking through a valley of loneliness and isolation?  What is the landscape of your dreams -- how does it look, feel, smell, sound?  If it were up to you to guess (or decide) the length of your trip, how long will it take you to get there?  Defining our life in sensory metaphors can allow us to see our path with some distance and objectivity.  (See Colleen Baron-Reid’s new book, “The Map” for more in-depth discussion of emotional landscapes.)   Some imaginative contextual layering might help create relief from the powerful knee-jerk protective responses that we experience when feeling threatened by a toxic person or situation. 

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As I read this over, I feel a wave of ‘buts’ coming over me.  

I’ll bet there are some doozy stories out there of the many ways a negative person can completely suck the joy out of life, even if you're a champion 'reframer' of tough times. I know there are probably many situations in which none of these strategies will make a whit of difference, and how hard it is to try something else when you’re already drained and exhausted.  

At the end of the day, however, I’m still inspired to try.   Maybe because there’s just the slightest possibility that I’VE been the pain in the ass and I hope I’ve been met with understanding.  Or maybe because it just feels better to have a strategy sometimes than to not have a strategy.
 
Good luck.  Keep calm and carry on.  Play with kids or pets.  Find joy where you can.  Trust that this too will pass.  Pat yourself on the back for being such a hero.  Meditate if you want.  Scream in your car if that’s better.  Lock the door and drink a glass of wine in your bubble bath.  You deserve it.

And as much as you can, create a better world for yourselves and the ones you love.

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