- The daughter whose father constantly turns up uninvited, regardless of the plans she’s made
- The partner who is constantly belittled and blamed by their other half
- The long-suffering wife who turns a blind eye to hubby’s late nights and not-so-secret infidelities
- The put-upon guy who bows down to his girlfriend’s every whim
- The boss whose decisions are blatantly ignored by one senior staff member
- The P.A. whose boss is a tantrum throwing, mind-changing, paranoid control freak
In every case one person is ‘crossing the line’ and the other is simply putting up with it. Are they getting what they tolerate? Absolutely.
Do they deserve what they tolerate? Surprisingly, many people say ‘yes’. ‘Just don’t put up with the bad behaviour,’ they’ll say. ‘Have it out with them. Confront them.’ Or, ‘You should eliminate all the toxic people in your life.’ (This last one always sounds a little sinister to me).
Let’s be clear. No one deserves the toxic behaviour they tolerate. BUT – (yes, it’s a big but) – toleration of unacceptable behaviour is often a contributing factor to its growth and development. This is not about blame or self-blame – it’s simply that toxic behaviour flourishes where there is no resistance to it, or no signal of its unacceptability.
Why Do We Put Up With It?
Of course, there are lots of reasons why we tolerate toxic people and the stuff they do. We may have no idea how to deal with it. We may not actually be aware that we’re tolerating it. We may feel that we do indeed deserve the toxic behaviour. We may not feel strong enough to do anything other than suffer it. In extreme cases we may believe we’re totally trapped by circumstances out of our control.
Finally – we can often suspect (consciously or unconsciously) that it’s worth putting up with toxic behaviour because:
- we fear the possible consequences and costs involved in dealing with it
- the good things the toxic person brings to the table outweigh the bad
Can a Toxic Person Really have Positive Things to Offer?
Of course they can – in fact I’d argue that most toxic people either genuinely offer some positives or at least seem to. The kind of trade off I’m talking about here can be hugely variable from person to person.
Sometimes we may not want to acknowledge these positives because of what it says about us. The toxic person may bring status, for instance, or an affluent life-style. It can often be hard to admit to ourselves just how important the nice car, the holidays abroad or the heated pool actually are. Of course, it may be nothing more than the benefit of not feeling alone.
A toxic person offering these advantages might be a romantic partner, but could just as easily be a parent, a successful boss – or even a sibling or friend.
And if those advantages extend to others – your children for instance, the cost to them of you dealing with your toxic person may simply feel out of the question.
Toxic Relationships have Unrecognized Complexities
All things considered then – your toxic relationship probably has a little more complexity than you might first recognize. And it’s often this unrecognized web of benefits, needs, hopes and fears that can lead us to toleration of normally unacceptable toxic behaviour. Think, for instance, about the jumble of complications that make the average friendship or the tangle of feelings that can make love so confusing.
Audit for Clarity
That’s why I’d always advocate an ‘audit’ of personal costs and benefits in a toxic relationship before you begin to change it. Such knowledge brings invaluable clarity and strength.
Clarity allows you to better understand your toxic relationship. It helps you see that there are choices you can make. And with strength comes the determination to work out the best way to deal with your toxic person and then make it happen.
With toxic people, I believe we definitely do get the toxic behaviour we tolerate. Understanding that we actually are tolerating toxic behaviour is a first step – figuring out why we tolerate it isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but it can be the key to finally doing something about it.