Toxic relationships can be severely traumatic to the people caught up in them and leave long lasting effects in the person’s life. It can be difficult not to focus on the other person for a while. How do we go about taking ownership for our part in a toxic relationship.
We argue this process needs to play itself out. Dealing with toxic characters means dealing with psychological disorder and sometimes outright evil. This needs to be acknowledged and put on the table, otherwise the trauma inflicted by some of these people will stay stuck inside the person.
Once the evil has been acknowledged, then the recovering person can start to move more to the process of taking ownership. This will happen in it’s own time and should not be rushed or forced. When you are a victim of evil or severe toxicity it is perfectly normal to want to focus on that for a while once it is over.
This article will use the term psychopath to refer to the toxic person in the relationship. However, the same general advice applies to other destructive and abusive personality types like borderlines and narcissists, since there are commonalities in the abusive behaviors and the relationship dynamics can be very similar, though intentions and motives may differ.
Acknowledgement and Validation
There will be a period for many victims in the immediate aftermatch of a psychopathic relationship where they focus only on what the psychopath did to them, how evil and toxic the behavior was, all the outrageous wrongs and injustices that were done to them.
There often isn’t much focus on oneself in these early days, and I differ from what many therapists will say in that I believe this is perfectly normal, understandable and acceptable. What happened to you was an act of evil and injustice and that needs acknowledging fairly and squarely.
Therapists will often encourage survivors of toxic relationships to focus more on themselves than the other person, the rationale being that you cannot control what anyone else does, thinks or says. You can only control what you do, say or think, so focusing on the other person is waste of time and mental “bandwidth”.
I believe this is a mistake when dealing with someone recovering from a psychopath, since you cannot leave questions of morality, ethics, and evil at the door with these character types. This is a not a standard relationship between two human beings who each play a part in the difficulties and need to own their own part in the breakdown of a relationship, as the therapeutic cliche goes.
A psychopath or sociopath is much, much different. There is malevolence and intent there in the damage they cause to others. They know full well what they are doing and are doing it on purpose. They plan out and premeditate much of the abuse they inflict on others over a long period of time. The entire process is a game to them, which they view with a cold detachment.
Whatever your flaws and character weaknesses and lack of strong boundaries, you were not, and are not, an evil person like the psychopath. You are a fundamentally good person at the core, which is why the psychopath targeted you, since they could see in you what they can never have themselves.
This process of focusing, even obsessing, on all the things the psychopath did to you, has to be allowed to play itself out. You have to get all the anger and frustration at the psychopath’s increasingly outrageous behavior out of your system. This process can take 12-18 months or longer.
You can take ownership for your part in allowing the process to happen later. But firstly, it is important to acknowledge, and have validated, the evil that was done to you. Therapists who do not allow this to happen and try to encourage the survivor to only focus on themselves before they are ready for this are delaying the process of recovery in my opinion.
Taking Ownership After The Toxic Relationship
That said, once you have come to terms as best you can with the outrageousness of the psychopath or other toxic person’s behaviour, then it is important to begin to focus on oneself more. But this shift has to happen in it’s own time.
The psychopath did commit evil against you, but you also played a part in that for every person who manipulates there is another who allows themself to be manipulated. You did not have the tools to understand what was happening to you at the time, so you could probably sense on some level that something was wrong but you didn’t know what to do about it.
This is not your fault but it is your responsibility to make sure you do the work on yourself that is necessary to ensure this never happens to you again. This means addressing any weaknesses in your character and boundaries which the psychopath was able to exploit to keep manipulating and undermining you.
This could be any one of a number of different things. Here are some of the more common weaknesses they readily prey on:
- A inherent kindness and generosity.
- A forgiving nature – keep giving them another chance
- A lack of strong boundaries which leads you to tolerate increasingly unacceptable behavior without doing anything about it.
- An overly agreeable nature which leads you to not want to get into arguments or confrontation.
- Certain vanities they preyed on.
- Being easily taken in by someone who is “saying all the right things” and telling you what you want to hear.
- A belief in the idea of “perfection” in someone and in relationships, someone who seems to be able to mirror your every word, action and wish. Psychopaths are brilliant at projecting this image of fake bliss and perfection at first, but in reality no person and no relationship is ever perfect; everyone and everything has flaws and things which will annoy you. To pretend otherwise is to deceive yourself.
- A desire to “save” or “rescue” someone.
- Not living authentically to a vocation or purpose, which leads you to stay stuck in relationships or jobs where you aren’t growing as a person.
Setting Boundaries After a Toxic Relationship
“..what you find is when you have that self respect and self love a relationship with a disordered person won’t even work, because they’ll get so irritated that they’re not able to get under your skin and they’re not able to exploit you”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
Boundaries are a particularly central theme to recovery from toxic relationships, since almost by definition it is a lack of strong boundaries in a person which leads to them allowing toxic relationships to continue. A person with strong, clear boundaries who knows their own mind simply does not tolerate this nonsense from psychopaths and other personality disordered people.
Similarly, psychopaths are predatory characters and have an uncanny knack for honing in on people who have weak or diffuse boundaries in some way. They tend not to target people with strong boundaries since they know they won’t get away with it. They go for the easier targets.
Psychopaths are without conscience or morality so don’t expect them to change their ways. They will keep targeting people who have this weakness in them, so it is up to the potential targets to address this weakness in themselves so the psychopath cannot take advantage of them anymore.
“You’ve got to be your own gatekeeper, aint no one else going to do it for you”
The video above deals very well with this issue of boundaries and relationships. This quote from an excellent site on poisonous, predatory character types also sums up the issue very well:
“When and if you give to a person, how do they reciprocate? Do they rely on words or deeds to placate you? Or don’t you have boundaries? Perhaps you believe in unconditional love? If you do, expect to be victimized time and time again. There’s no saving you. In this life you need three things to survive and succeed: boundaries, boundaries and more boundaries.”
This issue of boundaries has been approached from a number of different angles. See the Boundaries Section of our books page for some excellent resources which cover the topic in a numer of different contexts.
Here are a couple of the ways strong boundaries can be important in avoiding, and handling, toxic relationship dynamics:
- Knowing your own mind and being self aware.
- Being confident in your own perception of reality and being able to stand up for it.
- Being able to disagree or say no when the situation warrants it.
- Being able to ward off and confront the intrusive or controlling behavior patterns toxic characters will sooner or later start to engage in.
- Giving trust and respect only when it is earned over a long period of time and not just trusting people straight away.
- Being aware of the glib superficial charm toxic characters are capable of giving off at first and not being taken in by it, instead carefully observing their character and behavior over a longer period of time.
- Being able to confront unacceptable or disrespectful behavior when it occurs. Not “bottling it up” or “holding it in”.
- Finding an appropriate balance between your own needs and the needs of others.
- Not being overly forgiving to the point where you keep forgiving behavior from people only for them to keep doing it over and over again.
- Recognizing when you are in an irretrievably toxic relationship or environment and getting away as soon as possible instead of staying stuck and hoping for improvement.
- See the Books on boundaries and relationships for more on this subject.