'I’m still angry that I let him have all that power over me,’ says Jules, 34, with a bitterness she can’t hide.
He is Alex, one of her best friends. They shared everything – at least that’s what Jules thought. With time and, because her friends were keeping a watchful eye, her role in the relationship finally became clear to her: she was the loyal companion who gave Alex his sense of self-worth. ‘I didn’t realise that he was doing everything he could to outshine me,’ says Jules. ‘It was Alex the intellectual versus Jules, the gentle sporty one who wasn’t very switched on. I even forgot that I’d passed my law degree with better marks than he had. The final straw was the birth of my son, when he sent me a vague text message to congratulate me, and that was it. He couldn’t have children… I finally understood that what I took for friendship was, in reality, just an unequal power relationship.’
Power is, according to psychologists, the driver of toxic relationships. Manipulating others in order to satisfy our own narcissistic needs can be done through seduction, emotion or fear. Other people set out to diminish our self-esteem and it’s often done with our consent, or at least our acceptance. That’s what hurts us the most in the end. ‘Why didn’t I see it?’ is usually the first question we ask ourselves, even if we doubt that a simple answer exists to such a complicated question.
Identify the toxic element
In psychoanalysis, human relationships are guided by needs and influenced by the subconscious, which explains why we are often unaware of what drives them. ‘Two people recognise one another because they imagine that they will find what they are looking for in the other, that this newfound person will satisfy their desires, their fears, the things they lack,’ suggests Thierry Janssen, a specialist in mind-body connection. This is why we develop attachments. It takes some time to transform this neurotic link into something more mature and respectful of one another’s limits. Except, sometimes, time has nothing to do with it. If we remain in toxic relationships without being able to identify them for what they are, it’s because a part of us wants to relive the past.
‘Our subconscious is searching what it knows, as it doesn’t wander into uncharted territory,’ explains psychoanalyst Isabelle Korolitski. ‘A first attachment that was toxic, and was never dealt with, may well lead to another.’ She also points out that it’s never by accident that we form ties with someone who will dominate us, manipulate or avoid us.
In her book Toxic Parents (Bantam, £12.99), American psychotherapist Susan Forward recognises that some parents exhibit ‘dysfunctional’ behaviour. Manipulation, unpredictability, alcoholism, physical and psychological violence, immaturity, parents who depict themselves as faultless…? these are all poisons that can contaminate the psyche of a child, conditioning their relationships and their future.
When we ask Jules who in her family resembles Alex, she remembers ‘a father who was a dictator, brilliant but arrogant, who crushed people with his scorn’. Thinly disguised emotional blackmail as well as advice that is offered ‘for your own good’ can poison a relationship in many ways. This is what makes it hard to identify quickly. ‘It also brings with it a strongly addictive element,’ says psychiatrist François-Xavier Poudat, ‘because, if we were not emotionally or psychologically ensnared, we would leave, and never fall into the same trap again. Like all toxins, it has its rewards – pleasure, a form of security and a sense of recognition.’
Understanding the physical signs
Laura, 39, remembers her first boss with anguish. ‘She showed me the ropes and taught me how to be a chartered accountant but, after four years, I was still a sort of apprentice – I didn’t dare take any initiative without her approval and I was working like crazy all the time. When I finally left, I realised that I was thinking about her more than I was about myself or my partner.’
According to psychotherapist Thomas D’Ansembourg, unhealthy relationships, whatever their form, bring about three types of loss – ‘loss of autonomy, loss of energy and loss of self-confidence’. If a healthy relationship is characterised by a feeling of lightness, freedom, comfort or security, psychologist Béatrice Milletre believes that the toxic version is accompanied by discomfort. It always generates stress, whether or not we realise it.
‘Everything that affects the mind, even if it does so subconsciously, affects the body,’ says Anne-Marie Filliozat, a psychoanalyst who specialises in psychosomatic illness. ‘When we are caught up in a toxic situation, we can feel anxious, experience muscle tension, exhaustion, loss of sleep and appetite. If we are listening to our bodies, we receive these messages or warnings.’ We have all experienced this: some people make us clam up, others bring us out of ourselves, make us laugh or make us think, while others make us feel worthless or drain our morale. These are all examples of the ways we are affected physically and we must pay attention to them.
As soon as a relationship starts to produce these negative physical reactions, we must start to question it. Gilllian, 32, realised a little while ago that she always felt exhausted. ‘One day, at my yoga class, my teacher asked what I’d been doing to get so tense, and then I realised that my mother, with her chronic vulnerability, had been controlling me for years. As soon as I spoke to her, I was so on my guard that I completely tensed up. I’m still grateful to my teacher for this moment of clarity. I still ask myself why I didn’t understand this earlier.’
There is no easy way to detox our relationships. ‘Because it isn’t a matter of neutralising a toxic person, but disengaging from a toxic bond,’ says D’Ansembourg. ‘This is what makes the difference between an infantile relationship, which would have us lay all the blame at the feet of the “bad-guy”, and an adult position, which involves accepting our share of the responsibility.’
The difficulty comes from the fact that the intensity of the toxic relationship only increases with time, with the frequency of the contact, in the intimacy that develops. The more time that passes, the more lucid we become, but the more difficult it gets to disentangle ourselves. Milletre identifies three patterns that can keep us in toxic relationships: passivity (it’ll sort itself out in time), fear of cutting the bond and of the consequences, and the fear of causing pain.
‘We must first become conscious of which previous relationship is playing out here, then distance ourselves,’ she says. ‘Work out your responsibility, understand your needs and lay down limits – these are all key stages on the path to detoxing,’ says Poudat. ‘Re-establishing your financial autonomy is also a way of reducing the other person’s power. The better we are able to treat ourselves, to listen to ourselves and satisfy our fundamental needs, the less susceptible we are.’