Maintaining Toxic Relationships: Why Being The Bigger Person Isn't Always Okay
Updated: Feb 16
I came across an article on MadameNoire recently, which posed the question:
Why do parents force kids to maintain relationships with emotionally abusive relatives?
— and, while I don’t have kids and I can’t answer this from a parents' perspective, this question is one I can definitely identify with as I have wondered about this many times myself.
Growing up my mom always used to say, “Never burn your bridges, because you never know when you’ll need someone.” This proverb applied to teachers, employers, and of course family. In theory, it sounds like a wise philosophy to live by, and yet — the only time it ever came up was when I was on the verge of an emotional breakdown because of how badly I was being treated. The advice then seemed less like a “pearl of wisdom,” and more like a target on my back.
“Never burn your bridges,” eventually became the gift-wrapped version of, “Do everything you can to maintain a relationship, even if it’s toxic.”
It seemed like no matter what was said or done, it was my job to maintain the relationship — and, no matter how much I expressed my discomfort with a situation, the other party was never the problem. Somehow, it always fell back on me.
It was always my fault.
When I called it out or demanded respect, I was labeled rude or insolent. When I moved away and refused to maintain negative relationships, I was told I was merciless and held grudges. I was crucified because I just didn’t want to accept the idea that “No matter what, they’re still family.”
For years, I was forced to take a “put up and shut up” attitude towards people, particularly family and eventually it became an impairment to my emotional psyche.
Something was wrong with me. I began thinking that I was the evil one; the angry one; the monster that couldn’t see past what was being done to me. I envied the people around me, those that were able to smile and function in seemingly healthy relationships, as though they weren’t being mistreated.
It wasn’t until I got to university and started fostering my own relationships, that I learned just how toxic that mindset had become.
In my third year, I ended up joining a sorority and was put in a family tree with a group of girls that I didn’t mesh with. It was obvious that they didn’t like me, and if I’m being really honest, I didn’t like them either. For a while, things were hostile and awkward, and yet every-time I complained to my “big” (the sorority sister that mentored me), she would say, “Well, just try to get them to like you — they’re your family tree. You never know when you’ll need them.”
Sounds familiar right?
It was like she hit a switch, and just like that, I went into autopilot. I spent the entirety of that year miserable on the inside; but, forcing a happy facade. I tried whatever I could to build a relationship with a set of people who outright disliked me. Sometimes, I tried to distance myself; but then, I was met with passive-aggressive hostility, and shamed for being the problem. For 365 long days, I was broken down by this vicious cycle.
Try to be friends then fight. Take a step back then shamed for it.
No matter what they did, no matter how they treated me, it was on me to make the relationship work.
From the outside, you could ask, “Why not just stop being friends with them;” but the truth is, I was afraid. Afraid of one day “needing” someone and not having them around because I had burned my bridges. By then, it was part of my psychology. I was trained to suffer because one day they might be the hand that had to feed me.
That’s exactly why forcing children to maintain bad relationships, simply because someone is family, has to stop. Being "the bigger person," functions in theory; but, in reality, when that concept teaches as a child to accept bad treatment, it does more harm than good.
By forcing children to maintain otherwise destructive relationships with adults out of “respect” or “familial need,” they are being exposed to a culture of emotional abuse. They are being seasoned to accept however people choose to treat them, particularly those that are supposed to "love them." This lack of emotional reciprocity then teaches them to maintain friendships, relationships or jobs, that are mentally and emotionally draining, and they deteriorate because of it.
As adults, they'll end up giving so much of themselves, and accepting so much bad, that it ends up damaging them.
The funny thing is, in my case, my mom HATED those girls for how badly they were treating me. Even to this day, she questions why I stayed friends with them for so long; but, what she doesn't realize is that this concept of "relationship maintenance" was forced for so long, that it had become etched into my genetic makeup. From the outside, because she had no emotional attachment to them, she was able to see how negative the relationship was; yet, when it came to “family,” it was like she had blinders on. That was the problem. That “put up and shut up” attitude had begun spilling over into other areas of my life.
After reading the article on MadameNoir's, I actually asked my mom the hard question.
“Why do parents do this?” I asked. To this, she had no answer. She simply said, “I don’t know.”
My guess is, that’s what she was taught. The archaic mindset that dictates that children should be seen and not heard; the one that says it's rude or disrespectful for them to have and express their opinions and emotions; the one that teaches them to jump when an adult says jump, no questions asked, creates a warped idea of how a relationship should function. It is a mindset that teaches children to do as they’re told without ever challenging the norms.
The thing is, challenging norms is how we produce change.
As I matured into an adult, I began to realize that there is a fine line between being “respectful” and being a doormat — and a lot of the time that’s what I was forced to be — a human punching bag, raised to blindly obey and accept anything that an adult did or said, out of fear of being seen as rude. I was taught to be independent and yet when applied, my challenge against the negative behaviour was seen as indignant.
But, that's the thing, if done well, it’s okay to express your discomfort with the way you're being treated -- it's okay to say that the way someone is acting towards you is hurtful. It's okay NOT to accept a relationship that is breaking you down --- no matter who it's with.
It’s not merciless to take a step back and re-evaluate a relationship. It’s not unforgiving to remove yourself from a relationship or a situation that's causing you emotional harm. It’s not wrong to love from afar.
We have to stop perpetuating this idea that cutting people off, means you hold anger towards them. We have to begin accepting that sometimes two people can’t function effectively together in family, friendship, or in love and learn to let them go.
We only have one life to live and no one can do that for us. Don’t hold onto to negativity because you’re “supposed to.” Marie Condo said, if it doesn’t spark joy, throw it out in favour of “decluttering our lives.” The same applies to relationships. If someone doesn’t spark joy or positivity within you, it’s okay to throw them out (metaphorically though -- don't go to jail...please). It’s okay to remove someone from your immediate space if they are clouding your purpose.
As we always say here at the Champagne Series, you only have one life to live; so, live it YOUR way!
Join the discussion in the comments below and, if you want to read the original Madame Noir article, you can check it out here.