This week I said goodbye to a friend I had known for a long time. I sent her a message explaining why I needed to distance myself and was blocking her. It was a very hard thing to do but it had become apparent that our relationship was not based on mutual respect and that she had become a toxic presence in my life. I did not do this lightly but it got to a point of no return. I won’t go into detail because this post isn’t really about my friendship. It is about understanding, identifying and managing toxic friendships and relationships for autistic people generally.
Autistic people can have significant challenges around managing toxic friendships. A friendship may start out toxic or become that way over time. For people who may be isolated and lonely, the offer of friendship can be a welcome thing and it may be hard to accept that the friendship is toxic. In fact a toxic friendship or intimate relationship is usually much worse than having no friend or partner but it is a very hard call to distance yourself form the one human being in your life, even if their presence is damaging to you. We may not realise a relationship is toxic and think this is how relationships and friendships work. Our lack of confidence and self esteem may make it hard to understand that our friend or partner is not in fact a friend.
Some examples of what happens in toxic friendships or relationships include:
- Abuse – physical, sexual or emotional
- The relationship having one person doing al the ‘taking’ and the other doing all the ‘giving’ – this is also described as a lack of reciprocity
- Gaslighting – this is where a person tries to make you doubt your own knowledge and experience
- Invalidating you – treating you like you do not matter
- Telling you not to see friends or family or intentionally sabotaging your relationships with others
- Being hostile to and/or belittling your other friends or family members, especially those that supporter defend you
- Pressuring you to do things you do not wish to and / or which are harmful
- Belittling you
- Frequently blaming and criticising you
- Controlling behaviours such as in an intimate relationship one partner controlling the money and spending
This is not an exhaustive list and there are other kinds of toxic behaviour not listed here.
Autistic people can struggle with seeing issues in relationships and articulating that there is a problem. This has been my experience many times over. I have had an uncomfortable feeling about the person and felt like I didn’t want to spend time with them but I couldn’t work out from this that the relationship was doing me more harm than good. One way to spot toxic behaviour is to be aware of your reaction when you meet a person or see communication from them online. If you are highly anxious or afraid when there is contact with the person, more often than not this is a sign that the relationship may be toxic.
One challenge of dealing with toxic people is that autistic people – and others – often lack assertiveness and the ability to set boundaries. Even if we are aware the person is toxic then actually setting this boundaries to enable us to keep our distance can be close to impossible.
Autistic people can also misread the behaviour and intent of toxic people. Because we tend to operate on one level in communication it can be hard to understand that many other people don’t and that what they say in their words and acts can be very different from what is going on in their mind. If someone is outwardly nice to us we may not see that they have an ulterior motive.
It is important to note that toxic people do not have to be neurotypical. Autistic people can be toxic as well.
If we have determined that a person is toxic and decided to leave the friendship or relationship we can have fear of their reaction. This can include catastrophising and worrying about specific situations in our minds which are in fact highly unlikely. We can be highly anxious at the prospect of unexpected contact with them and this can lead us putting up with a toxic relationship. In my experience when I have seen toxic people that I have distanced myself from unexpectedly it has been very unpleasant but nowhere near as unpleasant as staying in the relationship.
This is a very difficult area of human communication. Non-Autistic people also have issues wiht this. Some strategies which may assist include:
- Trust your ‘gut’. That niggling feeling that something is wrong is almost always a sign that something is wrong. to everyone has this gut feeling although for some people it develops over time.
- If you know a relationship is toxic and you want to distance yourself from the person put in place a strategy for leaving – consider things like what do you plan to say to them before you leave if you plan to say anything? What and who are you going to use as supports? If you need to move locations how will that work? Do you have somewhere safe to go to (if you you need to move to escape the toxic relationship)? How will you manage your mental health after you leave? How will you respond if the person is aggressive – physically, emotionally or verbally/? Do you have a person you can talk to for practical or emotional support?
- If your other friends tell you a friendship or relationship is toxic, take this on board. Often others are more objective judges of toxic relationships than we are ourselves
- If possible, talk wiht a friend or support person about your concerns
- Leaving toxic friendship or relationship often results in the person who left feeling a range of things which may include relief, fear, empowerment. self-doubt, loneliness and many other emotions – often at the same time. Emotions like this are quite natural but you may need to work through them over time to recover from the toxic relationship or friendship
- It can take some time to ‘get over’ the toxic relationship. Many such relationships cause trauma, even where there is no physical or sexual abuse involved. That trauma needs to be worked through.
- Know that it is better to have no friendship or relationship than one which is toxic.
- Remember that you do not deserve toxic treatment. Nobody does and you have the right to respected love and support.