Manage Toxic Relationships Effectively

Episode 003: Manage Toxic Relationships Effectively

Podcast Smart Relationship Moves

In this episode, you will

  • understand three levels of toxic dynamics
  • learn five strategies on how to address toxic behaviours
  • know how to interpret the other individual’s responses in a way that it’s good for you.

How to Manage Toxic Relationships Effectively

Toxic dynamics in our lives can have many different shades of grey. They can be very subtle so that’s really hard to put a finger on it. They can be very obvious so that you can identify them easily. So in this episode, I will talk about toxic dynamics in general. Please also evaluate your own relationship and choose those elements that are valuable for you and let go of the others.

In my personal life, I had my fair share of toxic relationships, whether it was with my sister or with my father. Sometimes it happened in a workplace or in relationships. I experienced them to be very exhausting and draining, and also that on the long run toxic relationships can steal my joy. In this episode, I would like to present you with some ideas so that you can reclaim your power and your joy in your relationships. I hope that it supports in making choices that are good for you.

Toxic Relationships as an Opportunity to Grow

I personally consider toxic dynamics also as an opportunity for growth. I learned a lot about myself when I was in these toxic relationships. They taught me what I wanted in my life and what I didn’t want in my life. In these toxic relationships, I learned to love myself, to respect myself and to set healthy boundaries. They also showed me areas of my past that still needed some healing.In those relationships, I learned what my sore spots were. This allowed me to take care of them so that I wouldn’t be manipulated again.

Sometimes we end up in toxic dynamics because maybe we feel guilty, or maybe we have some sore spots that we haven’t fully healed yet, or that we are not fully aware of yet, but often the person with a manipulative behaviour is very much aware of them and they use it to control you. Or to manipulate you.

Start Your Hero’s Journey

Change toxic dynamics by starting your hero's journeyTake Responsibility

In this context because being in a toxic relationship, is a continuous journey of growth. I see it as our hero’s journey on how we navigate this. The first step of the hero’s journey is to take responsibility and asking myself what is mine, and what is not mine, and evaluating the dynamics in the relationship, and looking at myself: what are my emotions? What are my behaviours? What are my thoughts? And what can I do to transform these?

Create Self-Awareness

Another element of the hero’s journey is to create self-awareness, which means I need to become aware of those aspects in myself that I feel insecure about: those aspects of myself are that it is maybe hard for me to have healthy boundaries and thinking about how I can improve these elements. It is a little bit like peeling an onion, for example, the relationship with my sister existed for a very long time and I learned these behaviours when I was very young. The more I healed myself, the more I became aware of these dynamics, and the better I was able to manage them.

Part of self-awareness is also having patience with ourselves because sometimes, especially when the relationships existed for a long time. We may also need some time to create awareness about what’s going on in these relationships.

Explore Your Choices

Additionally, the hero’s journey is about making choices. Choices in toxic relationships are not only either you go or you stay, it can be about what behaviours have you already tried? How did they work for you? What did not work? What can you learn from it? How can you grow? Also what behaviours have I not yet tried and maybe I can give them a try to find out how it might change the dynamics.

Make a Decision, Take Action and Evaluate

When we have evaluated the different choices concerning the toxic dynamics, we need to make a decision and take action on one of these choices. Afterward, we need to evaluate: how did it work? For example, when you set a boundary for the first time, it might not necessarily work: maybe some of it is how you communicated the boundaries and maybe some of it is because the other person simply ignored your boundaries. It is about focusing on what is going and how does it work. Does it help me to improve the relationship or not? And, what can I learn from it? How can I grow from it?

Manage Toxic Relationships By Focusing on Yourself

Self-empowerment to manage toxic relationships effectivelyAs the first strategy to manage toxic relationships effectively, I invite you to explore is focusing on yourself. If we are in a toxic dynamic, we usually tend to ruminate about these dynamics and to think constantly about the partner because we try to understand them. However, it is probably impossible that we can ever understand them because they won’t be honest enough to reveal themselves. We may even blame them for their behaviour, which is a sign that we don’t agree with the behaviour but it doesn’t change anything. No matter how much you blame your partner for their behaviour they’re likely not to change it. Furthermore, we may try too hard to understand the other person.

For me, some toxic dynamics felt like being drawn into a dark hole. And no matter what I did, it seemed that my complete energy and time was gone. As long as we focused more on the other person than ourselves, it is easy to get lost in these dynamics.

Focus on What is Within Your Control

The first step is to focus on what is within your influence. This means you need to dedicate yourself to the things that you can do something about. For example, if you blame your partner, you have not yet set a boundary. You can make it about yourself by setting a boundary. You cannot control whether your partner will respect this boundary or not, however, you can control how you are responding.

Stop Making Assumptions

Additionally, we need to liberate ourselves from some misconceptions about human nature and human behaviour. Many people believe that everybody is the same and that everybody wants the same. I fell into this trap in my relationship with a friend: I assumed that this friend wanted to have a healthy friendship and he wanted to experience connection and some meaningful conversations. However, this was not at all what he wanted. So I projected onto him the same things that I wanted in this relationship. I never clarified what his intentions were.

I think this happens frequently because we see the other person, and like the other person. We hope that they want the same as we do, but this is not always the case. This hope doesn’t allow us to see clearly that the behaviours of the other person are ruthless. They are focusing on winning no matter what. They’re not at all interested that you get something out of this relationship. A person who has toxic behaviour very often is only interested in their win, and they want to win no matter what. So, they don’t necessarily care that the relationship is mutual or not. They just care that they get out of the relationship what they want. And often in toxic dynamics, the other side doesn’t clearly state what they want. However, it’s hard to ever understand their intentions because the other individual is probably so different that you cannot understand.

Let go of the belief that everyone is the same and want the same. If you want to be clear about it, maybe have a conversation with the other person about what your intentions are relationship and ask them what their intentions are and maybe we can see that, whether they’re aligned or not.

Love Alone Isn’t Enough

Another misconception is that love changes everything. Often people with toxic behaviour have difficult stories, and painful experiences and so it’s easy to fall into the trap to think, Oh, if I just sent them enough love and they will change.

The problem is that nobody can heal the other person’s pain. We can just heal our pain. Often, a person with toxic behaviour might have a very empty cup, and they might feel very desperate. The problem is that you can only support them on the journey, but you cannot walk the journey for them. Even if you love them as much as you do. Love doesn’t necessarily change anything if the other side isn’t willing to change and isn’t willing to take responsibility for what is theirs.

Love doesn’t change another person’s behaviour

This was something I struggled with for a long time in my relationship with my sister because I loved her. However, she had toxic behaviours and I learned that no matter how much I love her, I wouldn’t be able to change her if she did not take responsibility. Be aware that you can love somebody but it doesn’t mean that this will change the other person. Go back to the cycle of influence, like the things you can control with our relationship. You need to look at your behaviour, and then evaluate the response from the other person, and then adjust your behaviour. Another element of the cycle of influence is sitting down with yourself and thinking about your needs and wants in the relationship. Think about how you can communicate them to the other person, and request them whether they are willing to do this or not.

Clarity Brings Relief

In the toxic relationship with a former friend. I sat down and said, well, to have a friendship with you, I would need some meaningful conversations and that you share more about yourself and your life so that we can create a connection. And the answer was no. This gave me the clarity I needed to decide to end this friendship.   

If you want to, sit down with yourself and think about what do you want in this relationship, what do you need in this relationship. How can you request it from the other person? Then, also be aware of what their answer is. If they say yes, observe whether they really implement these changes or do they just say yes and never change anything.

Manage Toxic Relationships by Changing Your Behaviour

The second strategy to manage toxic relationships effectively is to change your behaviour, and the behaviour in a toxic relationship depends on the level of toxicity. I see three different levels of toxicity that depend on the reactions of the person with the toxic behaviour.

Strategies to address toxic behaviour
Strategies to address toxic behaviour dependent on the level of toxicity of the other individual

Adapt your Behaviour to the Level of Toxicity

Strategies for Level 1 Toxicity

The first level is that you have entangled boundaries and the communication is toxic. However, you have not yet set any boundaries and you have not yet asserted your needs. Therefore, you do not know how the other side will respond if you set a boundary. If you are in level 1, evaluate what do you tolerate in this relationship that is not okay for you. Start to set a boundary and to start to assert your needs.

The Reaction of the Other Person Defines the Level of Toxicity

An important element of this is that you observe what the other person is doing. For example, you are setting a boundary, be mindful of the other person changes their behaviour. Does the person respect your boundary, or not? The same is applicable if you assert your needs: does the person say yes, and adjust their behaviour, or do they say yes and then nothing ever happens?

Focus more on the concrete action as the words. In a toxic dynamic, it is common that the other partner promises you everything you want, but then never follows up on it. If you set a boundary and the other person is just completely ignoring it, interpret this as an action and take this as a sign that the other person is not willing to change.

Level 2 Toxic Relationship

If the other person is ignoring your boundaries or is not willing to change your relationship is in this second level of toxicity, which is more complex. If you want to have a healthy relationship, two people need to take responsibility for what is theirs and two people need to grow. It is a sign that the other person is not willing to change if they have ignored your boundaries or rejected your needs. Maybe they have made a lot of false promises but they have never changed. This is a sign that you are in level 2.

Choose Your Battles and Suggest Win-Win Solution

At level 2, you need to choose your battles. If you want to be treated as if you’ve been in a healthy relationship, this is unlikely to happen. Choosing your battles means that you choose certain topics that are extremely important for you and that you define a strategy to set your boundaries and assert your needs.

You also need to make some suggestions for a win-win solution. Because the other side wants to win that they are unlikely to even consider your needs. If you want to stand up and get your needs met, you need to suggest a solution. You also need to make them some suggestions about how the solution could look like.

Limit Your Communication

The other element of level 2 is that you can limit your communication. And you can also limit the topics you talk about. For example, with a person at this level, I wouldn’t share too much about me because it’s likely that they use my emotions against me. There is also a risk that they will use it against you and they may use it to trigger your sore spots for their manipulative tactics.

Self Preservation

Additionally, you can choose to start using self-preserving statements. For example, the person is making a very critical comment about you and you just reply, this is your opinion and I agree to disagree. You don’t need to give any further explanations because it doesn’t matter. The other person isn’t likely to consider your opinion anyway.

Find The Distance You Need

Furthermore, I invite you to put some distance from the person. For example, if it is a romantic partner, it could be that you find some activities that you can do without your partner. If it’s a sibling, you can choose to avoid seeing them as much as you can and just meet them on special holidays. Or you might just decide to talk about the weather instead of anything else.

Level 2 Toxicity versus Level 1 Toxicity

In level 2, you manage the relationship in such a way that you can go through the relationship and take care of yourself as much as possible. At this stage, it is unlikely that the person will change. Therefore, you adjust your behaviour, and you just focus on what’s important for you as well as on preserving your energy and yourself. Furthermore, you find a distance from this relationship that is good for you. Working towards a healthy relationship is not possible at this stage. In level 1, a healthy relationship would be possible if both sides were willing to take responsibility, willing to change, and willing to taking care of their growth. This includes that they take action and work towards healthy behaviours in relationships.

Level 3 Toxicity: Risk of Physical Abuse

A level 3 toxic relationship is a relationship where there is a risk of physical abuse or a threat of physical abuse. In level 2, your physical safety is not at risk. In level three, your physical safety is at risk. At this moment, you need to put your safety first, which often might also mean that you cannot choose your battles but that you may need to give in to keep yourself safe and protect yourself.

Create a Safety Plan

At level 3, it is important is that you create a safety plan. And it might sound scary to create a safety plan but it is about taking care of yourself. Don’t make it about the other person but about how can you keep yourself safe. This might collide with our beliefs about love and our beliefs about how safe you want to feel in a relationship. It might be hard to think about thinking about a safety plan because we want to be loyal to a partner and maybe some part of us just doesn’t want to believe that physical violence is possible. That’s common, and that’s natural. However, I believe it’s better to have a safety plan and not need it than not having a safety plan and needing it.

My father used to stalk me so I always had a safety plan. I had certain people in my life who knew about it and who I could call in case he would find me. They supported me so that I could find a way on how we can navigate the situation. So, it might be uncomfortable to have a safety plan, but on some occasions, it is necessary to have one. I don’t know how your relationship looks like, however, I just would like to invite you to trust your gut and not talk yourself out if you have a sense that your physical safety is at risk.

Strategy 3 to Manage Toxic Relationships: Self-care

Strategy 3 to manage toxic relationships effectively is about self-care. What I mean by self-care is any type of conscious actions you take to care for your emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well being. Spiritual in this context doesn’t mean religious at all. It can be something like going for a walk in nature, or just enjoying the sun. It’s any kind of connection you have with your inner self, or with your higher self, or however, you want to call it.

For self-care, no one strategy fits everyone. So I give you some suggestions, but also please check in with yourself what resonates with you. How can you take care of your emotional health? What self-care strategies are working well for you? Toxic relationships are very draining. If we are in a toxic relationship, it can affect our emotional, mental, and physical health, in a negative way. Therefore, self-care is extremely important. We may also need to increase our self-care activities so that we can stay sane in this environment.


One idea you can consider is meditation. If you’ve never tried it before, maybe it is time to experiment with it. Be skeptical about it, give it a good try for a couple of weeks. Check-in with yourself afterward: how do you feel? 


Another element of self-care can be journaling and writing about the dynamics you are experiencing as well as expressing your emotion. It allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the toxic dynamics and work through your emotions.


Self-care also includes being a nature, whether it’s going for a walk going for a hike, or maybe just sitting by a river and enjoying nature.


Furthermore, you can use creative outlets like drawing, painting, or making some other artwork. This allows you to express your emotions and to connect with yourself.

Traveling alone

If you live with your partner, you can also go n a road trip alone because it might help you to find some distance from the toxic dynamics. This way you may gain more distance about the toxic dynamics since they can be very confusing if you are constantly in the same area as the other person. It might also help you to evaluate the situation with more clarity for yourself.

Starting a new activity

Additionally, you can start a new activity you have never tried before and you just always wanted to do. Just experiment with and find out how it feels for you.

Self-care is also something that gives you some relief, whether you feel more emotionally aligned with yourself or you feel a bit calmer.

Mantras and affirmations

Furthermore, I also invite you to use some sort of affirmation or mantras. Depending on the level of toxicity in the relationship, you might be constantly exposed to critical comments about yourself. Probably most of us try not to take them in but there is a risk that you might take them. If you start to use mantras, it can support you in improving your self-esteem and your self-confidence, it can be helpful for you so you are better able to resist these toxic messages you might be hearing. For example, I sometimes do mirror work. This means I stand in front of a mirror and I tell myself that I love myself, I believe in myself and I approve of myself. Just find affirmations that resonate with you and give it a try.


Self-compassion is another aspect of self-care. Toxic dynamics are often very confusing, and it’s easy to blame oneself if we are in a toxic relationship. However, there are probably millions of reasons why you ended up in this situation. Self-compassion can help us to refrain from self-blame and to refrain from taking on too much responsibility for something that is not ours. Even though you’re currently trying to adjust your behaviour, the toxic behaviour of the other person is not your fault. You are not responsible for the toxic behaviours of the other individual, so self-compassion is also very helpful to let go of guilt, and maybe even shame.

Stop Rumination

Another strategy for self-care you can use is to distract yourself if you start to ruminate about the relationship. For example, if you notice that you spend a lot of time thinking about the dynamics, visualize a stop sign and then find an activity to distract yourself, whether it is dancing, watching a movie, or going for a walk. This way you can break the cycle of constantly

ruminating about the relationship and focus your energy on yourself.

Strategy 4 to Manage Toxic Relationships: Find a supportive person

Strategy four to manage toxic relationships effectively is about finding a supportive person with whom you can talk about the relationship. Since toxic dynamics are often very confusing and crazy-making, it can be hard to deal with them all alone. You need to find somebody who can support you through this. However, this individual needs to have awareness and knowledge of toxic dynamics. It needs to be somebody who believes you, who was able to label the toxic dynamic, and also somebody who validates your experience. Try to stay away from people who are not very aware of emotional abuse and toxic dynamics: if you talk about these dynamics for somebody who doesn’t understand them, they may even further blame you or they might guilt-trip you. This can do more harm than good.

Strategy 5 to Manage Toxic Behaviour: Gain Clarity

Strategy 5 to manage toxic relationships effectively is about gaining clarity. What does this mean? It’s about checking in with yourself: what type of relationship you want to have? How much does your relationship comply with this relationship? What change is possible? Spend some time alone and write down the characteristic of relationships you want to have. Evaluate the current relationship and think about to which extent does this relationship fulfills these characteristics.

Assess Differences in Values

Furthermore, you can evaluate the values you are having and the values the other person is having, because often these relationships, also have a value conflict in them. For example, I had very different values compared to the values of my friend or the values of my sister. Acknowledging these differences and also acknowledging that these values were conflicting helped me to gain clarity about these relationships and to make decisions that are healthy for me.

Minimum Standard

Additionally, you can look at the relationship and specify certain behaviours that the other person has that are not okay for you. Which behaviours are intolerable? Which ones could you give in to without being resentful? Think about the minimum qualities you want in a relationship. Meaningful conversation? Going for a coffee and having small talk? Hiking? For example, if the person is toxic on level two, it’s unlikely that you will have a meaningful connection with them. You only have a very superficial connection with them before they start to take responsibility and change. In this case, think about what the minimum is that you want to have in this relationship. Would make it okay for you to be in this relationship?

Reflect on the changes that you would need to see so that it would be okay for you to be in this relationship. If you request these changes, observe if the other person is willing to change and if they take action. As I said before they might promise you many things, but the important thing is that they change their behaviour. I know it’s risky because if you ask for clarity, you might receive an answer which is hard to hear. However, I also believe that it is good to know how reality looks like to make a decision that is good for us.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Last but not least, you can try a cost-benefit analysis, which means you sit down and you ask yourself: what are the benefits of being in this relationship? What are the costs of being in this relationship? Compare the costs with the benefits and evaluate whether you would like to continue with this relationship.

Take Away – How to Manage Toxic Relationships Effectively

Manage Toxic Relationships Effectively
Manage Toxic Relationships Effectively

If you are in a toxic dynamic, consider the following steps:

  • Do something different, apply new skills, and evaluate their effectiveness.
  • Negotiate a healthier relationship. See what is the other person doing and what are they not doing.
  • If your partner is not willing to take any action towards a healthier change, find more distance from this relationship. This could signify to have a more superficial relationship. You may get your need for connection met in friendships. Or you enjoy your life with some new hobbies that you do alone. 
  • If this doesn’t help and the relationship is not at all what you want, you can choose to leave the relationship. It can be temporarily or permanently. This is your choice.
  • If you want to have a healthy relationship, both people need to change: the person with toxic behaviour is responsible for their behaviour, and only they can change it. You can request a change, but you cannot control it.
  • Create awareness about how much you’re willing to lower your standards to be around a person with toxic behaviours. Assess where your limits are.

I hope you have found some inspiration to manage toxic relationships effectively. I am curious what strategy to manage toxic relationships effectively resonates with you? What would you like to do differently in your relationship?

If you want to work with me, please check out my Video Counselling for Toxic Relationships.

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

Natalie Jovanic

Natalie Jovanic is a Registered Therapeutic Counsellor and Shiatsu Therapist. As a counsellor, they pass on what they believe in, but it isn’t just knowledge, theory, and professional experience. It is also their wisdom gained through their own transformative journey of healing abuse. Natalie is trained in trauma-informed practice and EMDR. They are the author of A Brave, True Story.