Got a friend who leaves you feeling inexplicably low after hanging out with them? A family member who drives you up the wall every time they phone? Or a housemate who drains you with their constant complaining?
If so, how can you tell if it’s just a normal relationship going through peaks and troughs — maybe because the person in question is feeling low or out of sorts — or a toxic bond that might actually be doing you harm?
This isn’t always an easy question to answer. After all, no one is perfect, which means that no relationship is either. However, it’s also all too easy to keep going through the motions with certain people, no matter how confused, drained or awful they make you feel. Often because ‘we’ve been friends for years’, ‘they don’t mean to be annoying’, or ‘I’m probably just being over-sensitive’.
But one big step towards having more satisfying relationships is becoming conscious of how your current ones are affecting you physically, mentally, and emotionally. So whenever you spend time with an individual or group, why not get into the habit of noticing how you feel, both during and after seeing them? By being more mindful of the effect that different people have on you in different situations, you will be able to make much better friendship choices.
How can you tell healthy connections from unhealthy ones?
Yet if you’re not quite sure how to go about evaluating the relationships in your life, then here are 20 key questions that you can ask yourself about any significant individuals. You can apply these questions to anyone, including family members, friends, partners, dates, colleagues, collaborators, mentors, or business associates (and these questions can work for groups too, for instance, workplaces or churches). They are as follows:
- Do they make me feel liked?
- Do they make me feel safe?
- Do they make me feel accepted?
- Do they make me feel respected?
- Do they make me feel like I have worth?
- Do they make me feel seen, heard, and understood?
- Do they encourage my hopes, dreams, and passions?
- Are they consistent, or do they disappear in and out of my life, either physically or emotionally?
- Do they show up for me in the hard times as well as the good?
- Do I feel that I can trust them with confidential information?
- How do I feel in my body when I’m around them (for instance, tense, drained, or uneasy or relaxed, elevated, and energized? Or an addictive rollercoaster of the two.)?
- Is our relationship mutual, or is it mainly focused on the other person and their needs?
- Do they tend to lie, exaggerate, or twist the truth?
- Are they nasty about other people behind their backs?
- Do they drain me of time, energy, attention, or even money?
- Do they try to isolate me from others (for instance, by making me feel doubtful or paranoid about other friends or family members)?
- Do they try to control me (including in subtle ways, such as guilt-tripping)?
- Do they confuse me (for instance, by making me doubt my reality, perceptions, or memories)?
- Do they frighten me (for instance, they have a temper or they hint that they might spill my secrets if I cut them off)?
- Does something just feel ‘off’ about this relationship, even if I can’t quite pinpoint it right now?
In essence, this list is about working out which people in your life are good for you — and why — then nurturing and cultivating those relationships. And it is also about working out who isn’t so good for you, then setting better boundaries with them or even saying goodbye altogether.
How do you decide whether to keep someone in your life or not?
The list of 20 questions can highlight and clarify issues in certain relationships. But the next question is, what do you do about this?
If certain people cross the line into abusiveness (questions 15 to 20 are particular indicators of this), then you are well within your rights to cut off all contact. You don’t have to put up with any form of abuse from anyone, no matter how close you are to them or how obligated they make you feel.
And if you’re wondering what is meant by ‘abuse’, in essence, it is any relationship with a person who repeatedly makes you feel low in worth or who tries to confuse, control, isolate or frighten you with various tactics. It isn’t always physical, and it isn’t always obvious, especially as abusive personalities can sometimes be charming and magnetic at first. But thankfully, you can learn how to spot the signs.
Also, if you find that lots of people in your life seem to be toxic or troubling in some way, then this could indicate that deeper work needs to be done within yourself, perhaps by exploring how childhood relationships might have shaped your present ones, causing you to be stuck in unhealthy patterns. Therapy can help with this.
Bear in mind that this list isn’t intended as a be-all-and-end-all — for one thing, no bond is without its flaws. Relationships are complicated, and no one person will ever meet all of your needs. People can also go through difficult periods where they might not show up consistently as a friend, but in time, they will be there for you again. Relationship issues can be nuanced, and you always have to look at the bigger picture (without, of course, making excuses for any frightening, exploitative, or abusive behavior).
And if you feel that some connections aren’t fully nourishing you, it doesn’t mean that you have to end them altogether. Instead, you might just need to have an honest conversation with the person, raise any issues that have been bothering you and express what you need from them going forward. Their reaction to this might tell you a lot about whether the relationship is worth saving.
In essence, these 20 questions are intended as a handy starting point — a way for you to begin discerning good relationships from bad. Maybe you could aim to get into the habit of applying them to anyone who is significant to you, especially in the important initial stages of a friendship or a relationship, when you are assessing what that person might mean to you.
With time and intention, you can get better at discerning who to let into your life and who to avoid. You can also get better at asking for what you need in relationships, as well as learning how to set boundaries. And eventually, you will start to cultivate better, healthier connections, ones that truly nourish you in the ways that you deserve.