Toxic people are the worst. If you think about that friend you have who has a trashy boyfriend, you’ll know how much it sucks to watch someone you care about with someone not worth their time. It is frustrating for everyone involved, especially those in the toxic relationship themselves. So why do people do it?
As it turns out, it might not be a conscious choice we’re making – it’s the toxic person influencing us.
Now there might be some explanation as to why we find it so hard to leave toxic relationships. Our social structures are making us more and more vulnerable to toxic people, leading us to have relationships in our lives that aren’t healthy for us.
1,150 adults in San Francisco offered up their experiences with 11,000 people in their social networks, allowing the researchers from University of California Berkley and Bar-Ilan University to see how they interacted within their circles. The people in these circles ranged from family to acquaintances.
The participants were asked to describe their relationship with each person in their circle. The focus, in particular, was on the people that were labeled ‘difficult’ or ‘demanding’ and why the participants kept such frustrating people in their lives.
The reports people gave were often very similar. They said they opted to keep difficult people in their lives due to social pressures. They found it was difficult to escape these toxic people and they had no way to cut them out without getting stuck in further issues.
These problematic ties were often linked with a network of people central to the participant’s life. For example, toxic co-workers often cropped up. Since the participant worked with them, they had no way of cutting ties without being evident and upsetting other people in the workplace. Therefore, they felt obliged to stay friends with them, even if they were widely disliked.
Toxic family members were also commonly hard to cut ties with. Blood runs thick between many family members, and to sever a relationship with one member would mean cutting off from the rest. With the risk of being confrontational high when cutting ties with toxic people, the participants opted instead to leave things be.
Of all the family members, brothers in the age group of 21 and 30 were seen as the most ‘difficult’ most commonly. They were also seen as less likely to have redeeming qualities to make them easier to deal with.
Mothers were often described as severe too, though it was usually granted that they had redeeming qualities, even if they could be troublesome at times. The most difficult of the mothers were in the age bracket of between 50 and 70.
However, in either case with family issues, most of the participants opted to stick it out, knowing that the difficulties of breaking ties were higher than keeping quiet.
Surprisingly, spouses very rarely labeled one another as ‘difficult’ or ‘demanding’ despite it being one of the most challenging relationships to navigate in life. The researchers claimed that since it’s easier than ever now to walk away from a toxic relationship, most people don’t stay with someone they’re unhappy with. There’s much less stigma around divorce now, meaning people can choose to end a relationship with much more ease.
Friendships are seen as the most comfortable situation to escape. It doesn’t necessarily have to affect your friendships with other people if you break off one with a toxic person. Only between 2 and 4 percent of the participants reported having toxic friendships, showing they’re much more comfortable to escape.
However, most toxic relationships become very difficult to back out of when there are so many things holding you back. Social construct, finance, and other friendships can stand in the way of escaping toxicity. It’s not ideal, but it does make a lot of sense.
It’s possible that there are other more complex factors at play in these findings. Female relations were often considered to be more difficult than their male counterparts, which might suggest a sexist bias. Though it’s not conscious, it is entirely possible that people have a bias present that affects whether they view someone as ‘difficult’ or not.
Since they tend to have a stronger presence in the lives of their families, it does give more opportunity for the women in a family to be more aggravating. While they act as caregivers, it’s easy for the males to feel the need to rebel and label them as ‘difficult’ when they are only trying to help. It makes sense that in our sexist culture this kind of bias can thrive and exist.
Overall, though, this study is very enlightening. We can now see that there’s a reason we stick to the relationships in life that trouble us the most. The bad news is you won’t be getting rid of that toxic co-worker anytime soon. Yikes.