The critic, the stonewaller, the narcissist, and more.
We may read brilliant self-help books and possess wisdom about relationships, yet many of us still are hindered by toxicity. We are afraid to speak up and confront those who produce toxic vibes, and even more fearful of leaving a romantic relationship, friendship, or job due to toxicity. Toxicity presents itself in many forms; some of the worst expressions of it come from individuals who appear shiny and nice on the outside. This can be an illusion—things aren’t always as they appear, and neither are people. The five faces of toxic relationships are common personality traits, but they can be hidden behind a successful and superficially kind person.
Ralph Ryback, M.D., has taught at many institutions including Harvard Medical School and is also a psychiatrist with Sovereign Health Group. Receiving his M.D. from Wayne State School of Medicine and completing his residency at Boston City Hospital, Dr. Ryback brings over half a century of psychiatric experience to Sovereign Health. Serving past appointments as a director for addiction treatment facilities and hospitals, he has also had posts as a medical officer for National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism-funded projects, developing a statistical “finger-print” approach to identifying alcoholism in individuals as well. Founder of the Appleton Treatment Center, the first drug and alcohol abuse program at Harvard Hospitals as well as Operation Redirect, a program designed for adolescents with behavioral issues, Dr. Ryback holds a patent for limbic system dysrhythmia.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Hitting Close to Home
Relationship toxicity is something an author and colleague of mine experienced firsthand, which resulted in her passion for communicating about the topic. She writes:
“I myself had all the tools to avoid a toxic relationship, but I entered into an emotionally and mentally toxic relationship with someone who seemed like he had everything—a great family, a prestigious education, a successful career, and an apparently kind personality. I quickly realized this was all a facade. I learned how deep toxicity runs and why it is so hard to escape emotional and mental torture when someone looks so ‘perfect’ on the outside.
"As the saying goes, ‘Beauty is only skin deep.’ I learned the importance of recognizing toxic relationships and friendships and how to navigate these types of relationships. I have learned to cut out the bad people in my life and treasure those who bring positivity. In the end, I have become a stronger person in all capacities, even though it took being dragged through what seemed like endless amounts of darkness.”
Whether it is cutting ties to a friendship, romantic partner, family member, or co-worker, most of us can relate to the feeling of drowning because of a toxic individual. Of course, there are many more than five faces of toxic relationships, but those described below are among the most common. These faces can overlap, and two or more may occur simultaneously. If you are in a relationship with a person who possesses any of these traits, it may be wise to spend time reflecting on how you really feel when you're around that individual.
1. The Critic
Have you ever been in a relationship in which you feel judged and criticized no matter what you do? Criticism is different than advice, and it is important to understand the difference. Consider tardiness: It can hinder your professional and personal relationships, and most of us find it to be a negative trait. However, each individual has personal kinks to work out, and we all make mistakes.
Image that you arrive 15 minutes late to dinner without giving your significant other any warning. Your significant other is visibly angry and, instead of asking why you were late or what happened, he or she automatically begins insulting you: “You are always late and never have any consideration for anyone except yourself. I have been sitting here for 15 minutes waiting for you, and no matter what, you cannot seem to ever show up on time.”
This is a perfect example of criticism; this partner may criticize your every move: “You are going to wear that?” “Why don’t you ever…?” “What is wrong with you?” The list goes on and on. You feel belittled and believe that you can never do anything right, no matter how hard you try.
Now imagine you arrive 15 minutes late to dinner without giving your significant other any warning. Your significant other is visibly angry, but instead of lashing out , he or she inquires about this pattern. “I realize that you are late quite often. Is there a reason? Has anyone else ever noticed this trend?” This is an individual trying to inquire why this maladaptive pattern occurs. Instead of blaming the partner, he or she may blame the action.
A critic can bring a lot of toxicity into a relationship. Critics may never call you insulting names, but they may constantly insult your beliefs, appearance, and thoughts, often because they have low self-esteem and want to be in control. Instead of trying to make suggestions to improve your bad habits, they find every excuse to berate these habits and hinder you as a person.
The critic criticizes the person instead of the behavior. The most deleterious experience a person can have is when a parent says, “You’re a bad boy or girl,” instead of saying, “You did a bad thing.”
2. The Passive Aggressor
Passive-aggression is the passive expression of anger. Common examples include repeatedly keeping you waiting or making you late for an appointment. We all know people who are passive-aggressive. You never know what message such a person is trying to convey. You may feel that you are always walking on eggshells when you're around a passive-aggressive person. Denial of feelings, sarcasm, and backhanded compliments are sure ways to tell that someone is passive-aggressive.
Imagine you did something to upset your partner, but you're unsure exactly what it was. You ask why he or she is angry so you can prevent upsetting your partner in the future. However, your partner will not tell you why he or she is mad and instead replies, “I am fine” or “I am not mad,” even as he or she is withdrawing from you. This makes your brain run in circles trying to figure out what this person is thinking and why he or she keeps sending hidden messages. You may spend hours trying to read the person’s mind while backtracking over your every move or word.
If a person cannot communicate in a straightforward manner, uses sarcasm as a defense mechanism, sends mixed messages, or acts like nothing is wrong—regardless of exhibiting angry emotions—you might be dealing with a passive aggressor.
3. The Narcissist
The narcissist acts like he or she is God’s gift to the universe, knows everything, is the best at everything—and is not afraid to tell you so. No matter how smart or experienced you are, you can never measure up to this person. Like passive-aggressiveness, narcissism is considered a personality disorder, and it is toxic. A narcissist places himself or herself on a pedestal and looks down at you. You may feel you are competing with this person in every situation. Narcissists are often unwilling to compromise, lack insight and empathy, and want to be the center of attention. They may ruin special occasions, such as your birthday or a milestone in your professional career, because they constantly need praise, even when it is someone else's time to shine. A narcissist actually hates himself or herself. Narcissists have very thin skin that is easily pricked and easy to get under, which releases rage and hate because their self-esteem is marginal. Narcissists are willing to destroy everything and everyone around them when they feel hurt or rejected.
4. The Stonewaller
Stonewalling refers to the act of refusing communication to evade the issue. Many people may have heard of a stonewaller—a person who refuses to engage in conversation or share feelings when important issues come up. This often makes the other person feel insignificant and unworthy of honest communication. The stonewaller may come off as cold and refuse to admit there is a problem, but refusing to communicate creates negative feelings and barriers that make it difficult to further a successful relationship. Additionally, it can cause you to harbor feelings of resentment and guilt. If you are trying to communicate with a person you know well and he or she refuses to be honest and open with you, you may want to reconsider why you are in that relationship in the first place.
By not responding to your question, the stonewaller’s noncommunication makes you frustrated and angry, because he or she won’t engage in the expected interpersonal discourse.
5. The Antisocial Personality
Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), includes the traits of sociopathy (thought to result from social conditions such as childhood abuse, and characterized by explosive and sometimes violent behavior, but still presumed to possess the capacity for empathy and remorse) and psychopathy (feeling no remorse or empathy, taking advantage of others legally, and often involved in fraud or other white-collar crimes with varying motivations including greed and revenge).
We all have tendencies for various personality traits, which may be why the general public can be seduced by such people—we see ourselves, at least in part, in ASPD behavior. We also forgive and even welcome people with ASPD as we have forgiven and welcomed ourselves—a tenet of Judeo/Christian and other religions. However, psychopaths are psychological chameleons who act the required emotional part to manipulate each situation and interaction for money, sex, power, ego gratification, etc. They are often so skilled that their victims are unaware of what is happening. This psychologically predatory behavior can only be prevented by skillful inquiry into the history of pain and suffering the individual has left behind. Not surprisingly, most people don’t believe this and discount the evidence until it is too late. The psychopath’s “love” is mainly concern for control, adulation, and power, which are hidden under the cover of their book.