Dr. Gregory Jantz

Reducing Conflict in Toxic Relationships

November 30, 2020

Being in a relationship with an emotionally abusive person means you are constantly engaged in a battle of wills at some level. These battles invariably involve conflict. For the most severely abusive people, the only way to avoid conflict may be to exit the relationship completely. ; they poison relationships with their need for control, their negativity, and their lack of respect. Limiting contact can reduce your toxic exposure.

Often the relationships that cause the most tension are in the family—parent to child, child to parent, sibling to sibling. What do you do when contact happens at events like family gatherings, weddings, birthdays, and holidays? I suggest that you designate a trusted individual to act as an emotional buffer. An emotional buffer is someone who understands the dynamics of the relationship and agrees to step in to offer support in certain circumstances. 

One young woman I know decided to confront her father’s persistent negativity toward her. As her children became older, she did not want them exposed to his dismissive and disrespectful pattern of speaking to her. She felt ready to be honest about how his words and actions made her feel, but she was still terrified.

In talking with her husband, I suggested he be present when she spoke with her father, to act as that emotional buffer. I cautioned him not to feel like it was his job to “rescue” her. Instead, they came up with parameters for when and how he would interject himself into her conversation with her father. If her father began to raise his voice, her husband would repeat the father’s name quietly. If she became emotionally overwhelmed, her husband would paraphrase her last comments, to give her time to compose herself. If her father rejected her perception of how he treated her, her husband would calmly provide several examples he had witnessed. 

Another way to shield yourself from potential conflicts is by calling on the phone, sending cards, or meeting in public places. Another woman made it a habit to meet her mother at various museums or art galleries around town, which she knew her mother would enjoy, due to a lifelong interest in art. This woman also intentionally guided the conversation to what her mother thought about the exhibits, not because she didn’t have an opinion herself but so their time together would be more positive. She wanted to spend time with her mother and sought ways to reduce the conflict when possible. Of course, it wasn’t always possible, but often it was, and that was enough for her. 

Being intentional about reducing conflicts is not capitulating or giving in. Rather, it is proactively managing the relationship and protecting your boundaries. In this way, you show love and affection to the other person without sacrificing yourself. Below are action steps to take as you look to navigate challenging relationships in your life. 

  • Identify the toxic people in your life.
  • Identify people in your life who can act as an emotional buffer for you in difficult situations.
  • Speak to those individuals, explain what they mean to you, and request that they support you, when asked, in this capacity. 

Dr. Gregory Jantz is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE in Edmonds, Washington, voted a Top Ten Center For Depression Treatment in the United States. Dr. Jantz pioneered Whole Person Care in the 1980’s and is a world-renowned expert on eating disorders, depression, anxiety, technology addiction, and abuse. He is a leading voice and innovator in Mental Health utilizing a variety of therapies including nutrition, sleep therapy, spiritual counseling, and advanced DBT techniques. Dr. Jantz is a best-selling author of 40 books and has appeared on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN.

If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, PTSD, addiction, eating disorders, or other mental health challenges, call The Center at 888.771.5166 today.