What Is A Toxic Relationship? Understanding And Coping

Dr Rhoberta Shaler helps people recognize the signs of a toxic relationship that can make us crazy. This a summary transcription of my podcast interview. Listen to the full conversation here.

How to see the early warning signs of a toxic relationship

I know very well the signs of a toxic person and relationship, because I was born into a crazy-making toxic family of hijackals. I had to do a great deal of work to understand and overcome, and then help other people do that too.

A hijackal is a person who hijacks a relationship for his or her own purposes and then relentlessly scavenges it for power status and control. I developed this term because I wanted to have a term that would allow us to talk about the patterns, traits, cycles, and behaviors while recognizing we’re in the relationship too.

warning signs of a toxic relationship

A hijackal might be your mother, your brother, your sister, the person in the next cubicle or that friend who’s really irritating and you’re not sure why you keep them around. Hijackals only have children to have someone to serve them, agree with them or validate them.

What are the signs of a toxic person? You would know that your significant other is a hijackal, because they are the person who always wants to win no matter what. They take no responsibility and no accountability, but they have to win in every circumstance. They are very blaming creatures. Everything is your fault.

Don’t put on your compassion hat and go nurturing them because they’re very damaged, but they don’t know it. The way they respond to the damage is to see themselves as superior to everyone and flawless, and they need to because they are so shamed.

They have to maintain that idea of perfection within themselves, that’s why everything gets offloaded onto everybody. You can have a little compassion, but don’t enable or condone these behaviors.

A hijackal is  someone who wants to win, someone who’s not accountable, someone who blames you for everything, someone who says everything is your fault and then, they have this unique way of thinking called “all or nothing thinking.”

One moment you are the best thing that ever happened to them and they’re so lucky to have you. Then, you look at them sideways and you are the scum of the earth and they know for sure that no one would ever want you. There are no gradations in the middle and that comes from fear.

If you had a hijackal parent and you didn’t become a hijackal, you have been attuned to this and you’re hypervigilant for it. If you did follow in the hijackal’s footsteps, then that is your operating system.

Another hallmark of the hijackal is incredulity. People don’t recognize thisIf you have that incredulity moment, stop and recognize, something is way off. What they use that for is a moment of cognitive dissonance. When your neocortex is a little confused they start slipping alternate facts to you and that’s the way they get control over folks.

Gaslighting on the other hand is when someone wants to define your reality for you. If someone says to you, “I know you better than you know yourself”, watch out for that because that is the beginning of a gaslighting statement. If someone wants to define your reality for you and tell you what you’re perceiving, that’s a big problem because that is trying to take over your life.

It goes further because they’ll go to your parents and your friends. They’ll say, “I know she’s struggling but don’t worry, I’ve got it and I’ll take care of it.” Then they isolate you and your voice begins to disappear, that’s where real problems set in.

Differences between men and women

Women’s tendency is to nurture and nourish, that’s our biological imperative. Men like to go to a solution while women like to get there by nurturing and supporting. When we do that to a hijackal, we just give them complete control over everything, because they can take advantage of that.

Healthy people go the extra mile. They give people the benefit of the doubt. They make up excuses, rationalizations and justifications for people’s behavior. We let people off the hook a little. I have a formula I call “ABB” which means “always believe behaviour”.

The signs of a toxic person can present differently whether it’s a woman or a man that’s the issue. Women hijackals will present in ways that are more feeling based. They will behave really badly, and they’ll apologize for the behavior. You’ll just think everything is fine and then, they’ll go and do it again.

Men on the other hand are dismissive. They discard and devalue. They’re equally high maintenance. When people use that phrase, the high maintenance partner, I don’t think of someone who costs a lot to get their nails done and spends a lot of time on the spa. I think of a hijackal and that is true high maintenance.

Toxic relationships in midlife

It’s sometimes easier to see the signs of a toxic relationship in midlife. Once you get to midlife and you don’t have the distraction of the children, the intervening busy-ness, you don’t have the dinner table where you can have four people to discuss things with, it becomes more evident when you really have to reconstruct the relationship with the partner.

You begin to see, realize and ask questions like “I don’t quite like this person much.” “This person is always demeaning. Why do I put up with it?” The answer is that person isn’t going to change.

When you look back and remember this person generally has been making you small, wearing you down, and putting you down and that’s the general way you’ve felt in this relationship, and it seems to be more evident now that there are no other variables in the home. It’s a good time to wake up and smell the herbal tea and say, “This is not what I want with my life.”

We deserve to have a relationship in which we’re cherished; a relationship that has the three must haves that I talk about all the time which are equality, reciprocity, and mutuality.

If you don’t have those things, you’re not going to have a healthy relationship and you’re not going to have emotional intimacy, which is what we crave.

We crave to be known, seen, heard, acknowledged, appreciated, and accepted. A hijackal is a person who makes it their business to reject and to withhold approval.

I was raised by two hijackal parents and I’m an only child. My mother used to say, at least weekly, “It’s a good thing you’re a smart young lady because you’re fat and ugly.”

I may be totally delusional, but I didn’t find any evidence in family photos for fat and ugly. I started sharing this message with women. I didn’t like my mother. She was racist. She was awful.


Finally I realized I was looking for the approval of someone of whom I didn’t approve.  That was a very freeing moment because when you recognize you’re still longing for the approval of your parent, which most people are, but you didn’t like them, you didn’t like who they are, their values, what they stood for and you have that emotionally mature moment when you realize, why would I want someone to approve of me if I don’t like what they stand for? There’s the beginning of freedom.

If you have a parent like this and you don’t become a hijackal, you become hijackal bait. You’ve been groomed to put up with this and to put up with people, defining you that way. You tend to gather a lot of friends that are underlyingly like that.

As women, we are not good at seeing red flags and that will happen over and over again because someone’s red flag is our opportunity to justify their behavior because of our nurturing nature.

You’re not their therapist. You are trying to have an equal opportunity relationship with that person. You’re actually in service to their dysfunction. Is it actually fair to allow yourself to keep serving someone’s dysfunction as a way of having a friendship or a relationship of any kind? I don’t think so.

Strategies to cope

I would never suggest not to cut out a hijackal in your life, because sometimes you have to. You don’t live with some cancer; you get rid of it if you possibly can. If there’s any individual whom you can’t really cut out from your life or you wouldn’t want to cut them out from your life completely, I suggest to just simply distance yourself.

Just be unavailable. Don’t call as frequently. If they call you and say that you haven’t called them for a long time, just say you’re terribly sorry and start to distance yourself. That way, you keep yourself safer and you don’t purposefully engage.

The other thing is, if you do engage and they go sideways and they start being their hijackal self, you just excuse yourself in whatever way you need to do so they begin to get the message that you will leave, or you will distance yourself. They’re going to make you wrong for that, so don’t hope they’re going to have an awakening.

If it’s a family member, somebody you see at family gatherings or somebody who’s integral to your career, just be polite. Live from your values.

Don’t take in what they want you to take in and understand that you can distance yourself and be polite.

If there are people in your life about whom you’re confused whether to maintain that relationship or just let go, you will have to self-examine. Who are you?

Are you a person who knows that you need to protect yourself by never being in that environment again and it would that do huge damage to you? Or are you a person who says, “I don’t think I could live with the regret of not having seen this certain person.”

The same thing is true on a lesser basis when you’re just simply saying, every time I talk to that friend, they have to be right. They have to cut me off.

Have you ever been with a person that you think is a friend and they say something and you think, “Oh, I agree with that.” And then they say, “I don’t really think that.” It’s a way of catching you out.

They did it on purpose to make you wrong. Know that feeling in your body and then say, “I didn’t sign up for that feeling on purpose. I’m going to create distance.” On the other hand, there are people who just have to go, and you may need help to determine that.

On my Facebook group, I have a number of people who have been married for 25 years, 35 years, who come into the group and say that they never saw this.

They gave up so much in their life. It’s actually that midlife time when you don’t have the distraction of children. You’re not struggling with your career. You’re actually in a good place with your career.

All of a sudden, you start to see where the cracks are, and you can sit back and realize that you have been tolerating that for a long time. Do you want to continue tolerating that? Midlife is a great time to say, “No. I don’t think so”

Re-evaluation is what we do at midlife and that’s an important piece. Finally recognizing the signs of a toxic person can be truly empowering.

If we realize that we’ve allowed ourselves to be treated with the lack of honesty, safety, trust, respect, and reliability like I talk about in my book, Kaizen for Couples, those are the relational gifts.

If you’re in a relationship that doesn’t have the three hallmarks I spoke of, equality, reciprocity, and mutuality and it doesn’t have the five gifts, honesty, safety, trust, respect and reliability, you don’t have much.

Have a good look at that because you’re probably putting in 97% of the work into the relationship and the other person is still treating you badly. Wake up and smell the herbal tea around that and say I deserve to have a more equitable life.

You can find out more about Rhoberta:

Rhoberta’s website

Podcasts/ Videos

TwitterFacebook, YoutubePinterest and Instagram

Book mentioned in the podcast: Kaizen for Couples

You may also like: How To Keep A Relationship Healthy Under Pressure

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}