Toxic relationships are hurtful and harmful

When a friend at first sight turns out to be hurtful, here’s a healing pathway.

As a therapist, and especially in doing couples therapy, I often work with clients whose life includes a friend, a work associate, a sibling, a parent or a partner who hurts them.  Friend, collegial and love relationships are supposed to lead to life enhancement: joy, emotional and physical health, blessings, fun.  When they instead engender depression, frustration, disappointment and personal emotional injury, this is a toxic relationship.

As a therapist what are my options?  I listen.  I observe.  If I am working with the couple I aim to help stem the toxicity.  Sometimes, alas, I help the two individuals both to remove themselves from the relationship to prevent further damage from the toxicity. If I am working with just the injured individual, then I guide them along the pathway of coming to grips with emotional abuse.

What is it like to live with someone who is toxic?  What does it take to leave this person if he or she does not show willingness or ability to change?

A therapist can help individuals to recognize counter-productive behaviors: needless angers, heartless criticism, excessively controlling, mean, narcissistic, malignant narcissism and, on the receiving end, enabling, co-dependent, and stuck.  I have added my own toxic relationship terminology: dismissive listening and tall man syndrome for the toxic or narcissistic individual; and wishful thinking, excessive altruism, and misplaced locus of focus for the recipient of the toxicity.  With these terms I thought I was understanding what my clients have been experiencing.

Reading however I read a newly-published book of poetry by Nina Palmer, a poet who describes emergence from a toxic relationship with the nuanced understanding that can be attained only by someone who herself has been there and returned.

Palmer’s poems depict through natural imagery of rain, sunshine and forests what it is like to live within and then gradually to be able to leave a toxic love relationship.  Palmer’s poems radiate wisdom that can guide others along similar routes out of suffering.

The poems in Palmer’s Through the Trees are at once immediately accessible and at the same time deeply enlightening.  If you have been or are now involved with someone who has toxic impacts on you, and whether you think of yourself as someone who reads poetry or have never read a poem before, I highly recommend this book.

What can you expect on the pathway to healing from toxic relationships that Palmer describe in her poems?

The five chapters of Palmers collected poems each focus on one phase of the journey from entrapment in a crushing relationship to emotional freedom.  Following the classic stages of grief recovery, Palmers describes the subjective experience first of denial, and then of anger, depression, bargaining and, lastly, the joyful emancipation that comes with acceptance.

Clarification of these five stages in itself can be therapeutic.

Stage I: In the first stage, denial, hope springs eternal that as bad as last night may have been, tomorrow will be different.

Stage II: As awareness grows that the hurtful patterns are repetitive and unlikely to change, anger replaces eternal optimism. Excuses and minimizing for the partner’s hurtful actions gives way to opposite reactions of anger and even rage.

Stage III: Depression may set in as the hopelessness of change in the current situation becomes increasingly clear.  Awareness of the power inbalance between perpetrator and victim also may deepen depressive feelings.

Stage IV: Bargaining involves attempts to find some kind of workable solution.

Stage V: Differentiation, whether from emotional distancing or physical separation from the toxic partner, brings emancipation, release from the pain and freedom at last to enjoy the world’s sunshine.

Here’s a brief sampling of excerpts from Palmer’s poems on toxic relationships, one from the first and one in the last chapters of this poetic healing journey.

From Chapter 1: Denial

Tomorrow Will Be All Right

In the depths of the night, I know the sun will rise,

It will fall upon my face and bring light to my eyes.

I will bask in the rays of golden light;

Tomorrow everything will be all right.


Another day will be better than the last.

You  see, your love for me is simply masked.

If I could unearth the compassion in you,

I’ll have a better day, though they are few.

Someday your anger will pass over.


From Chapter 5: Acceptance

The Seed

Slowly but surely a day at a time

My stem reaches out and I climb

I feel the earth’s breath in the breeze

Winding over the hills with gentle ease.

And upon its light I will rise once more

On the wind my fallen petals will soar

From the blossom that waited in the night

To bloom at last in a new day’s light.

Through the Trees by Nina C. Palmer can be purchased through any bookstore.  It’s a book to be savored and treasured, a guide through a difficult and yet doable journey to a far more joyful life path.

Author’s Books

© Copyright 2015 Susan Heitler, Ph.D, All rights Reserved.
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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, narcissism, parenting challenges, and marital difficulties. An author of multiple books, articles, audio cd’s and videos, Dr. Heitler is best known in the therapy community for having brought understandings of conflict resolution from the legal and business mediation world to the professional literature on psychotherapy. David Decides About Thumbsucking, Dr. Heitler’s first book, has been recommended for over twenty years by children’s dentists to help young children end detrimental sucking habits. From Conflict to Resolution, an innovative conflict-resolution theory of psychopathology and treatment, has strongly influenced the work of many therapists. The Power of Two and , and also Dr. Heitler’s  website for couples called, teach the skills for marriage success. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Heitler coaches boards of directors in skills for collaboarative decision-making and, in the world of professional sports, Dr. Heitler serves as mental coach for a men’s doubles tennis team. Education Dr. Heitler graduated from Harvard  University in 1967, and earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from NYU in 1975. Awards and Accomplishments The editors of the master therapist video series Assessment and Treatment of Psychological Disorders selected Dr. Heitler from all the marriage and family therapists in the US to demonstrate the theory and techniques of couple treatment.  Her video from this series, The Angry Couple: Conflict Focused Treatment has become a staple in psychologist and marriage counseling training programs. The editors of the Psychologist Desk Reference, a compendium of therapeutic interventions, selected Dr. Heitler to write the chapter onTreating High Conflict Couples. Other editors of books on counseling theory and techniques have similarly invited her to contribute chapters on her conflict resolution treatment methods. Dr. Heitler’s 1997 book The Power of Two (New Harbinger), which clarifies the communication and conflict resolution skills that sustain healthy marriages, has been translated for publication in six foreign language editions–in China, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey, Brazil and Poland. Dr. Heitler has been invited to present workshops on her conflict resolution methods for mediators and lawyers, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists throughout the country.  She has been a popular presenter at national professional conferences including AAMFT, APA, SmartMarriages, and SEPI and has lectured internationally in Austria, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Lebanon, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Heitler is frequently interviewed in magazines such as FitnessMen’s HealthWomen’s World, and Parenting.  Her cases have appeared often in the Ladies Home Journal column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”  She is often interviewed by Denver TV newscasters for her perspectives on psychological aspects of current events. In May, 2004 Dr. Heitler appeared on the CBS Early Show where anchor Harry Smith introduced her as “the most influential person in my life—my therapist.”  He encouraged his viewers similarly to seek therapy when they are emotionally distressed and pre-marital counseling when they are contemplating marriage. Most recently, Dr. Heitler, three of her adult children and one of their friends were awarded a U.S. government Healthy Marriages Initiative grant to produce interactive games for teaching marriage communication and conflict resolution skills over the internet.  See to experience their fun, low-cost, high-impact methods of teaching the skills for a strong and loving marriage. Personal Dr.  Heitler and her husband of almost 40 years are proud parents of four happily married adult children and are grandparents, thus far, of a a baker’s dozen grandchildren.