Autism and toxic friendships and relationships

This week I said goodbye to a friend I had known for a long time. I sent her a message explaining why I needed to distance myself and was blocking her. It was a very hard thing to do but it had become apparent that our relationship was not based on mutual respect and that she had become a toxic presence in my life. I did not do this lightly but it got to a point of no return. I won’t go into detail because this post isn’t really about my friendship. It is about understanding, identifying and managing toxic friendships and relationships for autistic people generally.

Autistic people can have significant challenges around managing toxic friendships. A friendship may start out toxic or become that way over time. For people who may be isolated and lonely, the offer of friendship can be a welcome thing and it may be hard to accept that the friendship is toxic. In fact a toxic friendship or intimate relationship is usually much worse than having no friend or partner but it is a very hard call to distance yourself form the one human being in your life, even if their presence is damaging to you. We may not realise a relationship is toxic and think this is how relationships and friendships work. Our lack of confidence and self esteem may make it hard to understand that our friend or partner is not in fact a friend.

Some examples of what happens in toxic friendships or relationships include:

  • Abuse – physical, sexual or emotional
  • The relationship having one person doing al the ‘taking’ and the other doing all the ‘giving’ – this is also described as a lack of reciprocity
  • Gaslighting – this is where a person tries to make you doubt your own knowledge and experience
  • Invalidating you – treating you like you do not matter
  • Dishonesty
  • Manipulation
  • Telling you not to see friends or family or intentionally sabotaging  your relationships with others
  • Being hostile to and/or belittling your other friends or family members, especially those that supporter defend you
  • Pressuring you to do things you do not wish to and / or which are harmful
  • Belittling you
  • Frequently blaming and criticising you
  • Controlling behaviours such as in an intimate relationship one partner controlling the money and spending

This is not an exhaustive list and there are other kinds of toxic behaviour not listed here.

Autistic people can struggle with seeing issues in relationships and articulating that there is a problem. This has been my experience many times over. I have had an uncomfortable feeling about the person and felt like I didn’t want to spend time with them but I couldn’t work out from this that the relationship was doing me more harm than good. One way to spot toxic behaviour is to be aware of your reaction when you meet a person or see communication from them online. If you are highly anxious or afraid when there is contact with the person, more often than not this is a sign that the relationship may be toxic.

One challenge of dealing with toxic people is that autistic people – and others – often lack assertiveness and the ability to set boundaries. Even if we are aware the person is toxic then actually setting this boundaries to enable us to keep our distance can be close to impossible.

Autistic people can also misread the behaviour and intent of toxic people. Because we tend to operate on one level in communication it can be hard to understand that many other people don’t and that what they say in their words and acts can be very different from what is going on in their mind. If someone is outwardly nice to us we may not see that they have an ulterior motive.

It is important to note that toxic people do not have to be neurotypical. Autistic people can be toxic as well.

If we have determined that a person is toxic and decided to leave the friendship or relationship we can have fear of their reaction. This can include catastrophising and worrying about specific situations in our minds which are in fact highly unlikely. We can be highly anxious at the prospect of unexpected contact with them and this can lead us putting up with a toxic relationship. In my experience when I have seen toxic people that I have distanced myself from unexpectedly it has been very unpleasant but nowhere near as unpleasant  as staying in the relationship.

Strategies

This is a very difficult area of human communication. Non-Autistic people also have issues wiht this. Some strategies which may assist include:

  • Trust your ‘gut’. That niggling feeling that something is wrong is almost always a sign that something is  wrong. to everyone has this gut feeling although for some people it develops over time.
  • If you know a relationship is toxic and you want to distance yourself from the person put in  place a strategy for leaving – consider things like what do you plan to say to them before you leave if you plan to say anything? What and who are you going to use as supports? If you need to move locations how will that work? Do you have somewhere safe to go to (if you you need to move to escape the toxic relationship)? How will you manage your mental health after you leave? How will you respond if the person is aggressive – physically, emotionally or verbally/? Do you have a person you can talk to for practical or emotional support?
  • If your other friends tell you a friendship or relationship is toxic, take this on board. Often others are more objective judges of toxic relationships than we are ourselves
  • If possible, talk wiht a friend or support person about your concerns
  • Leaving toxic friendship or relationship often results in the person who left feeling a range of things which may include relief, fear, empowerment. self-doubt, loneliness and many other emotions – often at the same time. Emotions like this are quite natural but you may need to work through them over time to recover from the  toxic relationship or friendship
  • It can take some time to ‘get over’ the toxic relationship. Many such relationships cause trauma, even where there is no physical or sexual abuse involved. That trauma needs to be worked through.
  • Know that it is better to have no friendship or relationship than one which is toxic.
  • Remember that you do not deserve toxic treatment. Nobody does and you have the right to respected love and support.

You should not have to be scared of your friends. Your friends should not abuse or threats you. A friend does not make you do things which are humiliating. Just because someone says they

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20 thoughts on “Autism and toxic friendships and relationships

  1. Ah hon – I saw how exhausted you were, I really get why you had to, and I definitely endorse your self-care (which you already knew), but I also know how hard it was for you. Kathy xx

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a great piece, Jeanette 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. I’m so sorry that this happened to you. I’m glad for you that your self-care and your self-awareness are what they are. You’re not alone in your experience, and I think you’re right in that people on the spectrum can be particularly vulnerable to toxic people and unhealthy relationships. To us, both can be especially damaging. Thank you so much for writing this, and sharing your valuable insight! Very helpful 👍🏼👍🏼💖💖

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  3. My name is Lara and I am the person’s friend I want to make it clear this is not the person in question I am simply standing up for her as I have a right to do as her friend and a close friend. This is the last comment you will get from me but I ask that you please not suggest it is her or make any comments suggesting that on your page (I know people on your page) and in the autism community. She has every right to have people stand up for her like you do. She relayed the story from her perspective and took it upon myself to write this as you did yours.

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    1. I do not know you and imagine if you are a close friend of the person I would know who you are given the nature of the person and my relationship. Also, even if you are speaking about the friendship I refereed to very briefly and generally in my post, information relayed second hand about a relationship you were not involved with in any way is not really a good reason to repeatedly send these messages to a stranger.

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      1. no you don’t know me we never met I grew up with the person in question since we were 4 years old, I do know about and have heard many things about you. I stand by everything I said in my blog I am standing up for my friend and believe every word of what I said as I am entitled to I like her a lot and simply do not see her in the way described in this and that is entirely my choice and my opinion. As I said you won’t hear from me again I have said my piece now.

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  4. I completely hear you on this. Being an aspie lady, I know I have faced the challenges of unhealthy relationships and know all too well the need to set boundaries and rules 🙂

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  5. Thanks for the good advice. I know as another aspie, it’s so easy to fall into bad crowds and make friendships that are unhealthy. I’m so glad I do have friends who look out for me, and I try to look out for my friends as well 🙂

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  6. Sorry you had to go through all that! I had a similar relationship with a subordinate at work; she played me so badly she derailed a lot of the progress we were trying to make. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) she snowed my boss and his predecessor as well, so I didn’t feel AS badly at being played like that. Interestingly, the person who helped us unravel it was one of my other “enemies,” but she actually plays by the rules and we had this uneasy semi-peace for a time since, for all of her flaws, she is rather transparent and says all her negative things outright instead of hiding them and sneaking like my former employee. It hurt me SO MUCH to have to actually fire someone, but we’re still uncovering her deceit and, you know, it got a lot better when I realized how much better everything, including the atmosphere in the office, became after she left. We could NOT have made progress with her there; sounds like you couldn’t have progressed in your friendship, either, since it wasn’t built on anything real. It gets better!

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  7. I don’t know the details of your dynamic and I don’t know why this person felt such a need to stand up for her friend/your ex-friend. That your friendship ended is between you two. A friendship with one person could be healthy, but with another could be toxic. You did what you needed to for self-care.

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  8. This happened to me once. Problem is, work friends are different from actual friends, and somehow that line got blurred, even moreso because it became unhealthy for me. I still care about them, but I had to get away for my own emotional well being so I could sort out my own thoughts without the influence of others.

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    1. I’m sorry that you’ve had to experience a toxic friendship, but I feel I must chime in, because my dearest and closest friend is someone I met at work. You either have chemistry or not, so it shouldn’t matter where you meet.

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  9. My point was simply that one person could be close to you, but their dynamic with someone else could be vastly different depending on the context. We do what we feel is best based on what we know.

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  10. Reblogged this on Laina's Collection and commented:
    This is a really thought-provoking post. I can see so much of myself in it – not being able to identify toxic behavior and parasitic or detrimental relationships. I know some of the signs, but not all, and just because I know them doesn’t mean I’ll always recognize them in the moment. Thank you so much for writing this 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A very well written blog post on a rather hurtful and therefore difficult topic. This post is particularly insightful because it applies in other situations. For me certain things came to light and revealed what I thought was a friendship with some challenges but after experiencing a traumatic brain injury, finding out that the relationship was toxic. While I had been making allowances for this person, after my brain injury I noticed there was no empathy, the friend would do things that exacerbated my injury issues. Getting intimidating responses, being verbally assaulted and belittled when I would politely ask that certain socially inappropriate behaviour to stop made me come to the conclusion that the relationship was toxic.

    What comes to mind is the proverb that says, “Friends are made for adversity and a brother loves at all times.”
    Thanks for sharing such a lucid overview of recognizing a toxic relationship and the need to end it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Interesting article about toxic people and friendships, and relationships. Here is what I notice about how people react to people, in general, and quite possibly somewhat of a solution. I believe that there is a degree in toxicity, and that degree depends on the intent of the individual. There are some people who can be or who are deliberately toxic; those are the most dangerous kinds and they must be avoided at all costs. There are some that are toxic merely due to situations, and when those situations are handled properly, one can still have a relationship or friendship with the person but with limited access and limited amounts of time spent together. (However, if you are just the beginning stages of healing or if you are handling a crisis of any sort, then it is true that all toxic (both minimally or mildly or deliberately toxic) should be avoided, or even approached with the ‘no contact’ way of handling things.) For example, if a person displays toxicity only during public festivals or in crowds, then you can have a limited friendship with that person but avoid the crowds or festivals with that person. If a person is highly toxic in an automobile but is okay in other situations, you can have a friendship or relationship with that person but stay clear of automobiles and other vehicles. Oh, yes, and of course, if you have figured out that an individual is highly toxic any and all of the time or if that individual is highly toxic – deliberately, that’s the time to go full no -contact. ** This comment is not telling anyone what to do but merely offering an idea if one wants to handle things differently. 🙂

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