If you’ve been following the news lately, you may have heard that actor Mel Gibson has been accused of verbally and physically abusing his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. Some have said that his girlfriend brought out the worst in him and that she is a "gold digger." Regardless, there is never an excuse for abusive behavior – no matter what the other person is guilty of. I believe it is important for each of us to understand what toxic people look like so we can avoid painful relationships. In spite of this article being directed toward men, know that women can be just as guilty. Also, this article can’t be all inclusive and it will only give you the highlights of toxic behavior.
Much of my practice is teaching people how to avoid unhealthy relationships. Many times people are drawn to individuals who remind them of their family of origin. Some examples of this would be a daughter who always craved her mother’s attention and was only periodically successful, or a son who never quite lived up to his father’s expectations. As adults, these individuals often re-create those scenarios in relationships.
In order to obtain healthy relationships, you have to avoid people who are unsafe. Those are people who criticize and judge, berating you for who you are, what you say, and what you stand for. Gibson called his ex despicable names, criticizing her character and how she presented. Unsafe people justify their behavior. When Grigorieva confronted Gibson with "you knocked out two of my teeth," Gibson effectively demonstrated justification by saying, "you deserved it."
Challenged with their negative behavior, toxic people focus on yours, refusing to apologize and take responsibility for theirs.
They often use sarcasm to communicate. When you complain that their comments hurt, they insist that you’re much too sensitive. It is nearly impossible for an unsafe person to feel your pain.
Toxic people keep score. When they do something for you, they expect something in return. Gibson exhibited this in his crazed tirade, "Say thank you. Say thank you now." They hold grudges refusing to accept your apology for any wrongdoing. Gibson said to Grigorieva, "I will never forgive you."
Toxic relationships resemble a parent-child relationship. Some examples: He talks down to you. He gives you advice when you don’t ask for it. He attempts to push his opinion on you and withdraws from you if you disagree.
Gibson has demonstrated several times in the past four or five years that this behavior is not an isolated incident (remember his Holocaust diatribe in 2006?). I often say to my clients, "People are who they are, who they are." Meaning when you see a person’s "red light" behavior, you will most likely see it again and again.
What is a safe relationship? Answer these questions: Does this person accept you for who you are? Are your opinions just as valuable as his? Does this person speak to you respectfully? When confronted, is this person able to apologize for his behavior? Do you feel confident in this person’s presence? Does this person encourage you when you are in pain and celebrate with you when you successfully accomplish a goal? If so, congratulations! If not, you may find it beneficial to seek the advice of a therapist who can offer you tools for a healthy relationship.
Remember, a healthy relationship must first begin with you.
Kristina Welker is a doctor of psychology, a licensed professional counselor and a member of the Ahwatukee Behavioral Health Network. Reach her at (480) 893-6767 or firstname.lastname@example.org.