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How to End a Toxic Relationship (Personal or Professional)

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

Toxic people and working conditions aren't always worth salvaging.  Know when it's time to walk.  Some bridges harbor toxic trolls and just beg to be burned.

Toxic people and working conditions aren't always worth salvaging. Know when it's time to walk. Some bridges harbor toxic trolls and just beg to be burned.

Yessiree, This Is Gonna Hurt! (And Hopefully There's No Backdraft)

Hell yeah, I've burned a bridge or two in my day.

Now let me say that I don't do it without some serious provocation. But when I do, I want to make sure they know who lit the match.

Perhaps you're dealing with someone in your personal or professional life who is an

  • a-hole,
  • creep,
  • bully,
  • user,
  • frenemy, or
  • abusive in some way.

You've tried other solutions. You're spent, and you've had enough.

Aww, don't tell me you don't think about it. Get those matches out, baby. Here's what you need to know before you burn that bridge when you're dealing with someone toxic.

Save bridge burning for the special cases.  Use it to put some permanent distance between you and the one you dislike, whether jerk, frenemy, user, bully, or really rotten boss.

Save bridge burning for the special cases. Use it to put some permanent distance between you and the one you dislike, whether jerk, frenemy, user, bully, or really rotten boss.

Burn, Baby, Burn: Some Bridges Are Well Beyond Repair

When I was a much younger woman, I was more reluctant to give up on relationships that drained me emotionally, robbed me of precious energy, and weighed me down. I should have poured gas on a few of those unsalvageable bridges, and then just tossed a match.

But I was too nice, too hopeful. I instead bought in to that old mantra about never burning a bridge. Huh! Not anymore.

No need to use hand gestures. Use your words when ending your relationships.

No need to use hand gestures. Use your words when ending your relationships.

No Room for Toxic Trolls

I'm sorry to say it, but what your mama told you ain't always true. Sometimes those creaky bridges can become mighty cumbersome—dangerous even. You may just need to blow them up as a way of resetting personal boundaries when all else has failed—and to remind yourself that you never need to traverse that awful terrain again.

Bridge Burning Is Your Wild Card Option

Save bridge blowing for the truly despicable, deplorable, or irreclaimable relationships where you're all out of options. For example:

  • the bullies and illegal harassers
  • the backstabbers, and
  • the negative Nellies who have no personal boundaries, poisoning your life with persistent and harmful naysaying. (We all know who they are.)
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These people are toxic trolls, and you don't need to share bridges with them. When your back is against the wall, understand that bridge burning is your wildcard option. You indeed can use it—carefully. I'll show you how.

Extreme Ways People Have Quit Their Jobs

Is This Really the End? Be Clear on Your Motivation

Whether personal or professional, relationships don't typically head south all at once. But at some point, you'll notice that you're not getting what you need.

You're on the receiving end of lies, shouting, blaming, innuendos, put-downs, disappointment, and rejection. Others notice it too. You're unhappy. Your self-confidence takes a hit.

That ain't right. So whatcha gonna do about it?

Smile: It's almost over. What will be left of you once your soul is sucked dry?  Both personal and professional relationships can involve toxic trolls.

Smile: It's almost over. What will be left of you once your soul is sucked dry? Both personal and professional relationships can involve toxic trolls.

Timeout From Toxicity

Maybe it's a bully boss who pushes your buttons and seems to enjoy it. You feel misunderstood, used, and not good enough. You walk on eggshells, defending your actions and over-explaining yourself. How long will you endure such treatment just because your bully signs your paycheck?

Or perhaps it's a so-called friend who is a bottomless pit of needs—someone who is always in crisis mode. She takes, takes, takes but cannot find the time to reciprocate. Ever. What a user! This is not a solid relationship. There is no true bridge here.

Take a timeout from the troll's toxicity to consider whether you want this person in your life. What damage is their wounded self-image inflicting on you? What will be left of you once they suck your soul dry?

Bridges are meant to connect people, but that's not the nature of your relationship with this person. They make offending and maligning you a habit. Ponder whether you really want to stick this toxic relationship out. Can you afford to allow the relationship to simply fizzle? Is that even possible?

Remember this advice by motivational speaker Jim Rohn: "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Stats About Unhappiness and Bullying

  • A Gallup poll found that 70% of Americans either hated their jobs or were actively disengaged, with poor management being the major source of frustration.1
  • It's not just Americans, however. Worldwide, Gallup found that 87% of the workforce worldwide is emotionally disconnected from its work.2
  • Surveys commonly find that up to half of employees report being the target of workplace bullying at some point in their careers.3
  • Every happy friend that you have increases your likelihood of happiness by 9%, whereas unhappy friends decrease your happiness by 7%.4

Optional: You Can Fire One Warning Shot—Only One

(Note: Skip this step if you already have your matches out. You're obviously a quick study.)

Warning shots are optional, and they're as much for your benefit as for the benefit of the toxic troll whose bridge you intended to burn.

Usually warning shots just buy you time to accelerate your job search or find your gumption to break it off with your not-friend. Find it fast, and remember that you're doing this for you. The toxic troll in your life is not going to change.

And most importantly: Only one warning shot is permitted, so make it stick.

Toxic trolls can be personal or professional.  Get ready for a bridge burning, toxic troll!

Toxic trolls can be personal or professional. Get ready for a bridge burning, toxic troll!

Reader Poll: Toxic Trolls

Don't Screw Around With Wimpy Language

Fire your warning shot using strong, transparent language. Wimpy language won't cut it. That time has long since passed.

Consider this a cease and desist notice, and include your toxic troll's name when you address him or her directly. Using a person's name gets their attention. Here are examples:

  • Steve, stop bad mouthing me behind my back. Friends don't do that.
  • Kim, lower your voice right now, and don't ever shout at me again. I won't tolerate a work environment where people shout at me.

Create a Buffer

Since you've already tried unsuccessfully to discuss the problem behavior with your toxic troll (you did do that, right?), follow your warning shot with some interpersonal distance. Consider it your protective buffer, the silence before the storm.

Let your message sink in by decreasing the amount and frequency of your contact with your troll. It'll make him wonder about the status of his doomed bridge.

If it's a friend, be too busy to return texts or calls. If it's a boss, resort to email and blunt communication. Stop volunteering for extra work or taking work home with you. (It's not like you're staying anyhow.) See if their behavior improves.

If your judgment was correct about them being a troll, they'll slip again and you'll have to move to the next step: relationship destruction. Blow their freakin' bridge, my friend.

Use Technology to Tell the Boss, "I Quit"

Congratulations! You've Decided to Blow the Bridge

The Truly Toxic Troll

Be ready for this possibility. Truly toxic trolls—those who have been at it a long time and are in positions of power over you — will likely force you to go directly from your warning shot to bridge blowing, as they fire back with counter assaults of threats and blame. They'll

  • feign surprise
  • name call, and
  • deny all personal responsibility.

Be direct, firm, and leave no uncertainty. Ka-pow! Let the pyrotechnics begin. Shock and awe is your only option. Let your feedback rain down on them, then walk away before they know what hit them.

Less Noxious Varieties

Less noxious trolls, on the other hand, will leave you the choice of planning your bridge blowing or waiting until they're up to their old shenanigans (e.g., yelling, name calling, lying) before you go medieval on them.

Light your match, but get it right the first time.

Light your match, but get it right the first time.

Bridge Destruction Options

Be absolutely sure that you'll never need to cross this troll's bridge again. Then, select an appropriate bridge destruction option:

  • the controlled burn: simply terminate your relationship; blow the bridge and walk away
  • fireworks: give the troll an experience to remember you by, something with a little pizzazz
  • the jolt: try to invoke sudden change through an "Aha!" experience
  • publicly humiliate him
  • leave the troll shattered and broken
  • start a personal war (better watch out; he's meaner than you and probably has more time on his hands).
Celebrate your decision to burn that bridge.  You don't need that toxic troll in your life.

Celebrate your decision to burn that bridge. You don't need that toxic troll in your life.

It's a Matter of Scale

Whether you plan an all-out assault or just want to throw your grenade and walk, scale your bridge blowing activities based on your troll's offensive behavior and the impact you want to make. Use good judgment in your own bridge blasting endeavors.

I'm not a fan of hurting trolls (just burning their bridges). They are already so harmful to themselves. Besides, overdoing it makes you look like eerily like the troll.

Relationship Destruction 101

When time finally comes to set fire to the bridge, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be direct. Get straight to the point, and don't back down.
  • Remain calm, even in the face of your troll's bitterness, surprise, or tears.
  • Don't permit discussion. Time for that has passed. This is a one-way conversation, and you are informing.
  • Name their toxic behavior(s). This reminds them what is creating conflict for them. It's likely a recurring theme in their relationships, and they need to hear again what's causing so much damage.
  • Describe briefly how their toxic behavior makes you feel, but realize that toxic trolls aren't known for their empathy so don't dwell.
  • Tell them how long you've put up with their abusive behavior—your wasted investment in this relationship.
  • Say clearly what you are doing about the situation now. Be final, emphatic, and exact.
  • Then walk away. You're over it, done, and ready to move on.
  • Celebrate! You've destroyed a relationship but saved a little piece of yourself.

Take This Job and . . . Give It to Somebody Else

In the professional world, burning bridges can attract a lot of attention. However, when you work with a truly toxic troll, here are 5 reasons why it might not matter as long as it's a rare event:

  1. It's not like your troll is going to help you get another job. Aren't there coworkers or sympathetic others who can help you land a new gig?
  2. What that troll is doing to your psychological and physical health is slowly killing you. If you've tried everything else, ask yourself if you can really afford to wait until s/he retires, gets promoted, is fired, or decides to change his terrible ways. Life is short, and it's just a freaking JOB. Put it in perspective.
  3. Lots of people have had bully bosses, awful coworkers, and have worked with companies that don't share their values.
  4. You have great skills and a solid track record of performance, right?
  5. Depending on how you handled yourself during bridge burning — creative vs. insulting—you may get brownie points from others for standing up to a known troll (the underdog phenomenon).
Shower your chronically rude, mean, toxic troll with some candid feedback when you break off the relationship.  It's over.  No reason to hold back now.  Let the fireworks begin!

Shower your chronically rude, mean, toxic troll with some candid feedback when you break off the relationship. It's over. No reason to hold back now. Let the fireworks begin!

Move Forward From This Toxic Land

The bridge is on fire. Walk away, and do not look back. Don't even take time to gather your stuff. Send an envoy later to pick it up.

The relationship is over, so move forward out of this toxic land. (No sifting through the burnt ashes.) You're wiser now.

May you build better bridges ahead, my friend.

Okay, you've burned your bridge.  Celebrate, but don't gloat too much.  More forward.  There are better bridges ahead.  And wipe that chin.  You're slurpy.

Okay, you've burned your bridge. Celebrate, but don't gloat too much. More forward. There are better bridges ahead. And wipe that chin. You're slurpy.

Burn Your Bridge With a Toxic Person With These 4 Steps

Name the Toxic Behavior(s)Describe How the Behavior Makes You FeelTell How Long You've Put Up With ItSay What You Are Doing About It Now

Ron, you've YELLED and CURSED at me for the last time.

Your behavior is out-of-control. It makes me feel degraded.

I've put up with your abuse for 3 years.

I have no choice but to quit this job.

Mabel, you've LIED ABOUT ME BEHIND MY BACK for the last time.

Your behavior is mean-spirited. It makes me feel distrustful of you.

I've put up with your two-faced ways for 2 years.

We're no longer friends.

Dennis, I'm done with your CONSTANT NAYSAYING and CRITICSM.

Your behavior is obsessive. It drags me down and makes me feel depressed.

I've put up with your negative talk for 6 months too long.

I'm moving out.

This Guy Had a Brass Band March Him out of His Job

Quotes About Burning Bridges

  • "I demolish my bridges behind me, then there is no choice but forward." —Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian explorer
  • "When one burns one's bridges, what a very nice fire it makes." —Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet and writer
  • "It makes no difference if I burn my bridges behind me—I never retreat." —Fiorello LaGuardia, New York politician
  • "I'm not a wilting flower. I'm honest, so I pick a lot of fights. I've burned a lot of bridges." —Scott Thompson, Canadian actor
  • "The hardest thing in life to learn is which bridge to cross and which bridge to burn." —David Russell, Scottish guitarist
  • "He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has a need to be forgiven." —Thomas Fuller, English historian
  • "Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge." —Don Henley, American singer/songwriter
Relationship pyrotechnics is not for the faint of heart.  It's dangerous behavior, an acquired skill. Engage in it too often or too lightly and you will get seriously injured.

Relationship pyrotechnics is not for the faint of heart. It's dangerous behavior, an acquired skill. Engage in it too often or too lightly and you will get seriously injured.

Notes

1Stebner, B. (2013, June 24). Workplace morale heads down: 70% of Americans negative about their jobs, Gallup study shows. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/70-u-s-workers-hate-job-poll-article-1.1381297.

2Adams, S. (2013, October 10). Unhappy Employees Outnumber Happy Ones By Two To One Worldwide. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/10/10/unhappy-employees-outnumber-happy-ones-by-two-to-one-worldwide/.

3Civility Partners, LLC (2013). The Top Three Myths Of Workplace Bullying. Retrieved from http://www.noworkplacebullies.com/the-top-three-myths-of-workplace-bullying/.

4Barker, E. (2014, March 14). How To Make Friends Easily And Strengthen The Friendships You Have. Retrieved from http://time.com/24122/how-to-make-friends-easily-and-strengthen-the-friendships-you-have/.

Interviewer Puts Boxer in His Place

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 FlourishAnyway

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