How to Apply Minimalism to Toxic Relationships
Ever opened a junk drawer and wondered how you ended up with so many mismatched socks and half-working pens?
That’s like looking at a toxic relationship and wondering, “How did I get here?”
But there’s a nifty solution that can tackle both these problems.
It’s called minimalism, and it’s not just for your overflowing wardrobe or that garage you’re afraid to enter.
Its principles you can apply to toxic relationships and declutter them too.
You can think of it as treating your emotional connections like a cluttered room, sweeping away the dust, tossing out the old (and toxic), and cherishing what’s valuable.
In this article, I will discuss:
- What are toxic relationships, and why are they the ultimate “clutter”?
- How do past toxic relationships linger like forgotten items in a drawer?
- What’s the evidence for minimalism as a relationship healer?
- How to apply minimalism to toxic relationships and start “decluttering.”
What Are Toxic Relationships and Why Are They the Ultimate “Clutter”?
“Toxic relationships” isn’t a term a mental health professional would usually use.
So a standardized or official definition of a “toxic relationship” is not provided by a specific health authority such as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, many mental health professionals and relationship experts refer to toxic relationships as those characterized by persistent unhealthy, abusive, and harmful behaviors.
One of those professionals is Dr. Lillian Glass, a communication and psychology expert and author of the book “Toxic People.”
In her book, she describes toxic relationships and toxic individuals, and she defines them as those who “drain you of your energy, taking a toll on you, creating a negative and hostile environment.”
What a toxic relationship is can vary widely.
It depends on the individuals’ unique circumstances, values, and perceptions.
While certain behaviors are widely considered harmful.
It’s the obvious ones, such as physical violence or blatant manipulation.
Other aspects might be more subjective and often pretty subtle, thus tricky to identify.
By the way, when I refer to relationships, it includes all kinds of relationships, not only romantic relationships of couples but also friendships, colleagues, etc.
So in clinical settings, mental health professionals might not use the term “toxic relationship” but rather describe the specific patterns of abuse, neglect, or dysfunction.
They might refer to recognized categories of relationship difficulties, such as “emotional abuse” or “codependency,” and employ tools like the Conflict Resolution Inventory or assessments based on attachment theory to evaluate relationship health.
Without an official definition, you need to consider personal feelings, professional guidance, and recognized signs of unhealthy relationship behaviors when determining whether one or more of your relationships could be regarded as toxic.
Often, the repeated patterns of these behaviors lead to a relationship being labeled as toxic rather than incidents that happen occasionally.
Now, what destructive patterns do you want to look out for in your relationship?
Let’s look at some common signs, with examples to illustrate how they might appear:
Control and manipulation: Your partner or friend insists on knowing where you are at all times, checks your phone, or dictates what you can wear.
It’s like having a personal watchdog or fashion police with no sense of style.
Verbal and emotional abuse: Regularly belittling, criticizing, or name-calling, such as saying things like “You’re useless” or “You’ll never amount to anything.”
It’s a verbal wrecking ball aimed right at your self-esteem.
Lack of respect for boundaries: Your friend continually borrows money without paying it back, knowing you’re uncomfortable with lending.
It’s like they’ve turned you into a combination of an all-you-can-eat buffet and an ATM without a PIN code.
Constant drama and chaos: As if you would suddenly live in a commercial-free “telenovela” with subpar c actors, every small disagreement turns into a full-blown fight, complete with shouting and tears.
Physical violence or threats: Well, this is one of the obvious signs.
It’s any form of hitting, slapping, or physical intimidation.
This is never a sign of love or care (unless it’s part of some sort of role-play…you know what I mean).
Unrealistic expectations and dependence: They confuse you with a superhero (without a cool cape and adoring fans, though) and expect you to always be available and fulfill their every need.
Jealousy and possessiveness: Your partner gets angry when you spend time with friends or even glance at another person.
This situation resembles having a personal stalker but without flattering attention.
Lack of support and empathy: Your friend or partner dismisses your feelings or achievements or shows indifference when you’re struggling.
So you basically talk to a wall but a less responsive one.
Isolation from family and friends: Your partner insists you spend all your time with them, cutting you off from other relationships.
Gaslighting and making you doubt your reality: Your partner or friend denies things they’ve said or done, causing you to question your memory.
It’s as if you were in a mystery novel, but you’re the confused detective.
Using love and affection as a bargaining chip: Your partner withholds affection or approval as punishment to get what they want.
It’s like being in a store where love is for sale, but the prices keep changing.
Recognizing these patterns is not always easy (the more subtle they are and used you are to them), and sometimes it may require professional help.
Still, it’s the first step toward a healthier, happier you.
Now, in terms of minimalism, why are toxic relationships the ultimate clutter?
Like a clogged drain, toxic relationships can jam our mental processes.
They keep us focused on negativity and strife, making it harder to think clearly or enjoy life’s positive aspects.
Imagine having a big, ugly piece of furniture you don’t like but can’t get rid of.
That’s a toxic relationship for you. It takes up space, gathers dust, and doesn’t bring joy or functionality.
Do you know that drawer filled with random things you don’t need but somehow can’t throw away?
Toxic relationships are just like that but in your heart.
They fill us with unnecessary emotions and thoughts that don’t serve our well-being.
Then they are also like bad room decor, similar to when you walk into a room and feel like something’s off.
That’s what a toxic relationship can do to our lives.
They disturb harmony, create imbalance, and just don’t fit with our authentic selves.
Your mind is like your home, and toxic relationships are the unnecessary objects cluttering the floor, making it hard to move around and live comfortably.
Minimalism in this context would mean clearing out these “objects,” freeing up space for peace, love, and happiness.
Like a closet with clothes you never wear, they consume the space where meaningful connections and self-growth should reside.
By decluttering these relationships, you make room for relationships that truly enrich your life.
Studies such as this one by Holt-Lunstad et al. (2010) have demonstrated that the quality of our social connections can significantly impact our mental and physical health.
The study focused on the influence of social relationships on mortality risk.
It synthesized data from 148 studies comprising over 300,000 participants. It found that individuals with strong social relationships had a 50% higher likelihood of survival than those with weaker social connections.
It illustrates how quality relationships can be as significant for our well-being as other well-established risk factors like alcohol consumption.
How Do Past Toxic Relationships Linger Like Forgotten Items in a Drawer?
Even when toxic relationships are in the past, they can still have an influence.
They have this uncanny ability to linger like that strange, unidentifiable object you find in the back of your junk drawer.
You know, the one that makes you wonder, “Why did I ever think I needed this?” Like that mystery item, let’s delve into how they stick around.
Just like those weird knickknacks you never use but can’t toss, toxic relationships can leave emotional scars, memories, insecurities, self-doubt, or habits that hang around.
Remember that time you bought a singing fish for your wall? It’s like that but less amusing.
Ever found random paper clips in your drawer and wondered what documents they were supposed to hold together?
Toxic relationships can leave you with lingering “what if?” questions, holding together doubts and regrets that don’t belong anywhere.
Broken trust is akin to a pen that’s run out of ink – frustrating, disappointing, and seemingly useless.
And past betrayals can make it hard to trust again, just like that pen that always seems to fail you when you need it most.
They can also pop into your mind unexpectedly, haunting your present thoughts like a ghost.
Like a stretched rubber band, old habits from toxic relationships can snap back.
You know the kind – you stretch it out, and it either snaps back or breaks.
Both outcomes are painful.
So, these lingering effects of toxic relationships are like those forgotten drawer items – mysterious, mostly useless, and a continual reminder of something you’d rather forget.
What’s the Evidence for Minimalism as a Relationship Healer?
Can minimalism be the magical balm that heals the heartaches of a troubled toxic relationship?
Let’s check it out.
Ever looked at a messy room and felt stressed?
Toxic relationships can be exactly like that.
And minimalism can teach you to keep only what’s essential.
Imagine doing that with your feelings, keeping only what brings joy and value. No more emotional hoarding.
What’s the evidence?
Research by Saxbe and Repetti (2010) showed that cluttered environments can increase stress levels.
The study found that women describing their homes as cluttered or full of unfinished projects were likelier to have depressed moods over the day, and their cortisol (a stress hormone) levels were elevated.
This suggests that the state of our living spaces may have a tangible impact on our emotional well-being.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but applying this to relationships and focusing on what truly matters could similarly reduce emotional stress.
In minimalism, every item has a purpose.
Similarly, in relationships, every word should count.
Speaking clearly and directly can work wonders.
No more beating around the bush or talking in circles unless you’re practicing dance moves.
What’s the evidence?
Clear and direct communication in relationships is a well-established concept in psychology and interpersonal communication studies.
You can find this concept in general communication theories and principles, such as this one.
John Gottman’s work is particularly known for its insights into healthy communication strategies in relationships, including the importance of clarity, empathy, and active listening.
Minimalism isn’t about having less.
It’s about having more of what matters.
Like having a piece of gourmet chocolate instead of a bag of generic candy, you want to spend quality time with your partner or friends, not just quantity.
What’s the evidence of the healing effect?
A study by Dainton and Aylor (2009) emphasizes that the quality of time spent together significantly influences relationship satisfaction.
This study focused on how communication channels were utilized to maintain long-distance relationships, finding that the quality of the communication was a significant factor in relationship satisfaction.
Minimalism helps us focus on what’s essential (one of the core principles).
In relationships, that means prioritizing each other and the connection you share.
It’s like making sure you’re both starring in the same movie instead of playing supporting roles in separate films.
How does the evidence support this?
Research on prioritizing relationships, like that by Rusbult et al. (2005), supports this idea by showing that committed couples prioritize each other’s needs.
This study, conducted by Rusbult and colleagues, was part of a broader research initiative that delves into the investment model of commitment.
The model explores how factors like commitment level, satisfaction, quality of alternatives, and investment size play a role in relationships.
And prioritizing each other’s needs reflects a deeper commitment to the relationship.
So, while my “minimal angle” on this might not be a relationship potion, it does offer a unique perspective that can be applied to heal and enhance toxic relationships.
It’s a bit like “relationship gardening.”
Trim the excess, nourish the roots, and watch healthier connections and love bloom.
How to Apply Minimalism to Toxic Relationships and Start “Decluttering”
Toxic relationships and decluttering are similar to cleaning out an attic that hasn’t been touched in years.
It’s messy, dusty, and filled with spider webs.
However, just as minimalism can transform a cluttered room into a peaceful sanctuary, it can work wonders on those pesky toxic relationships.
And here’s your “toxic relationship decluttering 101 guide”:
Identify the emotional junk: What’s bringing you down? Is it constant negativity, manipulation, or endless drama?
Pinpoint the clutter, and you’re ready to roll. So you want to identify what connections are outdated or damaged.
Assess what truly matters: Minimalism is about focusing on what adds value. Keep relationships that enrich your life, and be willing to let go of the ones that don’t.
Similar to my article about minimalism and dating, knowing your values can help you here too.
It’s much the same as keeping your favorite coffee mug and donating the ones that collect dust.
Set clear boundaries: It’s similar to putting up shelves to organize your stuff. You want to clearly define what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Communicate simply and honestly: Talk about your feelings and needs in simple terms so there is no need for a Shakespearean monologue.
Take action (the yard sale): If a relationship can’t be healed, it might be time to part ways. And that’s okay.
Sometimes you just have to sell that old sofa that doesn’t fit your living room (or life) anymore.
Invest in quality relationships: Just as you’d buy one good-quality chair instead of three flimsy ones, you want to invest in relationships that truly matter.
So, pick friendships like that sturdy, comfortable armchair you love sinking into.
Again, minimalism isn’t just about having fewer things. It’s about having more meaning.
When you apply this philosophy and its principles to toxic relationships, you might end up in a much cozier and happier emotional space.
This article has been reviewed by our editorial team. It has been approved for publication per our editorial policy.