07/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Toss Toxic Mates in 3 Simple Steps

Last night, I was talking to these two lovely young ladies -- let's call them Ashley and Sarah -- at a networking event in Los Angeles. They seemed preoccupied about a message Ashley was composing on her Blackberry.

They kept on going back and forth, with Sarah editing Ashley -- "No, say it this way" -- and then Ashley re-editing the edit.

Eagle-eyed professional that I am, I thought, "Gee, could this possibly be about a boy?" They sheepishly admitted, yes, it was about a boy -- specifically, the one Ashley was dating. Sorta.

So why was it so hard to compose this message? "Because he's being a douche-bag," Ashley said, rolling her eyes. I sensed that 'douche-bag' was a term of art, so as a scientist I had to figure out exactly what made him so.

As it turns out, the boy -- 'DB' henceforth -- was being unclear in his intentions. He said he cared for her but his career came first. When asked point blank whether he cared for her, he'd offer evasive, non-committal answers like "Well, I've been with you 8 months now, haven't I?"

To this, I told Ashley that I've heard a guy say "You are wonderful; it's a privilege to be with you and I absolutely adore you" before, and it sounded different from "Well I haven't run away yet."

Over the course of our conversation, it became clear that Ashley was unfulfilled in the relationship. Yet she kept on making excuses for DB.

Why? She gave two reasons. First: "It sucks to be single -- this way at least I've got somebody." And second: "I just feel great around him when he is around."


Let's parse the first statement for a moment. Somehow Ashley's thinking that mediocre treatment from a guy is better than no treatment at all.

This is a very, very dangerous assumption. Because it leads you straight down what I call the ladder of compromise. In the study of organizational behavior, it's called normalization of deviance.

It goes something like this: a guy does something which you don't like all that much -- maybe shows up late. You don't say anything. So he keeps on showing up late. Pretty soon, you're regularly waiting a whole hour for him to show up.

Or say a guy puts you down a little and you don't complain, because he's so great in all these other departments. Your unconscious is always working to avoid cognitive dissonance, so on some deep level it accepts that this is the level of treatment you deserve.

Now your self-esteem is in the toilet, so you think the next guy who comes along who treats you well is crazy. Instead, you serially glom on to guys who treat you like dirt.

What you've done is that, little by little, you've allowed poor treatment to be okay. You've normalized the deviance.

Ladies (and gentlemen, too) -- this is a very pernicious thing. Once you allow the foot in the door for a little mistreatment, you're effectively allowing a lot more of it to happen down the road. Heck, psychologists even have a name for it -- the 'foot in the door technique.'

That's why you have to practice zero-tolerance when it comes to being treated well.

This is how my smart, beautiful friend Holly (featured in the introduction to The Tao of Dating for Women) ended with a deadbeat who physically abused her. For 1.5 years.

This is how another very smart, gorgeous woman ended up with a husband who beat her up routinely -- for 12 years. And is still with him.

Repeat after me: "I will only spend time with people who treat me exceptionally well and make me feel like the queen of the universe."

Why? Because you have a duty to the world to be the best possible version of you -- so you can shine your light as far and wide as possible. I'm telling you -- the world needs you now more than ever. So when you let a guy get away with doing something -- anything -- to diminish that light, you're shirking your duty to the world.

So henceforth, I want you to practice ruthless compassion for yourself. Sure, the guy's cute, and you feel great when he's around. But if he's putting you down instead of lifting you up, it's time for him to go. Like, now.

Granted, because of the brew of chemicals in your head and the unconscious compromises you've already made, this is a tough thing to do.

You also have to admit that you've been wrong -- totally, completely wrong. Your ego hates that. Well, get over it, girl -- don't let your ego ruin your life.

Also, notice Ashley's second reason: "I just feel so good when he is around." That's exactly the way a junkie describes a hit of crack or heroin. Basically, a drug.

There was no description of mutual enrichment, support, or deepening of the spirit. Just a jolt of good feeling, which is the essence of what drugs do -- empty euphoria.

Well, guess what, ladies -- neurophysiologically, guys can operate exactly the same way that drugs do. So he's not just like a drug -- he is a drug. And just as bad for you.

And we all know how tough it is to get off drugs.

So this is how you rid your life of the drug of Toxic Dude (or Dudette):

1) Detox.

This means you stay away from him for at least one week -- two's even better. Going on a trip and having no contact with him is one of the more effective ways. Technically, it allows your brain to downregulate receptors and adapt to normal chemistry. Practically, it gets him off your mind.

2) Get help.

Like Odysseus, canvass your compadres to keep you away from toxic dude, since you know you're too weak to do it yourself (see my post on the Odysseus Protocol). Listen to them -- they often know what's good for you better than you do.

3) Do better.

Hang out with people who do elevate you and make you feel wonderful, and notice the contrast. Heck, maybe even go on a date with a nice guy for a change. It gets a lot harder to go back to instant ramen once you've had gourmet pasta.

The other interesting thing that the girls were doing was trying to figure out why DB behaved the way he did, spending much time and energy guessing what this and that could mean.

And you know what? It doesn't matter. At all.

It only matters how well you're being treated -- whether you're feeling fulfilled or not. That is your internal compass and the chief criterion.

You have to realize that no man is a complete ogre, so sure -- he's going to have some redeeming qualities. You're not totally nuts, so you hang out with him because it feels good on some level.

But I urge you to set your standards high, ladies (and guys). And once you've set them, do not tolerate any subpar treatment. Sure, have compassion for people and make allowances for their foibles - nobody's perfect. But set boundaries and stick to them, because boundaries that move are no boundaries at all. I tell you that you deserve the best only because it's abolutely true, so believe it and live accordingly.

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