When Being the Bigger Person Enables Toxic Behavior

By Laura K. Connell.

“If you always have to be the bigger person, maybe you should spend less time hanging around such small people.” -Mel Robbins

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you learned to focus on the needs of others rather than yourself. You were forced to normalize toxic behavior, and this affected what you were willing to tolerate. 

For example, if raised by a narcissist, you would have been conditioned from an early age to repair one-sided relationships. You did whatever it took to get back in your parent’s “good books” because your little nervous system felt as though you would die without their approval. 

Really, the parent’s toxic behavior caused the problem. But, as a child dependent on that caregiver, you decide it’s your fault and your responsibility to repair.

This one-sided repair requires complete self-abandonment. You did not have the luxury of considering your needs as you fawned and groveled to regain favor in your parent’s eyes.

If narcissistic, this parent may even enjoy seeing you beg for their love. It feeds their need to be right and you wrong, and to feel like they have the upper hand.

This childhood conditioning eliminates the opportunity to evaluate or challenge toxic behavior. All your efforts go into salvaging this relationship at all costs, regardless of how it damages you.

The pattern of one-sided repair does not magically disappear in adulthood. You continue to feel as though it is your responsibility to maintain relationships regardless of their negative effect on you.

You haven’t been taught to evaluate relationships or hold people to certain standards in their treatment of you. No, you have been taught the opposite which is to require nothing of people.

It makes sense that you would expect to encounter toxic behavior when it’s all you’ve known. Codependency tells us to be the bigger person and allow people to treat us how they want without ramifications.

Taking the high road is another expression that serves the codependent. It happens when someone treats you poorly and then acts as if nothing happened.

You don’t feel you have the right to hold them to account because you were never allowed to in your family. Dysfunctional family members have little to no accountability for their actions.

For instance, my narcissistic mother would disown me for displeasing her in some way. Then after several weeks, she would return to my life as if the ex-communication never happened.

I would allow her to waltz back in without any accountability for her actions. I knew that any questioning of her toxic behavior would get me punished or worse, so I tolerated it.

As an adult, that same conditioning leads to a lack of accountability in all relationships. You feel like a bad person for expressing needs or requiring an apology.

The truth is, when someone harms you, they need to do the work of repairing the relationship. They need to be willing to make amends and they need to prove to you that they will do things differently going forward.

This is why being the bigger person is often a codependent excuse to enable toxic behavior. It ensures the person does not suffer any consequence for how they’ve treated you and therefore will never change.

You are not asking for too much when you set a standard for how people should treat you. It’s time to stop taking the high road and start requiring others to meet you at least halfway when it comes to relationship repair. 

Laura K. Connell is a trauma-informed author & coach who helps her clients recover from the devastating impact of dysfunctional family trauma. Take the Dysfunctional Family Roles quiz here: https://www.laurakconnell.com/dysfunctional-family-roles-quiz

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