There's a wedding, and the toxic relative is invited. You know they're going to say or do something, but what is it going to be? Will they cause a scene? Rip a wedding dress? Or will they wear white, and upstage the bride? Maybe they will go the other way, and finally be the loving mother the bride always wanted, and the whole thing will have a fairy tale ending.
I watched this kind of drama unfold as a child. Everyone knew a particular relative was toxic...abusive, a narcissist, perhaps. And yet, no one could turn away. It was real-life television. It was...addictive.
And so when I grew up, I thought relationships had to include this dance, or they were boring. A person who communicates? Who says what they want and need, and who cares about my needs?
Where is the suspense? The plot twist?
The pull of intermittent rewards.
We have all known someone in a toxic relationship that they could not leave. We sometimes think that love should be dramatic. When I was in an abusive relationship, I convinced myself that it was a special kind of love that other people just didn't understand.
What I had fallen victim to was an intermittent reward system. I didn't know what was going to happen next, and I was addicted to the good and bad times like a gambler in front of a machine. Was he going to be romantic, kind, and loving? Or was he going to throw my stuff onto the street and yell at me in front of the whole neighborhood?
In a stable relationship, behaviors are predictable. But when behavior is uncertain, human beings can feel a certain pull. We keep chasing those breadcrumbs of love, waiting for the day someone will finally come through.
And we wait and wait and wait, and wait some more. We are good. We try to please. We try to do what worked before to get that reward.
People who are too predictable and healthy seem boring. We want the drama, even if it hurts us. That means passion. That means ups and downs.
I watched my relatives waste literal decades waiting for the love, the big gesture, the proof. I watched them save letters as evidence. I watched them argue over who was loved more and who was loved the least. I watched them struggle—Do we let the toxic relative watch our children? She wouldn't hurt her own grandchildren, right? I watched the cycles repeat themselves.
Drama is a waste of time.
Drama and high passions are incompatible with goals. If one is always waiting for approval, for love, for a grand gesture that will never come, then one is always in a state of waiting, and not in a state of doing. High drama implies a sort of helplessness. We must go with the flow.
High drama is sometimes appealing for people with trauma issues, like myself. As someone who has never been good at planning or achieving the goals I set for myself, it's easier for me to throw myself into drama. What is this person doing? What should they do? Let's talk about it, and speculate, and try to guess what will happen next.
All of that is time one will never get back. We can expect someone to change for years, and they may stay the same. They might even get worse. And if our closure and our ability to live our own lives hinge on this person and their actions, then we never live our own lives. We stay addicted until we become bitter.
Bitterness, disappointment, and sometimes death.
When we allow a toxic person to hijack our emotions and feelings, and when we become addicted to a cycle, we become weaker over time. I know when I was beginning what would be an abusive relationship, I was strong and confident. I didn't think of myself as a woman who would "put up with" abusive behavior. But I fell for it. I did. And as time went on, not only did I grow more resentful of the time and energy I was wasting, but I felt more and more powerless. I felt like I couldn't leave, even when my life was in danger.
Of course, it was not my fault that this person behaved in this way. The toxic, abusive person is at fault. What I learned is that the addictive nature of the relationship coupled with being weakened by this person creates a vicious cycle. This can happen with a parent, a partner, a friend, etc.
Breaking the cycle is painful and confusing.
Accepting that a parent will never truly love you or come through...is difficult. It's painful. It's not the movie, fairy tale ending we all want for ourselves.
Accepting that I spent years justifying abusive behavior is also painful. Time wasted. Effort wasted. The relationships I then had to rebuild. I had to move. I changed my life, my social media accounts, my phone number. I lost friends.
And I had to learn how to like a life I previously found boring. I had to learn how to value people who were not dramatic. I am still learning not to be on-edge all the time, because that's the life I grew up with. That's the life I was used to.
Learning to value stable people and stable relationships is a process. No, it's not as exciting. It doesn't feel as passionate. But it's healthier. There are clearer boundaries. I no longer feel swept up, lost, or like "no one else understands." I feel more connected to the world.
Toxic relationships are terrible for us, but they're also addictive. The reward, when it does come, is so seductive that we may tell ourselves that the pain is worth it.
In the end, removing toxic people is painful work that involves introspection, honesty, and self-care. It may involve setting boundaries and recognizing patterns formed as far back as childhood. I definitely feel that I fell victim to an abusive relationship in part because I grew up thinking that behavior was acceptable and loving.
And on the otherside of all that work, there is freedom.