“Toxic people attach themselves like cinder blocks tied to your ankles, and then invite you for a swim in their poisoned waters.”
― John Mark Green
People get into toxic relationships by accident, but they stay in them because they’re running from something.
Nobody means to get into a toxic relationship. People get into relationships thinking they will be healthy and happy only to be blindsided by the other person’s toxicity and abusiveness.
Most of the time, when that happens, we turn around and leave (sometimes while flipping the bird). But sometimes, for whatever reason, we get sucked in. We find ourselves trapped in a toxic relationship, unwilling to leave.
Why don’t we leave toxic relationships?
Occasionally there’s a practical impediment. We need to save up some money or find somewhere to stay. But unless a relationship is dangerously abusive, this process doesn’t take long at all.
But in most cases, we don’t leave because we aren’t willing to.
Sometimes we’re scared to have the conversation. Sometimes we’re in denial about how bad it is. In almost all cases, we’re convinced there’s something we can do — read the right relationship books, put into practice the right relationship skills, whatever — that will heal the relationship.
Relationships can heal if both partners put in the work. But it’s my experience that in toxic relationships, both partners do not put in the work.
When relationships turn toxic, and the other person clearly isn’t interested in healing the relationship, why do we stay? What is it inside us that won’t let go?
On some level, every relationship in our life — romantic, platonic, or familial — forms because of a mutual benefit to both parties.
For instance: two friends who like to get together to cook dinner mutually support each other by helping each other create delicious healthy meals and support each other by sharing a meaningful conversation over the meal.
When it comes to healthy relationships, it’s pretty clear how the relationship builds you up. You can point to something in your life and say “[my friend] has added this beautiful dimension to my life.”
But it’s true that toxic relationships bring a benefit of sorts into your life, even if the benefit is not all that beneficial.
For instance: Two alcoholics who like to go to the local bar and pass out on each other’s floor four out of seven days a week are also giving each other a benefit. In this case, the benefit is that they get to act out their alcoholic desires with each other without fear of judgment. They are providing a mutual benefit to each other, even if they aren’t aware of it.
These are simplistic examples. In most relationships, the benefits each party provides to the other are not the same.
For instance: A fitness nut drags her conversationalist friend to the gym because it gives her someone to talk to while she lifts, and the conversationalist friend goes along because otherwise she’d feel too out of place at a gym.
In a toxic relationship, both parties are also providing each other differing benefits as well.
For instance: In a classic narcissist/people-pleaser relationship, the narcissist stays because now they have someone else who is always interested in them in addition to themselves, and the people-pleaser stays because now she has someone with whom she can act out her maladaptive people-pleasing habits.
And here we get to the core truth of toxic relationships.
We stay in toxic relationships because we’re getting a benefit from them.
The benefit of a toxic relationship is, of course, no benefit at all. It doesn’t help the narcissist or the people-pleaser for the people-pleaser to continue to act out her maladaptive people-pleasing compulsions. But until she identifies her people-pleasing as a problem and heals the wounds causing them, they will both be trapped in a painful toxic dance.
Once you understand this, you can start asking yourself these questions about toxic relationships in your own life, past and present.
- What maladaptive benefit do you get from this relationship?
- What inner wound do you need to heal to not need this benefit anymore?
It was smack in the middle of a toxic friendship when I realized the damage it was doing to me.
I was at home with my parents, complaining about the world. And boy, do I mean complaining. I was listing off every single thing I thought wasn’t fair about the world, from President Obama’s management of the healthcare crisis to the neighborhood association who didn’t like me drinking with my (toxic) friend in the evenings.
It was in the middle of all this complaining that I had a sudden moment of perspective. I saw myself as an outsider might see me, and I realized, I look like a total asshole.
I was offering up no solutions for these problems. I was making no plans to change, either change my life or change the lives of others. All I was doing was complaining.
And I knew why. My ex-friend and I spent the majority of our time hanging out together, and our primary shared activity was complaining together.
We complained about everything. We complained about being mentally ill, we complained about being queer, we complained about being out of shape, we complained about being “poor” (quoted because, at that time, neither of us was that poor). If it was happening to us, we complained about it.
In that moment at my parents’ house, I realized what it was doing to me. Not only was it bringing me down, making me feel lonely and miserable and hopeless, it was making me miserable to be around.
It only took a little thinking for me to realize why I stayed in this friendship so long despite it bringing me down.
For a long time, the people around me didn’t take my pain very seriously. when I complained of either a physical or emotional wound, people were quick to dismiss it. After all, I was a weepy petite woman, and it’s really easy to dismiss the concerns of a weepy petite woman as weak.
But in complaining with me, this friend didn’t dismiss my concerns. She validated them.
It felt so good to hear someone tell me my pain was real, even if it came with a side order of soul-crushing pessimism. I was fine with the notion of a cruel world that would inevitably crush me if it at least meant my suffering was real.
What ultimately gave me the courage to break out of that friendship was the recognition that while my pain is very real, I was never going to heal what caused it with an attitude of learned helplessness.
To overcome my struggles, I needed to find people who would support me, not people who would tell me victory is impossible.
What impact do your relationships have on your life? Do you feel that your relationships uplift you and make you better, or do you feel drained by them?
If you feel drained by them, what keeps you coming back?
Healing these inner wounds doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship has to dissolve. All it means is that you no longer need the toxicity in that relationship to feed a broken part of yourself. The relationship is free to either heal or end.
More importantly, you are free. You are free of inner pain that holds you back, both in that toxic relationship and for the rest of your life.
“Pain doesn’t last. And when it’s gone, we have something to show for it. Growth.”
― Kamal Ravikant, Live Your Truth