Imagine for a moment that you have a friend who is in a toxic relationship. It’s hard to tell from the outside just how unhealthy it is, but you’ve got a pretty strong inkling that it’s worse than they let on. You want to help your friend, but what do you do? What can you say? How can you encourage them to get the hell out and move on?
First, I’d like to tell you how *not* to do it. Because I am consistently astonished by how often I hear this terrible advice repeated.
Even if this is demonstrably true, it’s STILL a bad idea to say so to your friend.
Why? Because it makes them wrong to have gotten into the relationship in the first place. And making someone wrong about something is the very best way to get them to vehemently defend their right to do it and their rationale for having done it.
Allow me to play the role of your friend for a moment.
So you’re telling me that my partner is a toxic person. But if he simply *is* toxic, as a quality of his being, then he was toxic when I chose to start a relationship with him. Right? So what does that make me? An idiot. A mark. A martyr. A victim.
And anyway, you’re wrong. I know that he isn’t all bad. He has stunningly wonderful qualities. Qualities so wonderful, in fact, that I’ve been continually willing to put up with and overlook the toxic behaviors in question.
I’ve even engaged in some of those behaviors myself. They seem to be contagious. So if he’s toxic, then I must be toxic, too. Hell, maybe we deserve each other.
And maybe I can still fix this. Maybe I can repair this broken relationship and prove myself right to have gotten into it in the first place! Maybe I can redeem us both and make all this pain worthwhile! Maybe, with a little more work, with a little more patience and understanding and loving kindness I can still get my happily ever after…
But even if I can’t, the bottom line is that it doesn’t feel good in my soul to label this person whom I deeply love as “toxic” and cut him out of my life like a fungus. So I guess I’ll just have to hide the really bad stuff from you from now on so you’ll stop saying that to me.
Not exactly the outcome you were hoping for, hmm?
So, how do you help your friend?
Step 1. Observation
You point out the toxic patterns you see playing out in their current relationship. You help them step outside of their own relationship for a moment and see it from the outside so that they can decide what ought to be done. Use language like, “Here’s what I’m observing,” or “I wonder if you’ve noticed that…” Stick to observable behaviors and facts. No speculation, no evaluation of motives or assignments of blame.
Step 2. Validation
You reassure them that they are normal, and human, and that their reasons for choosing to be in, and stay in, that relationship are perfectly valid and totally understandable. This may feel counter-intuitive but it’s absolutely essential. Nobody wants to give up on a project that others tell them was doomed from the start. But if you tell them instead, “I totally see what you were going for there. Great idea, in theory,” they’re far more likely to be able to drop it and move on.
Which brings me to…
Step 3. Offer an alternative
Gently remind your friend that they can make a different choice at any time. For any reason. That it really is okay to take a break from someone just because that feels like the healthiest course of action. It doesn’t need to be a reflection on the toxicity of either party.
The truth is that, for the most part anyway, people in toxic relationships are not toxic people. They are people who have fallen into an unhealthy pattern of behavior vis-a-vis another person or people.
Peanuts aren’t deadly unless you happen to be allergic to them. Plenty of chemicals are inert on their own but explosive in the right–or rather the wrong–combination. Water is, like, the best thing in the world for you until you drink too much of it, and then it can fucking kill you. Forreal.
So it is with people. Some pairings are just… volatile. And we all have a nasty habit of recreating the same toxic patterns and pairings we are used to. It feels normal and familiar, even comforting, to experience that same flavor of toxicity over and over. Just like people often develop strong cravings for the very food they are allergic to.
And just like a gambling addict will sit in front of a slot machine for hours and hours and hours, we can spend months, years, even lifetimes trying to finally untangle that central problem we keep re-creating for ourselves. This time, we tell ourselves, it’ll be different. This time, I’ll figure out the trick of it, beat the system. Win that emotional jackpot. Even though we know that the dealer always wins in the end. Still, we keep trying, not just because the jackpot is so compelling but because the game itself becomes an addiction.
And the only way to let go of an addictive game is to find a new, equally compelling game to play.
So if you REALLY want to help your friend, here’s what you do: you help them find a new game. Invite them to collaborate on a project. Convince them to sign up for a class with you. Take them on a road trip. Keep them distracted, break up their usual patterns of behavior, get them out of their trigger-filled environment and give them a fresh perspective on things. Even if it doesn’t inspire your friend to leave their partner, it will certainly make them less reliant on that partner to get their needs for emotional support and stimulation met.
And hey, it’s a lot more fun than lecturing a purported equal about their terrible choice in partners. Not to mention far more likely to strengthen, rather than poison, your friendship.
Perhaps this speech sounds familiar. Perhaps you can picture the scene: you’re on a date, it’s going well, when suddenly, inexplicably, your date launches into a tirade about the parade of insane, abusive heartbreakers who came before you.
Perhaps you’ve even given such a speech. But we’ll get back to that.
You may have had any number of reactions at the time. Boredom, annoyance, suspicion, sympathy, righteous anger at all the injustices suffered by your hapless, otherwise affable date at the hands of these treacherous exes. But here’s what you should have been doing during that speech: taking notes.
Everyone has repetitive relationship patterns. You can learn everything you need to know about a potential lover by examining those patterns, and if they’re kind/foolish enough to compile and enumerate the list for you, I highly recommend you pay close attention.
Now, I don’t mean to say that you should automatically write off anyone who’s been through the wringer, romantically speaking. That would narrow down your list of potential partners to just about nil. But relationship dynamics are a two-way street, so whenever you notice that someone seems to have been through the same wringer multiple times, remember that the common element in each of those relationships is the person relaying these stories to you. So there is a very high percentage chance that if you enter into a relationship with said person that you will, at some point, find yourself on the pointy end of the same accusations being leveled against all those exes.
You may even find yourself behaving like those exes. It’s much easier than you might think to get sucked into someone else’s dramatization.
For example, I pride myself on being one of the least jealous/possessive people you could ever hope to date. I thrive on compersion, revel in sharing, and hold open communication and mutual trust as sacred foundational elements of any intimate relationship. So when an ex of mine relayed stories of girlfriends past who had hacked into his email, demanded to know why the passenger’s seat of his car had been readjusted since the last time she sat in it, given him ultimatums of the “stop seeing other women or else” variety, etc., I shook my head at those misguided, insecure ladies and looked forward to wowing him with my awesome poly powers.
This was a role I never expected to be cast in, but in looking back, it was clearly one I had signed up for. He had, after all, described it to me in advance.
And even if you manage to go against type and break the pattern, you may find that your partner is uncomfortable, suspicious, or bored out of their gourd without that familiar dysfunction at play. For example, if a girl goes out with you specifically because her last three boyfriends were volatile, violent, rageaholic womanizers, and you are a laid-back, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly feminist, don’t be surprised if she ultimately up and leaves you for someone… edgier.
Pay particular attention to the language someone uses to describe their exes. Someone who is willing to cast more than one ex as a “crazy bitch” or an “abusive asshole” is certainly not above filing you in that same category. That isn’t to say that there aren’t folks out there who absolutely deserve those monikers. And that definitely isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with a person who somehow ends up with one of those folks. Abusers and psychopaths can be extraordinarily clever, charming, and manipulative. But when a person lumps multiple exes into these same extreme categories, take it with a grain of salt. There are, after all, two sides to every story.
Meanwhile, there is something far more important than recognizing the relationship patterns of potential partners: recognizing your own.
How do you talk about *your* exes? When you look across the spectrum of relationships past, what patterns and common themes emerge?
Whatever it is, take a long, hard look at it. Because unless/until you recognize and own it as YOUR pattern, and decide to take control of it, you will keep pulling in and playing out that same drama over and over. Guaranteed.
So the next time you find yourself swapping war stories with a date about your awful exes, ask yourself: am I willing to be cast in a similar light? And more to the point, am I able to keep myself from casting this person in a similar light if things go south?
Because the common denominator in all of your stories? Yep: it’s you.
Are you tired of ending up in healthy, long-lasting relationships? Here are some simple steps that will keep your turn-over rate sky high!
I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this method (I’m not proud, just honest).
Step 1: Be dishonest
True dishonesty begins by being dishonest with yourself. Try to be someone you’re not, and to want things you don’t. That will make it much easier to make agreements you can’t effectively honor. Before you know it, you’ll be breaking those agreements!
And when you do, you’ll think, “Hey, I’m a good person. So I must have had a good reason for breaking that agreement.” And you’ll find a way to rationalize your action, and to cover your tracks.
You might even get good at it. And before you know it, you’ll be a bona fide liar. It’s that easy!
Lying is an especially effective way to destroy relationships, because even if your partners never find out (and they probably will), you will feel the need to justify having lied to them. And thus you will start to subtly villainize your partners.
Which will lead you directly into step two…
Step 2: Find fault with your partners
Although it’s plenty effective to simply think badly of your partners, this step is most effective when you actually let your partners know just how dissatisfying and inadequate they are, both as a partner to you, and as individuals.
Here are some especially effective areas to focus on:
Do they have a small penis, or perhaps mismatched, pendulous breasts? Be sure to point that out every chance you get! Oh, and be sure to unfairly compare them to other people! Bonus points if those other people are other lovers of yours (past or present), celebrities, porn stars, or friends or relatives of theirs.
Triple bonus points if they were bullied in school because of it!
Tell them how to do their job! Contradict them on matters in which they are vastly more qualified than you are! Oh, and by all means, offer unsolicited critiques on the stuff they’re most passionate about.
Did they mispronounce a word in conversation? Correct that shit! Bonus points if you roll your eyes.
Do their favorite shoes squeak when they walk? Complain about it until they feel so self-conscious they stop wearing them!
Oh, and be sure to lecture them about shit they post on Facebook, where they happened to go grocery shopping most recently, how they dress themselves, their grooming habits, etc.
Show them just how wrong they are on a wide variety of topics. This will drive home the importance of your approval, while simultaneously making them despair of ever living up to your standards.
Step 3: Always be right
Okay, so you’ve made it clear just how superior you are to your partners. But why should they trust your opinion? You’re going to need to make sure they understand that YOU ARE ALWAYS RIGHT.
So, you’ll need to take every possible opportunity to assert your rightness. Jump on any mistakes you see a partner making, no matter how insignificant, and don’t let anything go until you’re satisfied that you have won!
Never admit fault, and for god’s sake never learn anything from your partners.
Above all, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO EMPATHIZE. If you start looking at things from your partner’s perspective there’s a good chance you will achieve understanding. And that’ll lead you straight to compassion and reconciliation, which is the LAST thing you want when trying to make a relationship spontaneously combust.
Pro-tip: be sure to generalize! Make whatever is going on now about everything else they’ve ever done wrong. That way you’re not just right, you’re META-RIGHT.
Step 4: Throw your partners under the bus in public
So now anyone you’re dating should be painfully aware of just how often you are right, and more importantly, how often they are wrong. But if you really want to annihilate the relationship, you’re going to need to make sure that everyone else knows it, too!
Whenever you disagree with something a partner does or says, proclaim your disagreement loudly, and in front of as many people as possible. Social gatherings, social media, Thanksgiving dinner, all excellent opportunities to let folks know you’re not afraid to side against your partners. Bonus points for snark and sarcasm!
If you skip this step, people might start to think that you are on the same team and have each others’ back, and that’s bound to give your partner a sense of security and a desire to show the same kind of loyalty to you. Now, is that any way to fuck up a relationship beyond all hope of recovery?
Step 5: Don’t communicate effectively
Now, if you’ve followed all the steps above, your relationship should be on the train to splitsville. But there’s still a chance that train could be derailed by effective communication. So you’re going to need to be extra vigilant about keeping those channels full of static.
For example: have you been clearly stating your needs and wants? Well, cut that out! If they’re aware of your needs and desires, they’re much less likely to fail to meet those needs and fulfill those desires. You might end up feeling loved and supported, and you’d be surprised how much damage that can do to all your hard-earned dysfunction.
Instead, simply expect partners to be psychic and magically know what you need and want. And each time they fail to guess correctly, be sure to assume that they must have known, and simply failed to provide you with what you wanted on purpose. That’s sure to produce the maximum amount of resentment, which is a key ingredient in all failed relationships.
But don’t say anything about it! Let that resentment build! Resentment, like a fine wine, needs time to mature in order to reach its full relationship-crushing potential. The time will come to unleash the torrent. In the meantime, you can communicate just how unhappy you are by cultivating the fine art of passive-aggression.
Meanwhile, be sure to discourage your partners from expressing their needs and wants by reacting poorly any time they try. Bonus points if you mock their “neediness” and/or make negative judgments about their desires!
Pro-tip for the advanced relationship saboteur – do communicate your desires, but phrase them as demands rather than requests! This is extra-effective because it not only destroys any chance of your partners freely offering you what you want, it also fosters resentment, and undermines your partners’ sense of self-determination. And what better way to discourage someone from communicating their own needs and desires than to convince them they are not in control of their own life? Genius!
Finally, don’t forget to…
Step 6: Focus on the past
Be careful! If you focus on what you actually want to accomplish in the present, there’s a possibility that you could actually achieve mutual satisfaction and move forward together! And that could lead to…
FIXING THE RELATIONSHIP. *gasp*
So, instead, be sure to focus on things that have already happened and cannot be undone. That’ll ensure an endless battle that can’t be won. By anyone. Ever.
That oughta do it. Now get out there and start ruining your love life!
“Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out, honestly
I wanna see you be brave“
– Sara Bareilles, Brave
The first time I heard that song, I was oh-so-smug.
I thought: “Now there’s something I’m really good at! Being BRAVE!“
I thought about how often I’m the first to say “I love you.”
I thought about how brazenly I put myself out there in the public eye.
“Hey everybody! I’m bisexual! I’m polyamorous! I have herpes! I’m a survivor!”
I thought about all the little ways in which I make myself vulnerable in the realms of sex and romance. “Brené Brown would be so proud,” I told myself.
And I gave myself an emotional pat on the back.
I thought about all the other people who really needed to hear, and heed this song. People who weren’t being honest with themselves, weren’t being honest with other people, weren’t being brave enough to confront the reality of their situation, let alone change it.
I wanted to send a benevolent, benignly supercilious singing telegram to every last one of them.
But as recent events in my personal life have proven, Sara was singing to me.
Because bravery isn’t just about telling people what you do want, it’s also about telling them what you don’t want. Or, even scarier, what you did want, but don’t anymore.
And now I’m thinking about all the ways in which I’ve failed to be brave in my relationships. Like how long it took me to be honest with that guy who was convinced I was “the one,” when I knew I wasn’t. Or how many times I said, “I love you” to that girl, knowing that I didn’t. Or how long it took me to leave my abusive first husband. Or all the times I’ve failed to speak up when I didn’t like what was happening, and then got resentful about it.
I’m thinking about all the myriad ways I’ve allowed my boundaries to be trampled, my integrity to be tarnished, my needs to go unmet.
Then again, in every case, I eventually did the right thing. The hard thing. Despite grave personal and emotional risk.
I gave that guy his ring back.
When that weeping woman asked me point-blank, “Do you love me?” I answered, “No. Not the way you need me to.”
Despite the death threats and blackmail, I left that abusive bastard for good (third time was the charm). And I’ve come clean about a lot of those harbored resentments after the fact, and done my best to make amends.
Because it’s never too late to be brave.
The longer you wait, though, the more bravery will be required.
Look, I’m willing to put money on the fact that you–yes, YOU–are not confronting some truth.
Yep, that thing you thought of just now. That’s the one.
And now you’re probably mentally listing off all the perfectly rational reasons why you’re absolutely justified in not confronting it.
But here’s the truth: that thing is screwing up your life, diminishing your joy, and sapping your resources in ways you aren’t even aware of. And you don’t have to settle for that.
So I’m lancing you an official challenge:
Not tomorrow, not next week, not after squandering another year, or ten years, of your life on living a lie.
I promise you’ll thank yourself for it. Not right away, of course. At first it’s gonna suck hairy, sweaty monkey nuts. But someday soon, you will.
Because nothing feels better than being true to yourself.
“Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is”