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.
She left him but a note.
Life has lost its flavor since those days in the Garden. We used to do a lot of crazy shit, eating Dad’s food without permission, traipsing around wearing nothing but our birthday suits, letting your “snake” convince me to do things I shouldn’t. But since we’ve moved, the excitement is gone, you just don’t seem to try anymore. I still love you, but I’m not in love with you.
I have dealt with a great deal of confusion from people over the years on the subject of love. Specifically with people who either don’t know if they are in love, don’t know if they want to be in love, or don’t know if they ever will be in love.
The standard advice is that love is felt, when you know that you are in love and you are certain of it, then you are. If you are questioning whether you are in love, the smart money is on getting out of that situation because if you were really in love you would “just know.”
I am here to tell you why that’s wrong. I’m here to tell you how to love.
That statement itself poses a problem for most people. Love is the last bastion of safety from a world seeking to codify and categorize things. For someone to say they figured it out demystifies it, and that ruins it. And I agree with that, it does ruin it. I am not looking to do that at all, I am simply attempting to avoid the appeal-to-nature of the “you’ll just feel/know it” argument while not falling victim to my own naturalist fallacy.
What I am trying to do is help those of you who may have doubt about love. Are you really in love? Can you do anything to make it feel stronger? Can you save a strained love?
There are answers to these questions, and those answers come when you learn a skill.
How to love.
And that’s what we’re going to learn how to do now.
Love is a feeling you get that intensifies with relatable experiences.
This simply means that you have things you relate to with another person, then you have experiences orbiting around those things, then you have experiences that relate to past experiences and it is intensified if those experiences relate to your ideas, dreams, hopes and especially stories about partnership. That is how the feeling of love is created.
Here’s an example. So, Adam meets Eve and they both say, “wow, we both really enjoy gardens.” Because they are compatible they have some experiences around gardens (perhaps they plant a garden, frolic in a garden, or eat some fruit). Adam knows about Eve’s love of gardens so he will choose to do things for her that are garden-related (a wedding in a garden, a garden party, etc).
Those are the relatable experiences that makes love intensify. What makes it romantic is the way you narratively frame it, the way Adam arranges events in their lives that reflect on the story of Eve’s life, and vice versa. Maybe you grew up in a family that gardened and it was a place that witnessed many loving moments, or just simple comfort. Or maybe a garden symbolizes growth and fertility for her, and if so that’s her narrative frame for gardens. The number of past positive stories that Eve can relate to revolving around gardens will intensify the feeling of love. And the number of those stories that feel romantic or sexual will increase romance for Eve.
So if you care about similar things and then create interesting memories together that relate to those things you care about and do so with affection. You’ll feel love naturally. But while most people think that happens naturally, it often takes work to ensure its success. Because life makes us busy, the effort you have to spend is often just about finding time to write the stories that make the memories.
The focus on how to love is the key then. And that is broken down into two very distinct categories.
The first is value to you and the second is value to your partner. Essentially, what they have that you relate to and want, but also what you provide to them that they relate to and want.
The first is responsive, you need only sit back and watch what they do for you and how many things they do that make you smile, give you a warm-fuzzy feeling, turn you on, and so forth.
The second is active. And this is the tricky part for most people, because it defies normal convention and almost seems backwards in its thinking. But I promise you, nothing could be more important. Nearly everyone has been taught to believe that in order to do one’s part in a relationship one simply continues to do whatever it was they were already doing in life that attracted their mate in the first place.
So, when we break down the areas of how we actually create love, there are four important actions we must look at.
It is true that 1&4 overlap and 2&3 overlap. This is because it is a relationship, and synergy is to be expected.
But the reason they are kept separate is because (and here’s another surprising concept, and you’re going to think I made a typo), Adam is fully responsible for 1&2, while Eve is fully responsible for 3&4. How could Adam be fully responsible for what he wants that Eve provides?! Keep reading, you’ll see.
First, there are tricks to both. Most relationships are just 1&3 and that is often enough for love to last a while. Doing 2&4 as well is where you might find a story book romance that lasts a lifetime.
So, how would Adam go about doing BOTH 1&2?
Since #1 is responsive, the only thing you need to do is have straight in your mind what you value AND align those values with your own ethics.
But you have to do that in a place of distance from your feeling about someone. The truth is that feelings come before thought. A person has a feeling, then a thought will zoom in that tells the person why they are having that feeling. Then something very strange can happen, the person will often think that the thought happened first because that makes the feeling rational. If you want cake then you might get a thought justifying you to eat cake. You might remember how good you have been recently and completely ignore the fact that the desire for cake came before that thought did.
So while a person may make you feel amazing, that could be because they gave you a smile at just the right moment, drugs when you were desperate, wore clothes that reminded you of your dad, were desperate or needy enough to not threaten you, were different from your last partner in some key aspect, gave you a romantic gesture that made you feel wonderful, and so forth. But your feeling WILL be paramount if you have no prior system to identify a mate. You may fall in love with someone and feeling will actually direct your mind to justify the feeling with thoughts that make it seem rational.
Imagine Stella just getting on a bus when she notices that she is missing the correct change in her purse and just as the bus driver is about to kick her off a man leans over and winks at her putting coins in the jar and while doing so says to the bus driver, “It’s a good thing the machine does the math for you.” He gives a big smile to Stella who is overwhelmed by the charming and dashing gesture. She sits across from him and thinks to herself. “That comment WAS accurate I guess.” Now Stella is the kind of woman who hates it when people are rude to others. But because she had such positive emotions about this man she justifies his action and then puts it out of her mind. She thinks she is being rational when in fact she just violated her own ethics. This of course is the culprit for all number of shocking relationships that everyone (except the couple in question) is very aware should not be happening. Without a set of values already written down that one can refer back to, the tidal wave of emotion that happens in a new relationship can set up a pattern of justifying thinking that can lead to a slippery slope where someone can stay through even abusiveness.
That said, #2 above was also being given energy and effort, a lot of the irrational justifications you allowed yourself to believe would be brought to light, but we will get into #2 in a moment.
Knowing what you value and what your ethics are is often a matter of trusting yourself.
It is better to do this when you are not in a relationship and did not recently get out of one. If that isn’t possible, I recommend isolating yourself from your current relationship for as much time as is feasible (a week or two is usually sufficient). Then you simply write a list of things that are important to you and categorize them. Here is a simplified version of the exercise I give to my clients:
Anything that is both in A and B are especially important but they all may be important and it’s really up to you to decide what order they go in for you. All you need to know is that things that both help you survive and make you happy are usually the things that you keep on the list the longest.
Then write down what your ideal mate would be. Write this one by hand, and leave it in a prominent location. For this you should be very explicit and very strict with yourself. This is someone you will never meet probably. I call this list “Somnia Femina” which is a Latin bastardization of “dream girl.” If you are into men you could label it “Somnia Vir.” “Somnia Persona” is the best you will probably get if you want to leave the gender ambiguous.
If you can, order all the lists in order of importance.
You can revise this list but before you do, please read through this list of cognitive biases and realize that everyone is susceptible to them. I am, you are, your super intelligent boyfriend is, your dad, your mom, your teacher, your shrink, everyone. Some more so than others but what is constant is that these biases are the most influential when you are upset or in some way motivated by emotions. If you are in a fight or just out of one, or if Prince Charming just saved your life, do not revise your list then. Trust yourself when you were more rational and allow the list to influence who you fall in love with. Find someone that matches your values.
Here is an example.
Adam’s list (this is an actual list used with permission):
Somnia Femina: Wants children, stay at home wife, beautiful, somewhat smart, happy, honest, dedicated, clean, takes care of herself, healthy, no history of cancer in her family.
He then needs to remember this list and reflect on it when he meets Eve. It’s not meant to rule you, of course. If Eve hates dogs but is a beautiful honest woman who wants to marry and raise children, plus she loves beer, hockey, fast cars, then you might be ok with letting go of the dog. The point is to avoid falling in love with the woman who likes beer, hockey & fast cars but says she never wants kids and/or seems flighty and dishonest. That woman might make you happy in the short term, but in the long run she’s bound to make you crazy. Or the beautiful, honest woman whose goal in life is to be a stay-at-home-mom, but who is vehemently against alcohol and drugs, hates violent sports, has a very low libido, wants to trade in your sports car for a minivan, and is a terribly dull conversationalist. That woman may seem like she’s “good for you,” but will it be worth sacrificing all your favorite things?
It is also not a list meant to make it impossible to meet someone. I repeat: this is someone you will probably never meet. Instead, it is intended to give you standards which will make you both more attractive to a potential mate (being selective is attractive) and also keep you from making a mistake.
It should also be noted that mistakes are very valuable and you should not discount the fact that people do change, and that you can help people to change (see #2 below), so this list should not restrict you from following a strong feeling to explore further with someone, or even to fall in love. If it doesn’t work, you will find you have probably grown and so have they, and you can move on to someone else that fits your list (which may now need revising) even better.
This may seem obvious, but it only seems that way now, reading it without the pressure of someone’s desire for you burning into your head.
Write it down, and refer to it.
Let’s delve into the second item now (2&4 above):
You love someone because of your value to them.
This is an active concept.
Adam’s feelings of love increase based on Adam doing things for Eve, to help Eve, to make Eve happy, to grow the whole relationship and to create amazing stories with Eve.
Adam’s feelings of love increase based on how much he creates and nurtures the relationship more than anything else.
It is not that it is wrong to focus on what someone can do for you. It is a natural consideration actually, survival dictates this kind of focus and almost every form of media poses that self-interest is the most important selling point for any product or service. I am personally all for self-interest. But let us not conflate that with what makes us happiest. Artists and parents know better. They know that creations and children (another kind of creation) are so precious to them not because of what the artwork or the child does for them, but because of the energy and care they have put into creating, nurturing and helping grow or change their creation.
The trick here is to view a relationship as your work of art. To see it as something you enjoy putting effort into.
In most models, people find love strained after a few years. Many have heard 18 months. One study said 2.568 years.
There is a natural assumption that follows from this about the length of time needed to get a child into and out of a womb and safely strapped for travel. Or the lazier amongst them assume the oxytocin drop is the cause rather than the effect of such a drop in interest.
This is such a problem that some scientists have taken to the idea that a love vaccine might help stave off cheating after love has gone. Doctor Elaine Hatfield takes a slightly more rational approach stating, “The prevailing wisdom was that passionate love would last for a few years and then companionate love would grow, but it also declines,” She adds that it tends to decline at the same rate as romantic love, and generally never stops declining. Later she explains that commitment often increases in spite of that.
I am here to say that the initial model of love is what is wrong in most cases. In fact, it is the focus on only 1&3 above to the exclusion of 2&4 that lead to this dropping of interest and the frittering of love.
Effort is usually the missing link, and a lack of effort is, likely, the actual reason for the drop in oxytocin. Though a study proving this would be fundamentally impossible, the anecdotal experiences of the oldest couples in the world show a consistent philosophy of effort and focus on the other partner and the relationship itself from both partners.
Often the model is for one partner, usually Adam, to put forth most of the effort and the other partner, generally Eve, to enjoy the effort as though it were a show or a carnival ride. Then Eve rewards or pays for Adam’s carnival ride with affection (often limited at first in order to increase her perceived value), sex, then tenderness, kindness, comfort and so forth, so long as the effort and rides keep coming. It is a 1&3 model where the focus is on what someone can get and #2 is usually being done in order to fulfill social expectation in order to get 1. (Please note though the male and female roles are most commonly in these positions respectively, it certainly happens with all genders and orientations in all manner of configurations.)
This “enjoy the ride” mentality of relationships is engendered by countless television shows and movies that simultaneously place women in the position of both prize and audience, adorable weaklings whose attempts at strength are to be nurtured as you would a child’s, but not expected. The truth many of us know is that women are strong and capable, and making things easy for them doesn’t do them any favors.
If Adam were to be putting in effort, not to buy affection, but instead to create the relationship he envisions (especially if he had done a “Somnia Femina” above so he knew what he wanted in a relationship) then he would feel very strongly about every single milestone he helped to create. It would have been nurtured from the start.
If Eve did the same, she would feel the same, and by being expected to do the same she will also be being told that she is respected for the strength and capability that she really has. She then gets to enjoy creating something amazing and fun too.
But the real beauty comes when they are doing this together, when they both agree on the ideal relationship and both spend energy to create it like a work of art, asking for change when it is needed, enacting changes that are required, making sacrifices, etc. Creating grand displays of affection that require tremendous planning is a great idea, not only because both the planning and event create more love, but because it then becomes a story that is referred back to and remembered as proof of love. Love is referential to itself.
Those stories are essential to a lasting feeling, and to the compelling part of the art project that is your relationship. Sadly, there is usually only one storywriter, but ideally both people should consider that an essential part of their role in the relationship. Grand romantic gestures by both sides give monumental momentum to the relationship. The gesture does not need to be huge every time, though every relationship would do well to have both sides artistically and creatively putting together something like this from their own personal determination at least once every decade.
Even the smaller romantic gestures should have some personal touch to them, some artistry. Remember these gestures are memorable because of their narrative weight. They evoke love by linking the story of the moment to the hope, dreams and existing stories you both share as to what romance looks like. As stated at the beginning, that is how love is intensified.
And let’s not forget the simplicity of help. Simply noticing that something is needed and providing it without asking or being asked is the easiest way to grow a mutual relationship. Your focus should be to attempt to grow the relationship and connection as much as you can. Help should never be offered as a means of trade, but rather as a way to continually improve upon your creation. The gestures should always feel like art projects and never feel like currency spent to buy affection, or to appease an unsatisfied partner.
The model is total mutual agreements on what the relationship should look like, then focused effort by both sides to create it, brave efforts to grow, repair or improve anything needed to achieve it, along with efforts both grand and small to make it narratively interesting so that the story of your relationship adds beauty to it. It doesn’t matter what gender, orientation, or how big or small your relationship is. This applies to two people in a monogamous relationship or 5 in a polyamorous relationship. All that is required is to grow the love to something more serious, stable and permanent.
This model is far in excess of what is necessary, many relationships get by on much much less; that said, nothing in the model is extraneous. If it is followed, your relationship will become a synergistic masterpiece that gives more energy back than the amount of energy you expend. It is designed to create feelings of romance and love that make you giddy and excited about the person.
Here’s the rub: This method will also lead to early detection of incompatibilities. You are finding out early on whether or not you are compatible because you’re putting energy into creating. You have the vision of the ideal relationship in your head and you’re painting that picture. But soon you realize that your partner doesn’t really like the painting as much as you thought. S/he refuses to paint with you at all or suddenly starts using a color you thought you both hated. You are being active in creating something based on agreements. If you can’t reach agreements, you’ll find out quickly. You may find it difficult to abandon the project — after all there is satisfaction in overcoming challenge. However, I strongly recommend that you return to your description of your ideal partner and make your decision based on empirical evidence of compatibility rather than the emotional urge to hang on.
On the flip side, if you are compatible, the relationship may just last forever, and even if it doesn’t, it will feel incredibly fulfilling to both sides, will not feel like work, will feel ever romantic and will last a long time.
The Oxytocin will runneth over.
It’s not an exact science. In fact, it should be like art. The artist has an idea of what he’s painting, but the evolution of his art is beautiful and surprising. Love requires narrative, power, directed creation, and commitment to your own values. Any one of these, if missing, will be noticed, but together they are the ingredients for an ideal relationship.
And that’s how to love.
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