What is it, and Could You be in One?
No important, ongoing relationship is totally without friction. In all good families, marriages and friendships, some degree of conflict, disagreement and disappointment is the rule. One of the hallmarks of emotional maturity is to be willing and able to really stick with important others during difficult times. However, it's fair to say that some relationships are toxic. Regardless of attempts to work through problems, the friction and conflict are so severe that one or more people in the relationship continue to be hurt. Such a relationship leaves at least one person stranded in an emotional desert.
The awareness that a relationship may, in fact, be destructive can be obscured by blinders of hopefulness and denial. Most people do not want to see or believe that their parents, spouse, children or friends are harmful to them. This kind of denial may last a lifetime, or it may give way to an increasingly clear but painful awareness that the relationship is not healthy. Partial denial, combined with partial awareness, "Oh my God... I can't believe this!" is not uncommon. The initial awareness is sometimes followed by the desperate attempt to fix things or to slip back into denial.
When there is no fix, and the reality can no longer be denied, a second source of despair can set in: loss. It is both a loss of the other person as a meaningful source of love or support, and the loss of an ideal. The ideal may be a highly valued belief or hope that parents can be loving, that a spouse can be faithful, or that a friend can be trusted. The dawning reality of an unhealthy relationship can puncture our ideals and hurt like hell.
Concerned friends may offer "supportive" statements, such as "Well, he wasn't good for you. It's better that you're no longer in that relationship." These observations may be true "objectively," but that doesn't neutralize the pain of lost hope.
Painful relationships develop for many reasons. Sadly, there are times when people hurt people out of meanness; they intentionally use, abuse and damage the other person. At the same time, many harmful, toxic interactions have nothing to do with the desire to cause pain. The troubles may be largely due to a person's own emotional woundedness, stressful lifestyle, mental illness or addiction to alcohol.
Toxic relationships need not imply that the people involved are bad. Rather than a matter of people being good, bad, right or wrong, it's more often a lack of fit. One person's style simply doesn't mesh with the other. Or maybe there was a good fit or "good chemistry" at some point, but with time, the people have grown and changed. The relationship isn't the same. This is not a crime. It's just one aspect of human nature, and blaming has no helpful role, but it can be toxic all the same.
Adapted from Survivors: Stories and Strategies to Heal the Hurt, by Dr. John Preston. Available at online and local bookstores or directly from Impact Publishers, Inc., PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016, http://www.bibliotherapy.com/ or phone 1-800-246-7228.
Page last modified/reviewed on January 11, 2010