There’s been questions circulating in some of my social media groups about toxic people. When to leave, when to stay, when to run, when to shut someone out. Most of these issues come up when one party in the relationship begins to desire more. It can follow a shift in belief or theology, a personal healing breakthrough, or even a traumatic event that leaves one reevaluating how they have lived their whole lives. I don’t think anyone abandons a marriage or a friendship without thought. We are human, we reason, we weigh the pros and cons. Very often the one who physically leaves is labelled as a quitter, told they are bitter, unforgiving. That is rarely the case.
I’ve left a few types of relationships in my life, and not one time was it because I ceased to love the group, institution, or individual I walked away from. It also wasn’t because I was bitter or angry or I’d been hurt… It was because I couldn’t heal in that place. Think about trauma for a moment. A soldier sees his brothers blown to bits on the battle field. We take him away from that environment to a peaceful place to heal. A person is in a car wreck, we don’t patch them up and put a bed on the thoroughfare for them to heal in. Someone is robbed at gunpoint in an alley, we don’t set them up in a home where the only way out is a dark backstreet, and make them work the nightshift. A kid just about drowns in the shallow end of the pool, we don’t drop them off the diving board. We can all see the ridiculous nature of those courses of treatment… and yet, people give advice to those in destructive relationships that is equally ludicrous. People in self help retreats and marriage seminars, people in pulpits and counselling offices… people not in these relationships who wouldn’t admit to having difficulty in any relationship and stand outside of the abuse that goes on in them, those people say inane things like “You will never find a better partner than the one you are with, or the one you left. The trouble wasn’t the person, you’ll be attracted to the same sort of person, because attraction is biological, the dysfunction was in the relationship. So fix that. Go back to your first spouse if they are still single.”
Um, No. Don’t. Unless separation from your abuser had them going into therapy and working on all of their crap and trauma, on their own, definitely not. And even then… it is a new relationship. You will be trying to build a new relationship on a foundation of old trauma and patterns and the trust will have been utterly destroyed. You will have developed coping mechanisms previously so that you will not be “poking the bear” and they will know how to push all your buttons. Especially if there are kids involved, do this only at your peril. This seems extreme. Well, yes, I have a visceral response to this lunacy.
If you are still actively attached to someone and you were mutually struggling, admitting blame for issues was going both ways. If both parties are at the same place, growing, healing, working on themselves, and that process is bringing you closer and building trust, you have a healthy relationship, even if it is something you are both working on right now. Keep it. You are building intimacy. But this idea that you hurt the one you love, so go back and do it again… No. Don’t put up your convalescent bed in the middle of the scene of your greatest trauma and expect yourself to heal.
Relationships are messy. Because there are people involved in them. And we all seem to have trauma of some sort. I’ve dated, I’ve gotten married, and divorced, and was single for years, started dating again, and found my first love the second time around. The first “life-partner” I chose couldn’t heal from his past within the confines of our relationship, and I could not heal there either. Our trauma triggers were constantly going off and we were alienated. I wonder if we would have stayed together as long as we did if we hadn’t been so heavily indoctrinated in the belief that our marriage was more important than either of us. I kept trying to change, to be more submissive, more giving, more open, more loving, more of a biblical wife (now your’e certain of my background) …and all I did was get lost in his dysfunction. He was doing the best he could, but his childhood left him void of tools and self awareness. He couldn’t properly husband, or, later, father. I was asking too much. I didn’t leave him because I stopped loving him. I left because we were destroying each other, and our children in the process.
And then, I put boundaries in place. And I was grossly criticized for them. But they were necessary and useful and allowed me the space I needed to start healing. I was single for a long time. There’s a point though, where alone no longer propels you forward. I actively sought out friendships with women, just to remember how to relate to other humans. And then, I sought out couples to be around… So the only man in my life wasn’t my dad. I needed to see healthy interaction. If I hadn’t done this before I started dating, I would have had to dump a lot more men on my road to “Mr. Right for Me.” I let myself be part of community, learned to say no as well as yes… and then I started dating.
Dating, and learning about where my personal boundaries had to lie in order to have a beautiful, intimate relationship in which both of us felt loved, cherished, supported, respected, valuable, seen and heard. In short, the relationship needed to create the space in which to be known, and for both parties to engage in self discovery as we healed from our individual pasts.
So, should I have stayed with the “toxic” person? No. And honestly, I hate that label. All of us have the potential to be toxic to someone. We can live out of our wounds instead of our secure identity and be destructive and uncaring. All of us. I know I drew from my marriage when I discussed this. The initial thought was about if it is ok to walk away at any point. You know, it isn’t about the person you are walking away from, or shutting out, or even just taking a breather from a situation to refuel and come back to. It is about you.Your wellness. Your boundaries. Your healing process. Your ability to love without judgement. Your sense of safety. Your fear. Your unhealed wounds. The person you are conflicting with or just responding poorly to repeatedly may merely be revealing a part of yourself that needs to heal.
Over the years I have put intentional distance between myself and a few people or situations. I needed to. Some relationships I returned to with fresh perspective. Some were replaced by healthier experiences. But I always made the leaving about my own wellbeing. It was never a judgment call in which I wrote another human being off entirely. Some people you can’t walk away from to the degree you might want to for your own sanity. Parents who are aging and need your help, Ex spouses you share children with, children still living at home… And you do have to work on the relationship. But these are opportunities to establish your boundaries. To learn how to use your voice without making your personal limits be about the other person’s behaviour. Own your triggers. Own your trauma. Don’t identify with it, that’s playing the victim. Just sit with it a minute, ask yourself what you believe about yourself that is a LIE, and why reinforcing that is so effective a tool of control for the person wielding it. And then let yourself heal.
A tool I learned in therapy, is speaking to the inner child who was wounded first, and, as the adult in loving authority, or, as the primary caregiver, tell that child what they needed to hear and didn’t, in order to regain a healthy sense of self. For example, many of us stay in relationships that have been destroying us for a while because we don’t think we are worthy of something better… probably because we were never understood by our our parents, so we don’t think anyone ever will “get us.” Granted, for this to have the greatest degree of weight, I have found that it helps if there is a belief in a benevolent, higher power of some sort, an abstract connection to the rest of humanity via spirit, or at least, a universal source of Love, available to all. However, if we think we were not parented well, and would parent our children differently than we were parented, it is possible just to see what was awful and correct the thought. How differently would our boundaries look if this is what we had learned as a child: “Darling, you are loved, your desires and passions are beautiful. You are unique and valuable. No one else in the world can bring exactly what you bring to it. No one else can love like you, see the world like you, or be as perfectly placed in the present as you are in this moment. Please share your thoughts and dreams and perspective, because the world needs you.” I realize that’s rather general, but changing the negative self chatter in one’s own psyche drastically reduces the power another broken human has over you… because you recognize lies and expect more, and your boundaries are in much safer places.
So, do we leave toxic relationships? Yes. But use the new boundary you create in doing so to heal from the trauma of the experience. Use the new relationships you build to create safe places for yourself and others. Use your alone time to discover yourself. Use the clash with new people to understand what it was about your own person that made that moment difficult. My mom used to say, “water off a duck’s back” when someone was unjustly cruel to me. Well, yes, it works if you’re a duck. Most of us aren’t. We’re human, and far more complex than that. Put your boundaries in pleasant places. Your boundaries… not your labels.