This is something that’s been rolling around in my head for a long while. I’ve noticed that when wounded and likely broken up (this applies to friendship and relationships) people have a tendency to call the other person in the situation toxic. In our post-pop-psychology world, people like to grandly say that they’re keeping toxic people out of their lives.
To me, this only devolves one way:
“No, you’re toxic!”
“No, YOU’RE toxic!”
“No, YOU’RE toxic!”
“You shut up!”
“No, you shut up!”
So what exactly do we learn from this situation besides moral superiority? Not a whole lot if you ask me.
I think it’s much harder to look at the real issue at hand, that neither party is toxic per se, but that you both managed to put yourselves in a toxic situation. Yes, this is much less satisfying than simply declaring the other persona non grata, but it’s a lot closer to the truth of the matter. The other person didn’t come into your life all oozing superfund while you were a hapless victim lying on the train tracks with nothing to do but feebly cry out while this person cackled evilly and goozed all over you. Whatever toxic cycle you found yourself in didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s harder and much more important to look at how you found yourself in this situation. Usually it takes years to get into a really toxic cycle, so it can take a lot of soul searching, journaling, and possibly therapy to figure out how you got there and what you did to contribute to the situation.
Towards the end of my marriage, Kate Nash describes my relationship v. aptly in her song, Foundations. When it finally imploded, he didn’t leave me in a particularly kind way and it was really messy. It would have been easy for me to start screaming about what a victim I was, how I had nothing to do with what happened, how toxic he is and how defenseless I am, etc. But you know what? It wouldn’t have been true. I wasn’t standing on the sidelines of our relationship, not contributing anything good or bad. Where would I be if I acted like a blameless victim? What would I have learned from the relationship? How could I improve as a person?
Steps I Took to Get Past a Toxic Relationship
1. Took time to be shellshocked because it was a *SURPRISE!* (to me) divorce.
2. Took time to be really sad and devastated. I even did rubber band therapy.
3. Took time to be really angry.
4. Took time to do as much trash talking as I needed to do to those close to me.
5. Started to be really functional again. This took mmmmm four? five? months before I started to really genuinely be myself again and started really functioning past doing the bare minimum to survive.
6. I started before step 5. but especially after step 5. to really take a good, long hard look at what I did to contribute to the disintegration of my marriage, because it didn’t happen in a vacuum and it wasn’t something that Wasband (he WAS my husband) was solely responsible for. I thought about what things I could have done better in that relationship, what I could improve on, how to be a better person, etc.
I really think giving myself time to get through all of that and take a really honest personal inventory of myself and reflect on how I could improve as a person has made it so that nearly two years later, I came out the other side landing (mostly) neatly on my feet, dare I even say better for it?
Learning not to go from zero to honey badger in a disagreement took a lot of personal work for me. I used to fight to be right, not to make our relationship happier. I thought that love meant being your most authentic self all the time, no holds barred. Turns out, for me at least, that's a terrible idea. My most authentic self is a jerk who says really mean things sometimes that can't be taken back. Again, this wasn't a situation where I cut him out and maaaaagic! I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to live like that anymore.
The problem I see a lot of people having is they get to step 5 and then it’s just all OMFG! The other person was so TOXIC! I’m so glad I’m away from that person! Think about it this way: you are giving that person far too much control and power. If that person really had that much power that you cut her out of your life and voila! everything’s perfect again without you having to do anything but cut that person out, well that person much be a pretty formidable opponent. *So* formidable that they must be like Godzilla stomping through various innocent bystanders’ ramen shops in Toyko.
Is that *really* what happened? Really? You had no control, no power, no voice at all in that situation? Or maybe, just maybe, you did some terrible things too or at the very least went along to get along? It’s okay to not have done things perfectly. It’s okay to have made mistakes. If you can acknowledge that you did, this gives you *more* power because you can fix a mistake a lot easier than a random Godzilla lurking about ready to cause problems at your ramen stand at any given moment. Were you too selfish? Did you sometimes like to wind the person up? Did you yell a lot? Did you rather be right than happy? Awesome! That’s all stuff you can work on.
It’s totally okay to:
Call the *situation* toxic! When you say this to yourself or others also add, And I know I contributed to it too. Try it, it’s liberating! Taking responsibility for your actions is probably the most liberating awesome thing you can do in life because then you own them and they’re yours to fix and learn from.
*Still* be angry, sad, and whatever at times. Being over it doesn’t mean you’re over it 100% of the time all the time. That’s called denial or sometimes depending on the situation, compartmentalization. You can ask Don Draper how well that’s working out for him.
Have some choice words about your ex. Hey, you don’t have to approve of what happened on her side, you don’t have to wish him well, you don’t have to not call her some kind of terrible mean pet name. The caveat there though is that you need to be careful not to fall into the Mean Girl trap where the protagnonist says in the movie, "I could hear people getting bored with me. But I couldn’t stop. It just kept coming up like word vomit." When it starts to feel like word vomit, you need to stop because it’s starting to eat you from the inside out, yo. And you do not want to give that other person that kind of power over you.
Charm to Stop Word Vomit
Put a rubber band on your wrist. When you feel the word vomit threatening to spew, snap it sharply and say this charm:
When I snap this rubber band,
I will not word vomit just as planned.
Finally understand that most people will never do this kind of self work to figure out what they did wrong in a relationship. Soooo . . .don't, like, expect to come across a bunch of enlightened exes any time soon. But when dating someone new, listen to how they talk about their exes. Do they claim all their exes were psychos and that they were the victim in all their previous relationships? Because I can tell you from personal experience, guess how they'll talk about you if/when you break up? Prepare to be the future Ex-Psycho. If the person says we both made mistakes, I did x, y and z wrong there or even *gasp* says nice things about their ex, that's someone doing self work (hopefully!).