When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend who I thought was, well, just a little intense.
Like a character from a teen drama, he was charming — very funny and smart, with a touch of boy-next-door shyness that made him humble and approachable. His insecurities (who isn’t insecure in high school?) were apparent, but he took them in stride in a self-deprecating way. He was sweet.
But over the course of what eventually grew into a relationship, his behavior started to become overwhelming.
He would call me at times he knew I was on the phone and then complain if I didn’t end that conversation to talk with him. He let me know he would hurt himself if I didn’t do this or that. He would push me into sexual acts, taunting that I must not be attracted to men if I didn’t acquiesce. He burst into tears a lot, and I would scramble to console him.
- There’s an imbalance of whose needs are met and to what extremes.
- One person gives way more than they receive.
- The relationship feels like hard, unending, often one-sided work.
- Pain is normalized by either or both parties.
I developed a sense that I could solve his problems and fix his trauma if only I tried hard enough — and I felt that pressure from him too. The fact that I would always fail tore at my self-concept.
Now that I’m much older and wiser, I recognize that what I was experiencing was emotional manipulation, tipping into abusive behavior. But at the time — especially given my own family dynamics, the way love is portrayed in media, and the gaslighting from my boyfriend — I thought my experience was normal.
I hated the dynamics in the relationship, but because I was attracted to who I thought he was as a person — and moreover, to the potential of who I thought he could be — I stuck around. This was my first (but not my last!) experience of being a “fixer” in a relationship.
In fact, it’s (*cue Britney Spears*) toxic.
A toxic relationship is one that’s unhealthy, usually due to the behavior of one person first intoxicating and then poisoning (uh, metaphorically) another. One person may be emotionally withdrawn or have unrealistic expectations, while the other feels liable for tempering the dynamic. This results in feelings of over-responsibility and inadequacy.
When we’re talking about toxic or unhealthy relationships (or people), we’re generally not talking about abuse (although, obviously, abuse is unhealthy). But because there’s so much overlap, it can be hard to differentiate between the two.
What it comes down to, in a word, is directionality. In a toxic situation, two people have equal autonomy and are both contributing to a dynamic that is harmful. With abuse, one person holds power and enacts control over another. Abuse is a next-level attempt to gain and maintain power and control over another person through patterns of physical, sexual, emotional, and financial violence.
And while toxic relationships don’t have to be romantic in nature (friends and family can be toxic too!), there’s an added level of difficulty in recognizing, avoiding, and leaving romantic relationships that are painful. We might even believe we’re drawn to them.
Here are five ways we’ve been taught to accept and normalize toxic behaviors to a point where we might even think we’re “attracted” to them.
Have you ever heard the song “Jealous” by Nick Jonas? The man literally says “It’s my right to be hellish” if he feels jealous when other men talk to his partner. And we’re supposed to hear this and think, Oh, wow! What a good, protective boyfriend!
The storyline of a wounded person acting out against someone who wants to take care of them that eventually ends in a “happily ever after” is so common, it’s a trope. And it socializes us to believe that if we just give it one more shot, if we’re patient and kind and selfless enough, we’ll get our happy ending too.
Once you start to recognize the way media normalizes unhealthy dating behaviors, you’ll see it everywhere: in film scenes where people show up unannounced at their love interest’s homes, jobs, and favorite cafes; in novels about brutish men tamed by patient women; in every Maroon 5 song ever.
What is media system dependency theory?
Media dependency theory is the idea that we have to look at how media and its audience exist in a larger social context — and how the media we consume can have an impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
How to course-correct:
If you’ve regularly engaged with this trope, especially uncritically and from an impressionable age, you might be seeing it as normal.
Pay attention the next time you see an argument scene on TV between two partners. Likely, the fight will be positioned as erupting from impassioned feelings of love and fear of loss. And it will end with some grand conclusion: the realization that she is The One or even (gag) wildly pleasurable makeup sex.
But pain isn’t what makes love lovely. What might that scene or script actually look like if you inserted your own desire to be loved well? Rewrite it.
Do you remember the moment you realized your parents are just people? That there’s nothing particularly special or powerful about them, aside from being your parents? This is often a difficult thing to contend with in adulthood.
Attachment theory, which suggests that we learn how to connect with other people based on our initial caregiving relationship, could also play a role in our romantic relationship dynamics.
Families are made up of individual human beings with histories of trauma and subsequent maladaptive coping mechanisms. All that unexamined, unresolved pain becomes our earliest map for understanding how people communicate. Through observing, repeating, and then being applauded or punished for our behavior, we’re sort of taught what to replicate or seek in relationships.
Searching for this dynamic can show up like:
- finding ourselves taking on the role of one of our parents
- looking for partners who fit the role of our other parent
- being drawn to people who allow us to reenact our attachment trauma
If our parents or other family members engage in toxic behavior, or if we experience insecure attachment, then deep down, we might believe there’s something “right” about this dynamic — because it’s what’s most recognizable, because we have a sense of how that scene will play out.
How to course-correct:
A powerful step in unlearning harmful dynamics and replacing them with healthier ones can be looking with scrutiny at what we learned as children.
- What did I learn about love and relationships growing up, particularly from my family?
- What parts of that were awesome and are legacies I want to continue?
- And what parts seemed hurtful and can be left behind?
- What family dynamics do I need to heal from?
Don’t worry. This isn’t inherently a commentary on your folks. It’s understanding that we’re all people and we all make mistakes — and that we can choose not to pass those mistakes on.
You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response. It’s the idea that our central nervous system has a (very helpful!) reaction to danger that can save our lives. You may also have heard of the “freeze” response, which is akin to playing dead or becoming unnoticeable (the T. rex can’t see you if you don’t move).
These responses don’t only show up in a life-or-death situation. They can come up any time we feel a threat.
And over time, as we experience trauma after trauma after trauma, our response becomes less a tool in our toolbox and more a go-to solution for dealing with threats — including the insecurity we feel if we think a partner might leave us.
Think about how you respond when you feel insecure: Do you find yourself getting into arguments, maybe over small, unrelated things? Do you feel an overwhelming desire to break up with them before they can break up with you? Do you become emotionally withdrawn or quiet, trying to avoid or distract from the situation entirely?
Or do you fawn?
Fawning means creating safety in our relationships by working super hard to meet expectations. Sam Dylan Finch, mental health advocate and editor at Healthline, our sister site, describes fawning in this way: “To avoid conflict, negative emotions, and re-traumatization, people who ‘fawn’ when triggered will go out of their way to mirror someone’s opinions and appease them in order to deescalate situations or potential issues.”
For folks who lean on fawning to feel safe, a toxic relationship can be a huge draw. Because, reliably, we’ll consistently be put in a position to prove our goodness by taking care of someone else’s emotions while squashing our own.
How to course-correct:
Peter Walker, who originally coined the term, explains that therapy can help with fawning as it “naturally helps them to shrink their characteristic listening defense as they are guided to widen and deepen their self-expression.” It’s unlearning people-pleasing, essentially.
Challenge what makes you feel good after an eruption with your partner: Is it that the issue was finally, thankfully resolved? Or is it just that you feel satisfied you made it to safety on the other end?
We usually talk about power and oppression in terms of institutions (medical racism, policing as inherently white supremacist, etc.). But they can show up interpersonally as well. Gender dynamics, for example: Men hold social power over gender minorities, which makes them (1) more likely to engage in harmful, oppressive behavior and (2) more likely to be forgiven for it.
Add the fact that gender minorities, especially women and femmes, are expected to be patient caretakers or stereotyped to be more empathetic and compassionate. Black women, for instance, are stereotyped as emotionally resilient and maternal. Fat people are expected to be jolly and comforting. Trans women are often fetishized, expected to meet desires without expressing their own.
These stereotypes can socialize people to be boundary-less in an effort to fulfill the needs of their oppressors.
When there are uneven power dynamics in a relationship (e.g., a queer person in a relationship with a straight person, a trans person in a relationship with a cis person, a disabled person in a relationship with a nondisabled person, etc.), there is more room for the person with power to behave harmfully — and more demand for the marginalized person to work with and through it.
How to course-correct:
Connection is a social justice issue. In interpersonal relationships, when power dynamics are unchecked, we might find ourselves more tolerant (and even expectant) of people of certain identities (men, white people, and so on) behaving poorly with few to no repercussions.
If you find yourself in a toxic relationship, ask yourself: What social power dynamics are at play here? How is the harmful behavior a microcosm of larger oppressive structures?
When I give workshops on domestic violence, one of the questions I ask the audience is “Why do survivors stay?”
People come up with great answers: because they don’t have access to community, because they don’t have money, because they’re scared, because of children. But the two answers I often have to push for are love and hope.
Similarly, in a toxic relationship, the person isn’t constantly causing active harm — and you love them for who they are and what beauty they bring to your life. And you hope that eventually, if you can just stick it out a little bit longer, their behavior will shift — they will become only the good parts of themselves and eschew the hurtful.
Especially when you’re an empathetic person who understands how others’ traumas can manifest in these behaviors, you can see the hurt in their heart, and you want to heal it.
You were attracted to this person for a reason — and it probably wasn’t “because they’re not super nice to you.” They were charming and charismatic. They were cute. They were sweet and kind to you. You felt connected on a shared experience. Maybe you felt seen for the first time. Maybe they told a really witty joke. Maybe their smile is to die for. You didn’t fall for them because they hurt you. You fell for them because of how elated they’ve made you feel.
How to course-correct:
There are many reasons why we might get caught up in a toxic dynamic — why we stay even once we recognize it, why we even feel comfortable in it — but don’t let anyone tell you that you’re attracted to toxicity.
You may be attracted to helping someone heal. You may be attracted to the silver-screen grandeur of romance. You may be attracted to people who remind you of your dad (with whom you probably also have a complicated relationship!). But there’s nothing there to find fault with.
You’re not doing anything wrong. You simply can also opt to do right by yourself.
Let me tell you what my mother told me back when I was a teenager in that toxic relationship I mentioned earlier: “You can’t help who you love. But you can help who you’re with.”
You deserve a love that feels like an antidote — not one that feels like poison.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.