Toxic Relationships and Redefining Love

Toxic relationships affect everyone

Everyone has been in a toxic relationship at least once in their life. Toxic relationships may be the most dangerous circumstance we encounter, and yet people rarely discuss them. We warn our children about looking both ways before they cross the street, about not running with scissors, about stranger danger and not walking on thin ice. But we don’t teach them how to avoid destructive relationships that can scar them for life.

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is one that poisons many, if not all, areas of your life. A toxic relationship is one where no respect for boundaries exist between yourself and the other person. Toxic relationships are those that distract us from our work and our interactions with all others in our lives. They seep into our consciousness when we are enjoying other people outside of the relationship and manipulate and control us from afar.

We are all capable of being toxic

I’m going to test your ability to accept your own darkness here and suggest something that may be uncomfortable. We are all toxic to someone. Remember, a key component of redefining love is accepting that we are all made up of equal parts good and evil. Certainly there are those who manage their capacity for evil better than others. But that doesn’t mean they are always good, or have always been good.

Until you have accounted for your own darkness, you have no way to control it. In fact, unless you have admitted it exists, your evil controls you.

By admitting that we are all capable of good and evil, we become more prescient to the toxicity of others. Our judgment becomes clearer. We can recognize that although this person is doing a lot of good in the world, they may not be the best for us. We can also recognize good in others where many can’t see it. We don’t get trapped into unhealthy relationships by judging books by their covers. We love each person individually, and we know clearly where we end and the other person begins.

Toxic spirals

The danger of not recognizing our capacity for good and evil is the development of toxic spirals. It’s impossible to determine where a toxic spiral begins, and it can only end with conscious effort.

Someone, somewhere in your history, was toxic to someone, who was toxic to someone else, and then someone else, and so on and so forth until it reaches you. Without being able to recognize it for what it is, you unwittingly absorb that toxicity into yourself, and you pass it on to another vulnerable person, who passes it on to the next, etc.

Have you ever noticed that whole families or whole communities have their own “personality”? Even though the group is made up of many individuals, there is some sense of oneness or sameness about the whole that defines it. This is why we can move to a certain town and never quite fit in, or conversely, we find a place that inspires us and motivates us and we never want to leave.

The opposite of a toxic spiral is a health spiral. By redefining love, you are setting yourself and your family on a health spiral that will inspire others for generations.

The toxic family

When enmeshment, codependency, and a lack of accountability has pervaded for generations, entire families can become toxic. The individuals within the family may be able to maintain a measure of health in their outside relationships, but within toxic families, no one escapes the dynamic.

For deeply dysfunctional families, the health displayed to the outside world is only an illusion. Nothing is impossible, but it is a rare occurrence that an emotionally healthy individual will rise from a deeply dysfunctional family system without intense, intentional effort to create new habits of relating to the world.

If you are a part of a toxic family, redefining love will probably not be well-received. Toxic families have a culture of silence that supports the toxicity generationally. Family members truly know no other way of being. Your decision to violate the silence by speaking up, holding yourself and others accountable, and setting boundaries where none previously existed is not likely to go over well.

As you begin to redefine love, you may be called crazy, or selfish, or cruel. You may be asked why you have to be so “difficult.” Change is scary, and your newfound confidence and outspokenness is very different from how things have been in the family for generations.

If you aren’t sure whether you are in a toxic family or not, you will soon discover it as you take the first steps towards redefining love. A huge red flag is when everyone in the family seems to have opinions about who you are and what you’re doing, but few, if any, have asked you directly to explain yourself. Gossip and drama are key components of toxicity.

Traits of toxic individuals

Gaslighting is perhaps the primary trait of a toxic person. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which the target is made to question his or her own observations, perceptions, and intuition by being fed constant contradictions to obvious reality.

Any time someone tries to tell you how to feel, or questions your experience, they are gaslighting you. If someone tells you, “You aren’t scared!” or “I did not make you feel that way!” they are gaslighting you. How can they possibly know how you feel? Only you know how something made you feel.

Toxic people call you crazy, or some variation of this. This is a tricky one… Sometimes toxic people have mental health struggles of their own. This is when it becomes crucial that you be accountable. You don’t want to get into the most toxic circular argument of all, that goes something like this:

“You’re crazy!”

“No, you’re crazy!”

“Am not! You’re way crazier than me!”

When I was sorting through my toxic relationships, I found the objective assessment of a trained counselor very helpful. I would ask my therapist routinely if I handled a situation appropriately, how I could have improved, and whether or not I was showing any signs of mental illness.

It helped so much to have an objective professional tell me that I was on the right track, that I was not crazy, as I was being told, and to have guidance as to how I should proceed when faced with highly manipulative individuals. It also helped me maintain accountability. Remember, you are just as capable of being toxic to others as they are to you. Stay on top of it!

You are called petty, or selfish, or mean. The thing to keep reminding yourself, over and over, is that setting and maintaining boundaries is an act of love – love for yourself, and love for the other person. When we set boundaries, we are establishing a line between where we end and the other person begins. We are showing who we truly are, independent of everyone else.

There are going to be people who don’t like this new you. Your boundaries are going to be really threatening to them, particularly those who have a lot invested in things staying the same. They are going to try to talk you out of your stance by insulting you (“You are a terrible son!” or “I guess I assumed you actually cared!”).

Remind yourself that the other person is hurting, love them where they are at, and decide that you deserve better than being in close relationship with this person, at least until he or she can come to a healthier place.

Remember, there is nothing petty about standing up for yourself. There is nothing petty about setting healthy boundaries. Dismissing someone’s feelings as mere pettiness is one of the most common tactics toxic people use to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions.

They will tell you they know you better than you know yourself. This is, of course, ridiculous. It doesn’t matter if the person birthed you from their own loins, or has known you since the day you were born, or has been married to you for 20 years, or whatever your connection. No one knows you better than you know yourself. Variations of this include, “You don’t know what’s good for you,” and “You don’t know what you want.”

They don’t listen to reason. This is another tricky one that requires accountability on your part. If you are screaming obscenities at a person, it isn’t fair to expect them to listen. Ensure that you are not being equally toxic in the relationship. Get professional help from a licensed therapist if you need help learning how to relate in a healthy, productive way.

Once you are certain you are being calm and rational, you will know you are in a toxic relationship if the other person is still screaming obscenities, or simply chooses to completely ignore or dismiss your boundaries. Whether someone is raging in anger or suffering in solemn silence, they are toxic to you if they choose to completely disregard your boundaries.

They make you feel guilty. Guilt can be a healthy emotion. Sometimes guilt helps us do the right thing, or right wrongs we have already done. But in toxic relationships, guilt is abused. If you have done the hard work of being accountable and are setting healthy boundaries in a relationship, you shouldn’t feel guilty.

Remember that there are no victims in redefined love. You love everyone equally. You simply choose where you end and others begin, and you maintain those boundaries. The only one a toxic person is a victim of is themselves, and their own shattered sense of self.

They build an army against you. Toxic people are deeply insecure. When someone stands up to them, they see it as a threat. No matter how lovingly you set your boundaries, they are going to view you as an enemy. A toxic person views boundary setting as a declaration of war. In war, battle lines are drawn and everyone takes a side. Toxic people become obsessed with amassing others to their side.

Be careful here! It’s tempting when someone is gossiping about you and aligning others against you to react in-kind. Don’t! In redefined love we must love others where they are at. Recognize that the other person is hurting and scared, but don’t engage in the drama. If you do, you become equally toxic, and it is impossible to redefine love.

There is a purpose

Every relationship has a purpose in your life. Just because someone is toxic doesn’t mean you can’t learn from the experience of knowing them. In fact, if you don’t learn from every single relationship, you are wasting valuable opportunities for growth.

In redefined love you love everyone, even those who are difficult to love. Toxic people are a product of Shame Cycles that began long before they were born. They have been generationally poisoned by the shame of people they haven’t even met. When you can recognize toxic people as receivers of shame as well as givers, it is easier feel compassion for them and love them in spite of their toxicity.

Just remember, love is not equal to forgiveness, but love does lead to forgiveness, which is crucial for your own emotional well-being.

An act of courage

Toxic people can be very intimidating. And toxic families can be downright terrifying. If you’ve towed the line your whole life, suddenly deciding to “out” your toxic family is not going to go over well. It’s normal to feel scared when you start setting boundaries where none existed, with people who have zero concept of what a boundary even is. The biggest pushback will be from those who stand to lose the most. The more toxic the person, the more resistant they will be to redefined love.

But know that there will be those who respect what you’re doing, even if they don’t yet have the courage to stand up for themselves. It is entirely possible that you will inspire others to healing, which is a beautiful thing indeed.

Toxic people are going to gaslight you and try to change your reality (“You don’t love me or you wouldn’t be shutting me out like this!”). They are going to immediately get on the phone and social media and start recruiting other family members and friends to take their side.

Don’t let someone else decide your truth. Don’t let anyone intimidate you into compromising your integrity or your boundaries. Remind yourself over and over, “Just because they say it doesn’t make it true.”

Love yourself enough to stand your ground, and love the other person enough to maintain your boundaries. How will they ever grow and change if nobody ever stands up to them?

Learn to let go

We have a responsibility to those we love, and we love everyone, regardless of their toxicity. Our responsibility is to know ourselves well enough to set firm boundaries for a healthy life, and to respect others’ boundaries as well. We must give ourselves permission to let go of relationships that are not serving a healthy purpose in our lives.

We must also allow other people to let us go. Sometimes, that is more challenging than letting go of those who have harmed us. It involves being truly honest about how we have hurt others, which is never an easy task. It hurts our pride to admit that we have been toxic to other people.

Few of us intend to be toxic. By redefining love, we can accept that other people have a right to be wherever they are. If someone decides he or she is at a different place, we must respect their boundaries. We can also accept that those who hurt us are in their own place, and we can love them from a safe distance.

Remember, redefined love is not equal to forgiveness. They are two separate things. Visit the Forgiveness page for more information on the difference between love and forgiveness.

If you feel at any point like you want to harm yourself or someone else, seek professional help immediately or dial 911. You are worth too much to the world to choose otherwise.

The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for the specific purposes of learning to set boundaries and hold yourself and others accountable with love and grace. For mental health diagnosis questions or clinical mental health treatment or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.

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