Toxic is a term that gets thrown around a lot. This person is toxic. I just ended a toxic relationship. Our government is toxic. While these may be apt descriptions, its overuse is desensitizing and devaluing the full weight of its meaning.
Think about it this way: our physical bodies are presented with toxins daily. Some of them are environmental, some are related to the foods we consume, and some are bacteria-laden that rest in our body systems. When too many toxins are at work against our body we become ill, we no longer function at full capacity. When our defense mechanisms are overworked trying to rid us of these toxins, our bodies may not be able to respond to infections. In fact, the term sepsis—an often deadly response to infection—shows us exactly how detrimental toxins can be to our physical state.
Toxic relationships play along the same modus operandi. Yes, there are people and events that we recognize as unhealthy, and we do our best to keep our distance. Then there are relationships that we just can’t seem to let go of even though we know they are unhealthy. We create trauma-bonds with people, and once those bonds are formed, they become difficult to break. For instance, the co-dependent/narcissist bond is an especially addictive relationship. It feeds our mind, body and soul with a set of toxins that plague our spiritual health and worse, our mental health.
The most egregious offenders of toxic relationships tend to be the people with years of trauma bottled up inside; there’s no secret there. However, and this is especially true for narcissists, they are also the people who throw the toxic word around like it’s merely a set of unfortunate circumstances. They use it as a way to exit relationships when the timing is right for them. They use it as a way to belittle their partner, making the partner and anyone else who listens believe they’re the toxic one. Shamelessly, they use it as a replacement to avoid having to do any work on themselves.
“Oh, this was merely a toxic relationship. Now that I’m out, I’m totally fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. It was the relationship that was bad.”
Every human being participates in toxic behavior. Every human being is also responsible for their own actions and reactions. If your toxic behavior shows up because of something that another person said or did, you’re still the one with the toxic behavior. It’s still your responsibility to own your behavior, check it, and fix it. End. Of. Story. Except that highly toxic people weaponize that word against others to free themselves of the need for any reflection or personal growth. Not only is that highly damaging to the other person in the relationship, it’s going to be damaging to the next relationship and the one after that, and the one after…
This isn’t to say that the use of the word toxic is wrong to describe relationships with others. The purpose of this is to be cognizant of the word’s use as a red flag for people who are more intent on making themselves look good than doing the hard work that comes with rebuilding after a breakup. So pay close attention to these things: Is someone calling their former partner toxic without expressing any remorse for their role in the relationship? Is someone using it to absolve themselves from any wrongdoing? Are they using it to describe the state of a person’s mental health while not checking in on their own? Answering yes to any of these questions is a red flag. It means that there is a person close to you whose trauma is so profound that they will place the blame with anyone but their self. So, please refrain from destigmatizing the word “toxic.” It is a hefty word and doesn’t deserve to be used lightly or in blame.