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Toxic Relationships (3): Why They Taste so Good but Hurt so Bad

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

We get together with people to either build or burn ourselves.

A burning flame is beautiful and invites us to play with it, no matter the danger it warns us about. On the other hand, the act of building (character, bond, company) is laborious and frightening, no matter the safety and protection it promises.

Why do we want to burn?

If we develop excessively and the immediate environment does not offer room for expansion, we are to "reduce" ourselves to fit in. This can be done by "burning/ cutting/ destroying/ reshaping" some of ourselves, provided we want to stay in this same suffocating environment/ society. Still, it is not the external environment to decide, for we always have the choice (even if we do not see alternative options to choose from, it is a problem of our internal blindness, not of external deficiency) to move away from that limiting environment in search of a more stimulating one where we wouldn't be the biggest fish in the pond. On the contrary, then we would be able to meet new, different, and more challenging competition, learn and grow on its feedback, conquer foreign, potentially higher mountains, or simply enjoy weather that better suits our nature. Staying in one place, pilling up energy without moving about to waste/invest it into something, provides an excess "fat" that needs to burn. We recognize this need when we realize and admit that only what kills or endangers us makes us feel alive. When our character gets "fat," we instinctively enter into the 1st round of a burning relationship, usually described as a honeymoon phase of intense infatuation and inexplicable physical attraction. I'd call the 2nd round the time when the fever has gotten so consuming and overwhelming that we find our passion transformed into obsession before long. If the two people want to prolong the 1s round of "bliss," as we always do, the burning process starts damaging us both – our characters get weaker, fed on the sugar of the previous success and glory. The moment we start believing that too much of a good thing can never be bad, we have burned everything in excess and start burning what we shouldn't.

The moment we set ourselves on fire:

In order to choose to leave the comfort zone of enough "wood to chop" of ourselves to heat the whole of this small space we call all ours/ our kingdom, it takes:

  1. imagination ( all three: play out of different games of possibilities, fantasy, and creativity/ inventiveness) to even suspect there is anything out there beyond the horizon of the immediately observable and allow ourselves to consider that what lies there may be worthy of risk-taking

  2. courage to venture into the darkness of the unknown foreign and select it as the option after all and

  3. faith in our capacities to produce the better of outcomes after the migration, metaphorically speaking.

If we are not equipped with those qualities because we have not inherited (by observational learning with a role model) nor developed them independently, we are way too quick to blame our "toxic" relationship partner for being the death of us in the high-day of our bloom and blossoming; that they have "drunk all of our juices" without admitting to ourselves that this was exactly the kind of person we were looking for to do exactly this kind of job on us. What we were really looking for was to bump into something to reveal for us our own limitations and make us conscious of the deficiency (of imagination, courage, and faith, among others) we were blind about in the good old days before "the fall (in love) from grace." When we put ourselves in the position of the chaser and the formal initiator of the relationship, we are co-dependent on our object of desire. We are set on giving what we lack just as much as them by inertia. The illusion that we are some sort of savior and provider for our suffering partner blinds us to the fact that we are actually exacerbating the deficiencies, even more, when we have nothing healthy left to give but different shades of resentment, manipulation, and pessimism. We become sick and tired of being unsatisfied: unrecognized, rejected, and unloved. However, we still believe that we must keep on giving to deserve better when it is ourselves we need to take care of now (as always and forever).

The moment we set someone else on fire:

On the other hand, when we stop burning/ giving of ourselves to keep the cold one next to us warm, they instinctively leave us in an unconscious search for someone else to give to what we have given them (for it is not theirs intrinsically but a burden they feel the desire to get rid of as soon as possible). We are left with nothing else but to look around for someone new to comfort us, love us and build (=bring) us back to life - compensate for our previous relationship/ game losses. However, a healthy building process cannot happen without some time on our own for self-reflection and self-healing because wounded people do not possess the wholeness and completeness to use their energy as a building material for the third entity, which is the relationship. Note that there are a minimum of 3 entities in the healthy scenario: 2 partners and the bond in between. A toxic relationship starts with two entities and boils down to less than 1. Chemical energy is stored in the bonds between the atoms, not in the atoms themselves. A healthy scenario is possible when we aim to connect with another person, not collide and destroy everything. If we engage in a new relationship immediately after a disastrous one of big "fire of passion," we only force a new burning/toxic relationship where we have taken the role of our previous partner. This is so because until we have re-generated ourselves by ourselves, we would always expect the partner to supply for us. Even when they do so, we will reject it by giving it to someone else, who would give it to someone else, and so on ad infinitum, until this infectious chain of infidelity is the way we go to (unsuccessfully) medicate our wounds. The desperation to always outsource self-care, self-love, and self-acceptance is a bad advisor because we not only cling to the first one we bump into who is willing to take us - this act is unfair enough on its own because of the selfish motivation behind it and could not possibly lead to something good - but also because with time, instead of being grateful to the new person we share life with now, we become cruel to them because we perceive them stupid to give in of themselves so easily to someone who does not deserve it. The untreated low self-esteem we have inherited in the previous relationship of intense burning= decrease of practicing virtue, makes us believe that whoever happens to love us is a fool for we perceive ourselves unworthy of love; the moment someone starts liking us, we start thinking there must be something wrong with them - or they are just dumb and as such ultimately uninteresting to us to pursue from then on. In addition, we may believe they will always stay there no matter what (mis)treatment we serve them. As a result, we remain just as selfish as we have been in the previous relationship but on the other side: we cruelly fill in our deficiencies with the foreign matter of someone's excesses of stupidity. We have only migrated from a co-dependent into a contra-dependent toxic relationship.

Toxic relationships are ultimately penetrating.

This is why we feel in them the comfort of being truly known for who we are - it feels homey and cozy even when we start suffering from claustrophobia in this small, dark, closing space full of black mirrors telling us how bad we are. The "intoxication" is the belief in the reflections and their accusations, for we know they speak truths of the past, but we confuse them for life sentences in the prison of our own hopelessness and helplessness. Of course, the future can be better if we change the direction. Still, we are hooked on the past (direction) because we never forget how fortunate and privileged we felt to experience our burning into big bright, intense flames of passion (1st round) when we felt immortal and on top of the world, regardless of how tainted by a sense of foreboding that delight was. The memory of the first-time spark is the "promised land." The first time/round is magical because two people who have acquired more than enough for their local environment's standards but do not care to know what to do with it set it on fire and experience a sense of relief, fitting in, completeness, and perfection. (Much like the only A+ student who feels isolated in a class of Ds starts decreasing their grades in exchange for more popularity and less loneliness if they cannot figure the way out into a better environment where they would be among equals.)

In sum,

we engage in toxic relationships for the first time when we are too good for where we are (in life) and too scared to lose our "competitive advantage" by moving away from our comfort zone. Ironically, this is exactly what follows: we lose our standing not "abroad" but "at home." We could then misleadingly associate falling in love with falling from grace. This false association has a severe and lasting damaging effect on our faith in the opposite sex. The first toxic relationship starts not with the meeting of two "toxic" people but with two individuals with qualities or innocence becoming too self-assured or relaxed to lose sight and vision.

"For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds."

(William Shakespeare - Sonnet 94)

Toxic relationships have their seeds in the individual's complacency. Once seduced by the belief we are the greatest, someone of equal vanity comes alone to teach us (and be taught by us) a lesson in modesty and obedience. In the toxic relationship, our reaction to this critique is desperation hidden behind stubbornness. On the other hand, healthy relationships start the easiest when we have nothing left to lose. Then the humble but brave leap of faith in surrender to an unknown of little promise and much risk is the only option left. (Suicide is the ultimate form of vanity.) When hanging on the world's edge, love is our only path back to life.

The lack of imagination, courage, and faith call for cowardice, and cowardice runs for cover under the vanity. Only then do such two people find each other by recognizing their partner in crime by their mutual resemblance. The exposure of past, present and future uncommitted crimes begins. Self-esteem (deservedly) too high is bound to get (deservedly) too low. And the next rounds in the same direction (of abandoning work on self = building virtue and character strength) are among two people of esteem too low behind the facade of the esteem too high. How to turn the ship around is the subject of Toxic Relationships (5): How to Make them Healthy.

Ideally, before we ever dare to enter a toxic relationship, we would be reminded that we have come too far to give up who we are and we should raise the bar (elsewhere) instead. Remember who you are.

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