Until a few years ago, the only context in which I heard the word “toxic” was in regards to substances or waste. Now it seems like everywhere I turn there is a new article about how to cleanse your life and ditch your “toxic relationships.” This viral trend advocates for people, especially women, to exercise more agency within their relationships and refuse to tolerate harmful partners, friends, or colleagues. But, is it possible we’re overgeneralizing who and what qualifies as “toxic” in our lives? Articles like, “6 Ways to Cut a Toxic Friend From Your Life for Good” and “10 Signs of a Toxic Friend Who is Secretly Poisoning Your Life” advocate for the villainization and complete rejection of supposed friends. Of course, if a friend, or anyone, is truly a damaging presence in your life, they do not deserve to remain a part of it. But in this new spotlight of cleansing your social circles and practicing self-care, should we just disregard those around us? What about our friends that struggle, fall apart, hurt us, but are still the people we know, love, and chose as our closest companions? Are those friends toxic, or just human?
First, I think it’s important to make a distinction between toxic behavior and mistakes. Much of the language surrounding the explosion of op-eds and editorials describing toxic relationships emphasize friends or partners mistreating another person. Psychology Today lists behaviors such as lying, apathetic engagement, refusal to deal with conflict, inability to apologize, control, and manipulation as some of many red flags associated with a toxic relationship.
Of course, this type of treatment is mistreatment, but let’s not confuse it with honest mistakes. Let’s not conflate emotional abuse with loved ones who may hurt us inadvertently, who may be going through their own struggles whether we know it or not. Is it really worth it to cut someone out of your life if they’ve been going through a rough patch and have not been there for you as you need them to be? I would say, if this behavior is the exception and not the rule, then no. Why is it necessary to end a relationship instead of communicating and working through problems?
But, of course, there must be a prioritization of self-preservation and care over continuous forgiveness. In these instances, I think it’s better to ask not what a friend or partner did, but instead how they made you feel. Do you like the way they made you feel? Do they make you feel this way often? If the answer to this question is every time your ex-S.O. re-enters your life you end up crying on your bathroom floor, then I’d say the answer is no; they’re toxic. And this isn’t to say that when someone is toxic in your life that they must be regarded as absolute evil. We all know people and relationships are more complicated than that. But we tend to try to categorize our relationships this way: good or bad, healthy or toxic, uplifting or detrimental. The difference is that a toxic friend need not be disregarded as a toxic person; they may have many, if not countless, positive and redeeming qualities, but if they are toxic to you, the relationship might be causing more harm than good. If they can’t give you what you need or vice versa, if your communication cannot reach a common ground or compromise, are they the kind of person you need to be surrounding yourself with? But if you have a relationship, no matter what kind, where the other person wants to apologize, work on a process of repairing and rebuilding a relationship, and was going through a tough personal time, do you just cut them loose? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what friendship, or any caring human relationship, should be. True friendship and understanding mean caring about your friends, even when they let you down, even when they aren’t at their best. I would hope it means being able to advocate for your own needs and emotions while simultaneously supporting a friend in a time of need.
So let’s not write off the ones we supposedly care about most as “toxic” at the drop of a hat. Let’s be open to second chances, but maybe not so open to third and fourth and fifth chances. Let’s assess how we feel and look to establish healthy patterns within our relationships with others and ourselves. Let’s communicate about what bothers, hurts, drives, or supports us. I would think that the people that will stick around will be more than willing to work to give us those things, and we would be willing to give them what they need as well. Let’s not lose our empathy in our pursuit of self-fulfillment.
Feature image by Vanessa Granda