Commentary | On Valentine’s day

A look into toxic relationships on the day of love

Content warning: Emotional and physical abuse, toxic relationships

Love is volatile – people are much more so. Today, with Valentine’s Day tomorrow, I will paint a picture at the progression of relationships and the way in which they can become unhealthy, eventually becoming completely detrimental, this leads not only to the deterioration of the relationship, but of both the people in them.

It starts like this: there has to be that ‘some thing’. You can’t quite tell what it is, but it pulls you towards them – maybe they’re reading your favourite book, maybe they even dog-eared your favourite parts, maybe you saw each other in a crowded room and conversations began to flow, maybe you took a class together and you fell in love. Next, it’s a friend request, an exchanged number, and suddenly you’re really hoping they’ll call. They do. Things begin. Magic happens. You find yourself watching the sunset from a rooftop and thinking, “This feels so right.”

Until one day it doesn’t feel quite so right anymore.

In this piece, I’m trying to focus on the kinds of relationships that are generally aren’t classified as toxic. This isn’t necessarily about relationships that are explicitly physically, emotionally or sexually abusive, but instead focuses on the implicit ways in which relationships can become toxic. The term ‘toxic’ is one that has varying meanings for different people. The dictionary definition of the word is “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing serious injury.” When put in the context of a relationship, this definition helps provide an explanation for the way that relationship between two people can sour to the point that staying in a relationship any longer will only bring an abundance of unhappiness.

Not all relationship become toxic before ending. Sometimes people simply realize that it isn’t working anymore, and they make their peace with it. The problem is when the realization does not come although it should, and instead, the state of your deteriorating relationship leads you to fight in more indirect ways. These fights skirt around the actual issues: both of you are slowly becoming more and more conscious of the fact that you are not happy together anymore. Instead of confronting this reality, you will fight about how they always fall asleep without sending you goodnight texts, about how they always chew their food too loudly, about how they came to brunch with your family in an unironed shirt.

“Little things reflect big things,” a friend of mine would say each time she found herself attempting to justify her endless rants about a colleague. That did not stop the same friend from staying in a relationship for three years even though she was crying almost every night about the latest way her partner had hurt her. Little things become big things when your partner of three years breaks up with you via text message, expressing that they simply do not love you anymore. Little things become big things because we let them, by sweeping our mess under the rug until the mess becomes too big to ignore any longer.

Once a relationship has become toxic, it is not much longer before signs of emotional, sexual and physical abuse will begin to appear. Being in a toxic relationship often consists of arguments and fights that stem from seemingly meaningless or insignificant
misunderstandings. The perpetually hostile environment this creates often leads individuals to feel as though they have been pushed against a wall – they become constantly defensive, and it is not too long before forms of aggression begin to manifest themselves into the behaviour of individuals. At this point, the relationship becomes about control, control is implemented through emotional and physical abuse.

It is important to understand that gender is one that has a very significant impact on the way people handle unhealthy relationships. Women and femme are more likely to stay in toxic relationships simply because of the unspoken understanding that relationships do not compliment women, but rather that they ‘complete’ them. The grand narratives in love stories are the same ones that keep women in unhealthy relationships. This is all owing to a misguided understanding of what it means to love “unconditionally.” Women should never be forced to remain dependent on their partners — in fact, no one should.

“What to do if you’re single on Valentine’s Day,” the headlines for magazines read every February. This confuses me: what difference does it make to be single one day, if you’re single every other day of the year as well? Each time I make a post on my personal blog detailing the latest example of the way sexism gets under my skin, at least one comment will tell me that my recognition of structural inequality is actually just an implicit cry for a boyfriend. I only laugh in response. Then I write more articles.

Maybe the reason relationships become toxic is because we are taught to want them so much. Maybe we want to avoid being alone so much that we are content with being miserable alongside our significant others, as long as we have a reservation for two at a nice restaurant for February 14.

My mother has a very active ‘sixth’ sense. I sometimes feel she thinks that it is the most important one of our senses as far as making decisions is concerned. Because of the way she has taught me to trust my own intuition, I find that I have been able to avoid many a potentially catastrophic situation. It works like this – first you have to realize that the situation is dangerous or toxic, and then you have to walk away from it. It is probably the most difficult thing in the world, but the moment you do it, you’re free.


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