Writing Toxic Relationships

I was reading through my other blogs, and came across my post on Toxic People, and thought it might be an interesting fit here. Since relatively few people know my other blog, I’m hoping this is only a repeat for a minority.

In reading, or in viewing films, I tend to be drawn to relationships among people. One of the more interesting relationships are between main characters and those whom are a net negative in their lives – toxic relationships. In writing such characters, and relationships, we writers must paint in shades of gray. Too often, characters that can be viewed as an antagonist are painted in black and white – they are negative, so they are all bad. That isn’t how it works in real life. Therefore, if we write all toxic relationships as if they are all negative, we run the risk of creating stereotypes.

In real life, it takes skill to determine when someone is toxic. It isn’t obvious right away, and shouldn’t be in your writing. Part of our growth as people is in discovering who is toxic, and how to deal with them. The same should be true of our characters.

Good vs. Evil - Flyinfrogg on Deviant Art

I have characterized below some of the Toxic People I have stumbled across in my experience as a Life Coach. Feel free to sample, and adapt as you will. I would be interested in seeing comments on others’ I’ve missed.

I know there are a bunch.

1Crabs in the pot – These people hate to see anyone lift themselves up. They are like crabs. When crabs are in a pot, when one gets right to the top, another crab will grab it and pull it back down. These friends are like that. They were there for you when you both struggled, but can’t seem to be happy for you when you don’t. There’s a reason: they don’t want you to succeed and leave them.

What should I know?  They aren’t as nice as you think. Sure, they may even like you. But they are just as prone to be envious of your happiness ( or success, hot spouse, good job. etc.) as they are genuinely happy for your success. The real issue isn’t whether they really love you. Let’s assume they are crazy about you. Unfortunately, they don’t see themselves climbing out with you (or don’t want to) so they need to pull you back in. What’s love got to do with it (to quote Tina Turner).

What can I do? Sure, if you know they have skills that will help them prosper, get them help seeing it. These should be people who are being paid to do this, but not you. If they genuinely start trying to pulling themselves out, be their best cheerleader, their mentor, their BFFF. If they only tell you why it won’t work, wave bye-bye. Climb out, if they climb after you, then see if the friendship is worth keeping.

2. Fleas & Ticks – They suck the life out of you. They take your money, your food, maybe just your time, your joy. Their job is to live off your gain. Whenever you are up, they are down. When you have, they want, or neeeeeeddddd. It doesn’t matter what it is, they needed it way more than you, and you are a selfish bastard (though they won’t ever say it, just make you feel guilty) for hogging it for yourself.

What should I know?  Their main goal in life is to feed off others. They are not your friend, your boy, your BFF. You’ve likely suspected for a while they are leeches. Heck, you’ve even defended them to your other friends. Here’s a clue: your friends were right. They are what they appear to be: users.

What can I do? Pluck them off. Then hold an “I plucked the bitches off party.” Then invite me. I’ll bring wine (or whine, depending on my mood).

3. The Buzz Kill – No matter what you are happy about (new love, new job, new dream) they are just SO WORRIED about you. They are there for one reason. To kill your hope. After all, why should you be happy? They aren’t.

What should I know?  They suck. They are like fleas and ticks, with a key exception. They are motivated primarily by negativity and jealousy. Their goal in life is to ensure the world stays as miserable as they are. At least fleas are trying to get over. These fools are just trying to make sure the world stays dark. I know you are hoping just once they will validate you by being happy for you. They won’t. Why? It’s not about you, it’s about their having power. They express this futilely impotent power by ensuring that no one around them has a distorted view that people can actually be happy. So what is the real, ugly secret? They really believe this shit, and you can’t change them. God doesn’t exist, dreams don’t come true, you are a fool, and they have some lovely pills that will make it alllllll betterrrrrr.

What can I do? Tell them to take one of their damned pills and a leap. I don’t care if it is your sister. She needs therapy, meds, and desire to climb out of the shit. Unless you’re her social worker, move on or risk becoming just as negative. One clue: look at rich people. I dare  you to find a negative one. Negative people are broke as hell. Yup.

4. The Big Sister/Brother – this is the most dangerous of all, because they are friendly fire. At some point, they were probably genuinely there for you. But you grew up, and they didn’t notice. The tendency is to try and convince them that you’re grown. They are likely mad that you’ve “pushed them away” now that you’re happy. In fact, that’s probably a part of why you are happy. This is about control. Your inabilities have become part of their self-esteem. If you don’t need Big Sis, then what is she supposed to do with all that great advice? Here’s a suggestion: use it to fix her own (likely) screwed up life.

What should I know?  You can grow into the big bro/sis role and help them. They love you, and really do mean well, but that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice your well-being to keep from hurting them. They think you need protecting, so be successful and prove them wrong.

What can I do? Keep on your path; gently, ever so gently keep them at a sufficient distance that you can get where you want. Then, and only then, help them get there with you. If they are already successful, they will be happy you joined the party. If not, and if they don’t want your help, cry, then call me. I’ll buy you a drink, (or a lot of drinks and we’ll cry about it together). But be proud of yourself for trying. Whatever you do, do not believe you are limited to being who they believe you are. I don’t care if you’re 80, God isn’t finished with you yet.

5. The Sinking Ship (Also known as the Kamikaze) – this is not the most dangerous, but certainly among the most difficult to spot. Why? Because these are Good People. Note the bold, capital letters. I mean it. They are sweet, loving, sacrificial, and dead set on self-destruction. Often their singular flaw is a low opinion of themselves.

What should I know? You can’t save them, because they don’t want to be saved. They want to be punished. They have low self-esteem, or a dark secret they are hiding, or have simply been abused for so very long that they now believe they deserve it. If you love them, and stick by them long enough, they will not come around as you believe. Quite the contrary; they will begin to lose respect for you. How could you be a smart/good/deserving person if you would sacrifice yourself for someone like them.

What can I do? Point them to professional help. Then get the HELL out of the way. Run. Do not pass “Go” do not look back. They will save themselves or drown, but if you stay, I will be crying for you at your funeral.

6. Bucket O’ Crazy Just what it sounds like. They may talk to themselves, or seem a bit bipolar, or rant at odd times. They cry a lot, they are funny, and bright, and fucking nuts. They might actually be the most interesting people you ever meet. They have Big Issues, and you can see them, but they are a hoot, so you deal.

Alrighty then

What should I know? They might actually be as crazy as they pretend to be. If you are not a therapist, hang out, have fun, DO NOT fall into the role of their counselor. Trust me. I’m trained, and have done it, and it almost killed me. Love them, from a distance. Honestly, the best thing you can do is get them help. If they won’t take it, move the heck on.

What can I do? 1. Get them help. 2. Get them meds. 3. Get the heck away. 4. There ain’t no four.

7. Sociopath How do you recognize this one? Wow, um, it’s hard. They emulate feelings quite well, but do not actually feel them. A key is if they hurt you (emotionally, physically, sexually, etc.) on a continual basis, then are So. Very. Sorry. afterward. Um, no, they really aren’t. In fact, they have never had a genuine emotional response. They may “love” that you make them feel normal, but they don’t love you. It’s like how a guy may love how the Yankees make him feel when they win the World Series. It doesn’t actually mean they want to marry the Yankees. They may even want to love you, but you may as well try to make a mosquito love you. It can’t happen.

What should I know? The best trained therapists can’t help them, and neither can you. They aren’t all serial killers, you know. Some are ruthless businessmen, heartless bitches, ordinary wife beaters, losers who can only get a sense of accomplishment by controlling someone else’s life. Some are profoundly successful. But the one thing they have in common is THEY WILL NEVER, EVER CHANGE. Period. If you believe otherwise, you’re wrong.

What can I do? Nothing. Seriously. Even psychiatrists don’t have an answer. Avoid them if you can, run away if you can’t. Find a shelter, the police, anybody. Just get the hell out. I’ll pray for you.

8. The Love Hater This one is a new entry to the list, but probably not to you. Of all those listed, I find this person to be the most difficult to identify as toxic. Similar to the Big Brother or Big Sister, this person comes with a lot of compliments and well-intentioned advice. Unfortunately, for every good thing they say, there is a veiled insult. They are both your biggest cheerleader, and, whenever you stumble, the first person to explain to you what you did wrong. It is hard to call them on their insulting behavior, as often they don’t even see anything they say as insulting. The insults may come in the form of speculating on how you will react in a given situation, where they always seem to expect you to do poorly. Or, they will give advice on how you can understand and relate to others, despite the fact that you seem to have better relationships than they do. If you finally do decide their minuses outweigh their plusses, they will express horror that you don’t find them supportive. “I’ve always been there for you,” they exclaim.

What should I know? These people are deeply unhappy. Sometimes their unhappiness is hidden behind a “happy face.” Other times, even they are not aware of their deep-seated negativity. Although they claim to be your best friend, they are actually just another crab in a basket. If anyone, and I mean anyone, you know is consistently the person who believes in your weaknesses, they are not your friend.

They Are, therefore, They Hate

What can I do? Start by calmly playing back their negative expressions to you. Their first reaction will be to explain that they weren’t insulting you. Be firm. What they need to hear is that for every bit of positive affirmation, there is a negative that undermines it. If they won’t listen to you, and continue the behavior, you have two options. One, you can take the positive, and learn to filter out the negative. That may only work in the short term. The other is to get on the bus, Gus.

9. The Losing Coach – This one is similar to the Love Hater and the Big Sister. The major difference is that this lovely woman may be completely positive. She may believe in you completely. Every single thing they say might be a genuine affirmation. And they are full of advice. The problem is, their advice doesn’t work for you. You see, they really don’t understand you, as much as they may want to. If they continue to give bad advice, and you take it, and fail, you could become bitter. If you begin to push them away, they could become passive-agressive, which is the hallmark of the Love Hater.

What should I know? You can only coach a team in a sport you know. You can only coach a person when you understand them, what their needs and desires are, what the potential obstacles are, and what it takes to become successful toward that person’s stated goal. If they don’t “get” you, how can they help you achieve what you want in life?

What can I do? This may sound like sacrilege coming from me, but I say smile, and ignore them. If they love you, cheer for you, but don’t have a clue how to help you achieve your life goals, remember one simple rule: just because someone gives you advice doesn’t mean you have to take it. A simple, “Thanks, Uncle Buck, I’ll think about that,” works wonders. If they become too insistent, there’s always caller ID.

No, honey, you're not too thin. They're just jealous.

10The BFF/Co-conspirator – They are always there for you when you screw up. They get you. This person is the first one to tell you, “It’s not you. He was a jerk.” They make you feel So. Much. Better. What’s the problem, you say? Well, what if it was, in fact, you? Perhaps their always affirming your behavior is a major reason why you keep finding yourself making the same mistakes over and over.

What should I know? In order to grow, we need to surround ourselves with people who will be honest about our behavior. Now, honest doesn’t have to mean critical. It is very possible to be honest, and tactful, and loving. But always patting you on the back, even when you are wrong, isn’t being a friend. It’s being co-dependent.

What can I do? Realize that you and your BFF may have the same issues. How about finding counseling, or group therapy (if the situation warrants that), or taking a class, or any other positive step  … together? See if they will really make that walk as you face your own weaknesses. If they aren’t ready, then give yourself enough space to grow. Understand that if you need to push them temporarily away to do so, they make be hurt. But that’s okay. It’s the pain of separation that will provide the incentive to grow.

God keep you strong, or whatever does, if you don’t believe in God. Let me know what I’ve missed.

5 thoughts on “Writing Toxic Relationships

  1. alicamckennajohnson says:

    Since I have been doing this job and put my writing from hobby to career status I have been hideously selfsih with my time and many of these people feel to the way side. I have a few who are good peole and I care about them, but they are toxic. I feel bad ignoring them, but I don’t have the time, energy, or desire to hang out with them.

    1. Bill Jones, Jr. says:

      I have had to do that, in order to move on. Interestingly, most of the toxic people do better when I gently push them from my life. I think a bad relationship is bad for both parties.

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