You can’t just blame your partner and walk away from crazy. You have to change.
I’ve used a lot of euphemisms to explain why my partner and I, who have been together for nearly five years, broke up about nine months into our relationship.
“We weren’t ready for each other.”
“I’d just gone through a divorce and had a lot of baggage to sort through.”
“We weren’t on the same page.”
“We needed to work on ourselves.”
All of this is true on many levels, and yet there’s a vital piece of information that I almost always omit when I tell the story about how, after three months of doing some spiritual homework, we found ourselves back in each other’s arms. I don’t talk about the fact that a huge reason our relationship ended was that I did some pretty nasty stuff.
On the night that our budding relationship ended, I was a hot mess. I embarrassed my boyfriend in public, at a dinner celebration held in his honor. I made his friends (and some of mine) shift uncomfortably in their seats at my scornful tone and my dramatic, tearful exit. I subjected my boyfriend to a screaming match on the corner of a busy intersection. “You don’t care about me! You never did! You’re a selfish fucking asshole!”
There were many contributing factors that precipitated my meltdown. At the end of the day, we were both responsible for exploding things: He was unflaggingly stoical about expressing emotion. He made wayward remarks that were often hurtful and insensitive. He was wishy-washy when it came to our future together, or whether or not we even had one.
But to be perfectly honest, I was the one who lit the match and threw it in.
I am typically a patient and loving person in most of my dealings with people. I care about the effect I have on others. I am attentive to my partner’s needs and feelings—most of the time. At least when I’m not busy stonewalling, scorning, and going from 0 to 60 with my temper.
These are things I’ve had to be vigilant and brutally honest about in the last five years. When my propensity for expressing pain and frustration through yelling and stabby, jabby insults became clear, he said, “I think you’re a little intense for me.” Another euphemism. Intensity is fine; intensity is the bedfellow of seduction. Erratic, emotionally abusive behavior, however, is not.
I’ve read a lot of stories where people lament the behavior of their crazy ex-girlfriend or narcissistic ex-boyfriend. But most people don’t really want to see themselves as the “toxic” one in the relationship. We’re loathe to look in the mirror.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am the product of my upbringing. I’ve been working for close to 36 years to diminish its negative effects, which include screaming above other family members in order to be heard, employing name-calling (often in the presence of outsiders) as an acceptable reaction to someone else’s “bad behavior,” and sometimes even resorting to physical violence.
I’m innately sensitive to cruelty, and I’d always believed I’d dodged a bullet when I left home at 17. But in retrospect, while I may have set myself apart from my family as an “evolved soul,” I had already internalized and normalized much of what I’d experienced growing up. On an unconscious level, I was looking to replicate my idea of home (as twisted as it might be) in my relationships.
In considering how my behavior is toxic to both me and my partner, I don’t advocate becoming an accommodating milquetoast or avoiding righteous indignation altogether. The energy of violence, when channeled constructively, can often manifest in passion and important intimate breakthroughs. I appreciate passionately outspoken arguments. Sometimes straying outside the etiquette zone is necessary in order to bring you back into equilibrium with your partner. Sometimes, saying the “unsayable” rather than pussyfooting around each other’s feelings can even lend itself to comic relief.
But there’s a fine line between livening things up and stretching your relationship beyond its capacity. Passion shouldn’t be used as an excuse to fight dirty or to batter your partner into resentful submission. Certain things, once said, cannot be taken back. They only serve to create hairline fractures in an already shaky foundation.
Many people who complain about being with toxic partners often fail to see themselves as an integral part of that toxicity. I don’t mean to victim-blame or suggest that both partners are equally responsible for all emotional abuse that gets meted out in a relationship. I have simply noticed that toxicity is typically part of a two-way pattern. When we learn to normalize toxicity (as I did when I was a child), we are not immune to stooping to the same tactics—sometimes, as a matter of survival, sometimes because we are porous beings who quickly imbibe and imitate our environment. Have you ever found yourself swearing more after being with someone who swears a lot? Enough said.
Although my boyfriend and I eventually started over and are happier than ever, we are not enlightened beings when it comes to love. We still fight, and we certainly engage in toxic behavior from time to time. The difference is that arguments don’t get out of control the way they did in the beginning, and it is relatively easy to return to a place of loving, respectful communication.
I’ve had friends suggest that my meltdown was actually the catalyst for a more emotionally honest connection. There is some truth to this. When my partner and I went our separate ways, the dramatic breakup prompted each of us to do some much-needed soul-searching. Still, I can’t say I’m proud of how I behaved. You can grow in a relationship without burning it to the ground first.
Lately, I’ve been considering what toxicity means in relationship. There are certain lines that I will never cross, but there are countless guises of toxicity that are not as obvious as putting down my partner’s intelligence or controlling what he does with his time. For example, acting out when he doesn’t fulfill my needs is toxic. Denying him affection as a consequence of perceived slights is toxic. Disabusing him of his right to be treated with dignity and respect is toxic.
I know that I have the power to stop myself from bringing the guillotine down on my relationship. When the itch to say something really mean comes up, I’ve discovered that certain tools are helpful. Choosing my battles by walking away to cool off before I say anything I regret is helpful. Doing the vulnerable thing and simply stating, “I’m really angry” without blaming my partner often tempers the intensity of my feelings and invites empathy. Getting curious about my own emotions and offering myself compassion has saved me loads of pain and relationship drama more times than I count.
Everything we do has the capacity to strengthen or to erode our relationships. The words we choose to speak. The tone of voice we employ. The way we express ourselves. Simply put, the care we take of not just ourselves or the other person, but of the relationship itself. This requires the willingness to be curious about our own inner landscapes, and to admit painful truths about ourselves and our conditioning, knowing it’s in our power to actively transform them.
Nirmala Nataraj is an award-winning writer, editor, desire coach, and self-described taboo slayer living in New York.