Toxicity in relationships has been ALL the rage on social media since the pandemic (read more here, here, and here). And armchair experts all weighed in on the topic. When a friend or co-worker says or does something we do not like, that is toxic. Toxicity is really just another word for selfishness. When people use relationships to suit their own needs and wants, that is toxic. In short, we are all toxic to varying degrees in every relationship we maintain. I have some co-workers that leave me alone. I have some that bug the crap out of me. Some of those I could easily consider toxic. But toxicity is not framed in the behavior of others. What makes a toxic relationship toxic is my emotional response to others’ behaviors. If I get butthurt over a coworker’s comments, that doesn’t mean the coworker is toxic. It means that my emotional state with that coworker borders toxic fragility. I can accept that my own weakness contributes to the toxicity.
As we age, we all change. Some of those changes are physical, some are intellectual, and others are emotional. But we all change. I have a coworker that literally is a different person from what they were 20 years ago. Think about your own immaturity in relationships. When you were dating, you may have noticed something that your boyfriend or girlfriend did that was just adorable. Twenty years later, that same habit is like fingernails across a chalkboard. I know someone close to me that moves their mouth when they read. It used to be cute. But now, as they scroll through social media, it just annoys the tar out of me. That is the reality of many aspects of relationships. As we all age together we change. It doesn’t make the relationship toxic. It makes it different.
I have a family member with a bad temper. Nearly every day that person calls and complains about everything: home, work, family, coworkers, friends, life, destiny. It just seems that the entire universe is hell-bent on making this person’s life miserable. Anger is the emotion a person feels when expectations have not been met. There is nothing more to it. When I had some expectations of something going a specific way and that did not happen, I get mad. I can lean into the anger and try to regain control. Or I can let it go. As we grow older, hopefully, we learn to control our emotions while these foolish idealistic notions of youth begin to fade.
“I don’t mean to be unkind. But I’m thinking that I need a different view to break out from this box that I outgrew.”simplemachine
Life changes us. We learn more, grow more, evolve more. As my education has advanced, and I have learned to control my own emotional responses to disappointments, I find that I see things almost from outside the situation. Most of us outgrow the relationships of high school and college. There was nothing wrong with those relationships in their context, but they don’t survive the scrutiny of time because of emotional and intellectual (and maybe spiritual) maturation. Maybe more relationships fail, not from superficial toxicity, but rather a deep transformation that forces one person to outgrow the other. Maybe I simply outgrew the box of this relationship.
I had the opportunity to see a therapist for a season of my life. It was helpful. My biggest takeaway was this: I cannot change anyone else. But I CAN change me. Through my therapy, I realized that I had created unrealistic, and often unobtainable expectations of those around me. What was worse, I was bad at communicating those expectations. So, when people did not meet those impossible demands, I got upset. I was ALWAYS upset. Crazy, right? Therapy forced me to reconcile the gap between my expectations to my emotional response to disappointment. I started to expect nothing from anyone. And I refused to surrender to my anger. These two factors have changed my relationships with literally every person in my life. I work harder to make others happy. I try to be a model parent and husband (and fail miserably). I assist anyone in my workplace that I can. I aim to add value to those I have relationships with now and in the future.
When a person outgrows a relationship, there are two possible options. The first and obvious is to sever the relationship, cut losses and move on. There may be times this is the only or best option. The other is to try to help those around you grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, to maybe grow back into the relationship.
If I wanted to hock a religion, I would write a book about great heroes that always won and created the perfect society. Such is not the bible. The bible is full of flawed characters that live in tension with the people and world around them. The story is about growing in relationships. Think of all the broken and toxic relationships in the bible. When Jesus was 12, he had gained the approval and favor of the temple leaders in Jerusalem. Thirty years later, he had so outgrown them that they sought to, and eventually, killed him. But Jesus never gave into the emotion, but embraced their lack of growth and made it his mission to try continually to enlighten and change their thinking. Even in death, Jesus was elevating their consciousness. And that is how we should live.