How the Discussion on Toxic Stuff was becoming a little Toxic for me.
Illustrations by Nandita Ratan
‘If he brings up his ex often and talks about how strange she is, then he is not over her, because he is still not indifferent to her’. I read something along the lines of this on Instagram and thought about how many times my partner has brought up his ex in a conversation. Not many times. I have definitely talked about my ex, more than he talks about his. I am not sure of many things. But I am certain that I am over my ex.
My partner and I have discussed our previous relationships with candour, including what we think are the reasons they didn’t work. We had been best friends for years before we started dating and now have been dating for almost two years. When we were friends, we would talk about our romantic interests and our then-partners in detail. Why then would either of us discussing complicated feelings about our previous relationships in hindsight, be construed as a red flag? And though, I still think my ex was a wonderful person, my partner is not quite fond of his ex. This has something to do also with how our exes acted with us after our respective relationships with them.
Over time, we have confided in each other about our friendships, relationships, hookups, work etc. just like any typical best friends. If I had judged (or judge) our conversation by the toxic red flag checklist though, where would be the place for all this context, this intimacy?
Popcorn opinions/hottakes masquerading as universal logics to sit in moral judgment over all relationships make me uneasy. Mostly, they are about things far removed from the realities of my relationships. I feel bad about the dating landscape for women when I think of this – but at the same time, I note a telltale sense of relief that they mention things that I am confident have not been a part of my relationships. But this relief is a part of the binary of us (wholesome) vs them (toxic) and it is becoming increasingly precarious because toxic is a word thrown around so routinely these days. We use it to label people and describe behaviour or relationships.
Here is another example, ‘it is a red flag if your partner goes out of their way to keep your relationship secret and you must leave that toxic person.’
I am your average Type A, ambitious, emotional person. I have felt during school and continue to feel at university, that sometimes my activities are subjected to more scrutiny than I would like (or maybe I am just self-important and have conspiracy theories about myself). I did have some insecurities when I first started dating at university. They were fuelled by the fact that some of my friends would come to me and ask if I was actually dating X as rumoured (who I was indeed then dating) and how they hadn’t believed it because X didn’t seem like my type (I didn’t know I had a type, much less what it was). My female friends, who I wasn’t as close to, as I was to X, took the liberty to tell me flatteringly that I was way above X’s league. Except it wasn’t flattering. I didn’t want to be judged for my dating choices. More importantly, I didn’t want my partner to be compared to me (or me to him) in the extremely hierarchical (and, well, toxic) pecking order that dictates leagues and status, in relationships.
I went out of my way to keep it from everyone that I was dating him, not because I was ashamed to be with him, but only because I didn’t want to hear unsolicited opinions about our relationship. I told a few close friends and requested them to not tell anyone either. Only a few close friends know about my current relationship too. It doesn’t bother either me or my partner, and frankly the lack of external judgment is super comforting in many ways. He is free to tell anyone that we’re together if he really wants to. However, I prefer keeping our relationship private, and he respects that preference. The internet will tell me this is toxic, because there are no grey areas in a listicle I guess.
This discourse around ‘toxicity’ is so decontextualized and oversimplified that it is completely impervious to the complexity that undergirds the act of understanding and knowing someone intimately. People act and react in various ways, because of multiple reasons and their respective equations. Every relationship exists on its own terms and one takes the time to understand if those are terms that feel understandable or non-negotiable to the people in it.
Though I know this intellectually, these judgments and absolute declarations are so noisy around me and I find it hard to be immune to them. Viewing relationships and behaviour through the prism of these external standards, makes me feel more alienated and clueless than I ordinarily and actually do, when I am romantically involved with someone. A strange second-guessing starts to creep in. As a feminist, I do place upon myself the responsibility of ensuring that I must make a fuss about something if it seems ‘toxic’ to me. If I don’t, and if I rationalise it with other factors that could possibly cause it, I find my self-concept, my idea of my beliefs, under attack. If the internet is telling me that something is wrong, and so many people in the comments to such posts affirming that they ignored the ‘red flags’ talked about, am I just making excuses for myself or my partner?
Here’s another commonplace and popular piece of advice: if he is not chasing you, then don’t text him. You deserve someone who will bring you flowers, pick up your calls on the first ring and text you, and double and triple text you till you reply. Where is the space in all of this for the mundane, for sometimes just not wanting to talk? These context deaf snippets of wisdom, construct relationships like some highlight scenes from rom-coms. Labelling relationships in absolute terms, they remain oblivious to and maybe invalidate, their ambiguity. They limit the creative possibilities of growth and self-examination that relationships can offer.
If it’s almost been a day since he has texted, should I listen to the internet’s advice that 24 hours is too long a time for someone to not miss you or should I think about the fact, that I have not texted him either? Am I still making excuses? If I text him, once I have decided to not text him till the next day, is it because I cannot stick to a course of action,? If he sends a lovely song in the middle, should I let go of a grudge that’s meaningless anyway and respond affectionately? Or should I assert my boundaries because I have been letting go of too many grudges of late which is filling me with prickly resentment against him that resurfaces in overreacting to things every time we disagree? Can we call it an overreaction, if it is based on experiential knowledge (resentment)? I haven’t seen my partner for the better half of a year now and though, we have been in a long-distance relationship before, this is the longest we have gone without seeing each other in person.
But sometimes, I think about the intentionality of his embrace, the loving warmth of his arms and all the familiarity we have had over the years. It makes me wonder if he’s just busy today and not in the best mood to talk, and I should stop looking for patterns, because both of us are frequently busy and continue to make it work besides that. Don’t all relationships reveal their own patterns, their own ethical logics? Can we see behaviours as homogenous and ready to pass quality checks like items in a factory line?
At any given point of time, these conversations around toxicity and standards, and the slippery slopes they lead to make me question everything in my relationship. I have known my partner for so many years, which should (and does) inspire immense trust. But does that faith make me more vulnerable to being oblivious to the telltale red flags of his concealed toxicity?
I am an overthinker. Sometimes obsessing over things only saddles me with worry without leading to any authentic insight into myself or my world. This habitual, lazy self-indulgence, of catastrophizing to imagine the worst, ends up making me sure about just only this – that I know nothing about what’s going on. This external set of governing logics makes me perceive our relationship, and both me and my partner in absolute terms. We become types and antagonists instead of complex persons who can engage with each other based on negotiables and non-negotiables that are arrived at more authentically. I am expected to serve some set of unbending, unambiguous, external rules without room for the utterly, helplessly human emotions that underlie intimacy.
I don’t know where I was going with writing this but maybe I write it as an appreciation post for Agents of Ishq, for it covers what Twitter and Instagram red flags leave out of the picture.
Conversations about toxicity in intimate relationships are incredibly important. We are presumably at our most unguarded in relationships and it is likely that we may lose sight of when we are being taken advantage of and manipulated. This is particularly true of women, because of how we are socialised, and used to making excuses for those who mistreat us. These signals/red flags can then get us back on track. I am lucky enough so far, to be a part of what I would like to think are healthy relationships but the discourse around ‘toxicity’ has ensured I can never be certain if my relationships are actually not toxic. The tight frameworks supposed to help me realise the ‘truth’ underneath my relationships, sometimes just erode my confidence in my own judgement and obscure the truth about who I am. Their simplified language of victimhood, while claiming to be ‘for’ women, often rides roughshod over women’s agency to love and stop loving, their resilience and their consciousness of what is happening to them, their ability to accept mistakes and learn from them. Sometimes, I think I am less scared of being in a toxic relationship for the harms it can cause than of being the agency-less victim talked about in posts regarding toxicity.
This leaves me confused. Often.
Sites like Agents of Ishq are an oasis of respite in this crazy carnival of relationship advice dished relentlessly, in the most generalised manner, usually with little distinction between causation and correlation. Which brings me back to patterns- because patterns can help us tell apart causation from correlation.
I have to say, I hate actively searching for patterns. Here is why. For instance, I keep a journal, but I record only unpleasant experiences in it, since recording them calms me down. If I’m happy and grateful, I’ll send dumb texts or call up to communicate. But if I’m sad I’ll become the writer version of a teenage boy listening to heavy metal and relating to lyrics, that are honestly too extreme for anything that I could be going through then. So, I only journal when I am angry and deeply sad at something my partner has done. As a result, anyone can guess what patterns would emerge on studying my journal, and the unreliable conclusions they would lead to. In fact, I would only open my journal when my heart is heavy and my judgment blurred due to disappointment, which would mean that previous entries would also be read with renewed confirmation bias.
This leads to self-doubt, which is not necessarily wrong and also can be the core of moral intelligence as many smart people have already noted. But the content I consume probably exacerbates this self-doubt a little too much. It tells me I am not the ‘girlboss’ I should be (everyone knows girlbosses are annoying but many of us would rather be one than feel like our partners are victimising us in more ways than we can fathom).
I feel like I am letting down the sisterhood along with myself, if I don’t find these patterns and obliterate them, say goodbye to the person I am with once and for all without second guessing myself or texting him again because I can always do better and I should never settle for less.
This toxicity discourse further alienates me by making me believe, on the other hand, that toxic men and relationships are all-prevalent and my odds of finding a kind partner with average levels of empathy are frighteningly low. Maybe they are low (aaaarghh) and I am just too young and stupid to accept it? So, funnily enough, I must either let go of my partner forever in the girlboss fashion prescribed or never let go of him because he’s one of the rarest of his kind that are left. I don’t know whether I must do either of these to prove a point to myself, to make my relationships the testbed for my politics or because I feel compelled to live up to external standards and the behaviour, they impose about toxic vs wholesome relationships.
But Agents of Ishq, provides specific and nuanced perspectives on what goes on in relationships, a world of experiences, the wisdom of people living and learning from life. I wouldn’t claim that it makes me any less confused, but its groundedness in concrete realities and experiences comforts me and gives me room to think about myself. My confusions are my own then, and I start to feel it’s natural to think about them on my own terms. Questioning yourself, your partner, life choices, intuitions and impulses is a necessary part of growth. However, Agents of Ishq is a mellow affirmation, letting me think at my pace, letting me find strength in my vulnerability, when so many other sources seem bent on telling me the meaning of my experiences.
I hope that one of the results of massive investments in relationships, is being able to be my messy, emotional, instinctive self without feeling the need to live up to any external benchmarks of strength/foresight/intelligence to protect myself from ‘toxicity’. I hope that what I learn from my relationships, will be the things that love and feminism can both potentially teach us: to recognize each context for what it is, to become the person you want to be, believing ever more deeply in yourself and in the good things the world has to offer.
Lakshmi is a law student. For now, the things she’s really wanted to do, luckily seem doable. Sometime down the line, she hopes to take a creative writing course, write fiction and have more conversations with people that leave her brooding (in a nice way).