Living with Toxicity: Re-Collecting the Humanity of the Other

In my last post, I discussed some common experiences of cluster B relationship survivors with regard to meaning making in the face of behavior that is nonsensical and intentionally cruel. These relationships leave long lasting emotional scars that can result in a host of problems, including physical illness, depression, anxiety, soul loss, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), relational fears, and many more. In an effort to understand the abuse, survivors tend to saturate themselves with information during the education phase of their recovery process. Learning about the common playbook from which toxic persons seem to choose their behaviors exposes survivors to a language system that had heretofore gone unexplored. Psychological words like splitting give color and understanding to the phenomenon of how survivors were painted as all bad so that their former loved one could maintain their desperately needed status as innocent and pure. Armed with this knowledge, survivors begin to get a handle on what has happened to them. The problem is that this external focus—while initially salvific in its ability to offer some semblance of resolution in the face of the inexplicable relational about face communicated through the heartless process of devaluation and discard—ironically begins to mirror the same dynamic that sent them into research mode to begin with as they invariably cast the toxic partner in a negative light in order to maintain their own sense of innocence. To be clear, this part of the healing journey is a necessary one, for survivors must find a way to reclaim their own humanity before they can even begin to consider the possibility of seeing the toxic person as human.

Previously, I attempted to define humanity behaviorally rather than ontologically. That is to say, what is humane could be said to reflect humanity. What is intentionally callous or malicious would fall under some rubric of inhumanity. Of course, such a way of approaching this question is filled with philosophical and theological problems, but I do appreciate the way it perhaps gives more weight to the theological idea around how some may understand the personhood of Jesus who is commonly said to have been fully human and fully divine.  According to this definition, being fully human means that he embodied humane behavior with a wholeheartedness to which many people of faith aspire and orient their lives. Since I believe the primary purpose of faith is to develop a particular ethical praxis and posture toward the Sacred, the self, and others, the notion of being made in the image of the Sacred or uniting oneself with the personhood of Jesus has far less to do with our essential nature and much more to do with the manner in which our actions reflect the kind generosity of the Creator or the risk taking compassion of the one who would become the Christ. Bringing it back to the topic at hand, there is no doubt that, to the naked eye, cluster B relationship survivors and toxic persons are hard to distinguish from one another, but there is a sense in which you will know the humane (and therefore the measure of their humanity) by the fruit of their behavior and the motivations that undergird such actions.

A common question among survivors about their abusers is, "Do they know what they're doing?"  In other words, is there awareness and premeditation? Behind such questions is almost a desperate hope that such behavior could be explained away somehow so that they could still see their loved one as human but simply not in their right mind. The problem with such hopes is that survivors will continue to get lost in the maze of making excuses for unacceptable behavior. Acceptance that things truly are/were as bad as it seems/seemed is a hard pill to swallow because it also implicates the survivor for not seeing the signs along the way, for being unhealthy in themselves to have put themselves in such a relationship, and usually serves as a wake up call for them to look at some of their earliest memories that set the stage for this experience long before they encountered the toxic partner.  As Jackson MacKenzie argues in his recent book Whole Again, both parties in a toxic relationship bring protective selves to the table. For the most part, codependent persons will often find themselves in relationships with narcissistic or borderline individuals because they learned early on that in response to not having received the kind of care they needed and deserved they would decide to take on such care taking behavior for others so that they could manufacture a sense of worthiness through selflessness, usually to their own detriment. Narcissists and borderline persons lead with their protective selves as well, usually related to deep experiences of rejection and/or abandonment. Whereas those with BPD usually get lost in a pattern of self-sabotage and a constant need to be seen as the victim, persons on the NPD spectrum take the numbness they feel inside that doesn't allow them to feel shame or remorse and focus their attention externally through obsession with image and perception management. At the heart of their problem is a profound boredom that will inevitably find fault with others who must be seen as all bad so that they can maintain the inner charade related to their perpetual innocence. 

In essence, codependents and cluster B persons find themselves drawn to one another through their magnetic protective selves. While there are obvious reasons so much of the literature around emotional abuse related to cluster B disordered persons revolves around the inhumanity of their behavior, very little of it deals with the emotional woundedness that places people on the conveyor belt toward the persons who will inevitably take advantage of them. I can see why this would be the case. There is a latent fear that if survivors begin to employ their empathy and direct it at their former abuser it will lead to a slippery slope where they might excuse the inexcusable and begin to feel sympathy for them, which could lead to putting themselves in a position to relax important emotional and/or physical boundaries put in place for the sake of their own healing by entertaining fantasies about reconciliation. This is certainly a risk. At the same time, the journey of forgiveness toward which each survivor must embark necessitates re-collecting the humanity of the other because one's own humanity is at stake in the process.

One must begin to see that there is an inherent tragic element to one's own story as well as within that of the toxic other. Just as we are not to blame for the circumstances that led to our own need for protection, neither is the other person. However, while we are not to blame, we are nevertheless responsible for what we choose to do with the inheritance we've been given. If you are lucky and have been released from the constricting bonds of a toxic relationship, you are likely in the process of waking up. You have the opportunity to see each moment as pregnant with the potential for freedom and self compassion. You are hopefully moving in small and quiet ways toward greater humanity, toward better understanding what it means to be responsible for yourself and your emotions and no longer accepting that responsibility on behalf of others. Chances are slim that toxic persons are engaging in this same journey for reasons that should be obvious by now, but that is no longer our concern. It is possible to see with compassion the woundedness that brought you together without violating the much needed boundaries that keep you moving toward the wholeheartedness that is your true inheritance. When we can do this, when we can honor the broken humanity underneath the inhumanity, we are well on our way to creating the conditions necessary to entertain and redefine forgiveness for the sake of our own healing.

Krister White