This is the first and most urgent lesson of love: Stay away from toxic relationships. No matter how desirable your loved one, no matter how intoxicating the love or the perks, there will be only one outcome; pain that will gradually sink its hooks into your very core. When we ignore the signs of a toxic partner, we marry misery. Which is precisely what is happening in our country today.
This is the third in a series of posts exploring the fundamental intimacy lessons being acted out on the world stage through the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s presidency. My first post on this subject was written about a week before the presidential election. In that post, I listed the warning signs: Trump’s passion for fomenting hate, his narcissism, greed, and dishonesty. But Trump’s agenda sang to the agenda of vast numbers of Americans—and our country chose to marry him.
We’ve all seen the same story: The warning signs are there. The bad behavior is blatant. But the love is gorgeous. Or the sex transcendent. Or the perks too seductive. The promise of success in love enthralls us, and we carefully avoid the reality of those troubling poisonous moments. Seeing this happen to someone you care about is simply heartbreaking. The illusion is too strong; your entreaties and interpretations fail. Romance becomes commitment and you brace yourself for what comes next.
My second post was written after Trump’s election. In that post, I highlighted the signs of a toxic personality. Trump was finally in a position of breathtaking power; he had become the most powerful leader on the planet. His completely unpresidential bullying of allies, nations, minorities and countless perceived enemies, his constant lies and obfuscations, and his complete lack of remorse became even more frightening because now he had the full power of the presidency behind him. And still, legions of his supporters chose to tolerate the unacceptable. Fear played a big part in that choice, but so did politics. For example, electing an accused child molester to the Senate somehow became preferable to electing a Democrat.
How many of us have also chosen to stay in a toxic relationship? Once the bond of commitment is made, it becomes infinitely harder to leave. The stakes are raised. The further you get from the ground, the harder it is to jump. How many times do lovers also draw lines in the sand, only to erase them as part of the devil’s bargain they’ve signed up for?
Today, our president taunts and humiliates Kim Jong-un, a tyrannical leader who has promised to respond to his taunts with nuclear force. Trump is literally endangering our lives. As the Russia investigation intensifies, his need to incite violence seems to intensify as well. In desperation, his strategy is to whip his followers into a frenzy of rage and distrust. His conscious, or perhaps the unconscious goal is to weaken the retaining walls of democracy and make this into a government of his whims.
This is the next stage of toxic, abusive relationships. We lose sight of reality, as our abuser tells us again and again that our perceptions are nothing more than a kind of “fake news.” The risk of violence and danger becomes more real. Children are taken on drunken car rides. Brutality, subtle or severe, begins to consume the relationship. Loving moments may alternate with abuse with head-snapping speed. We watch our children being tormented, whether by the abuser or just by the situation. The emotional or physical abuse, the gaslighting (withholding information, or giving false information with the intent of weakening another’s sense of what is real and true), the threats and the guilt leave the victimized partner with a sense of inner devastation; their self-esteem so tattered that it feels almost impossible to leave.
Recently I was awakened from deep sleep with a visceral memory. On a deep-sea boating trip, I once watched a majestic fish leap out of the water, hooked by a fisherman as it fought for its life. When it was brought close to the boat, someone grabbed a gaffe with a metal hook at its end and drove it into the side of the fish. Now, with the metal claw embedded behind its dorsal fin, it became helpless. It’s passion to survive was frenzied, but there was no way to fight—it was paralyzed by the hook in its center, as it was pulled onto the boat. I thought, ‘This is what Trump is trying to do to our country; reel it in and make it his possession.’ As he fights to break the back of our free press, degrade the authority of our legislative system, and decimate the dignity and integrity of his office, I witness the gradual exhaustion of our outrage, the acceptance of this barrage of the unacceptable.
As a child of Holocaust survivors, I’ve learned what it means to see a country change, to have it inch toward new axes of greed, xenophobia, and prejudice. I know what it means to have the vulnerable lose their rights and their safety, bit by bit.
The greatest lesson of love is the first lesson of love: Stay away from toxic relationships.
- Stay away from people who lack integrity.
- Stay away from narcissists.
- Stay away from abusers.
- Stay away from people who trample the rules of basic respect and decency.
When we commit to a hard-stop, unequivocal no to toxic relationships and people, our lives begin to transform. In my work as a psychotherapist and in my life, I’ve seen this happen again and again: As we refuse abuse and stay away from abusers, somehow we find ourselves meeting healthier, kinder, more stable people. But it takes a hard, fierce and fully committed “no.” As a country, we have not yet reached our “no.” And thus, we find ourselves, our children, and our loved ones, at the brink of profound danger.
As we careen toward new lows in the grips of our toxic president, each of us must decide when we have hit our “no,” and what we are going to do about it. Saying no to toxic relationships and toxic people, including our president, is an act of bravery. It’s a commitment to the life we believe in; one based on the values of fairness, decency, integrity, and democracy. And ultimately, it’s our only hope for happiness.
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