Navigating Toxicity and The Work

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Watching the Season 3 finale of Insecure led me back to the thought I’d been having about toxicity vs. “the work,” of relationships and how do we know the difference?

“We had matching luggage and we put in the work.”

This statement was in response to Lawrence (Jay Ellis) telling his father (Harry Lennix III) that his parents relationship was “easy.” His father followed with the idea that we are a generation that doesn’t necessarily want to put in the work to have successful relationships.

There are so many buzzwords these days and relationships being “toxic” is at the top of the list. I often hear people refer to relationships this way on Twitter and in general conversations. We’ve all seen it. Why does a woman’s narrative always include having to go through so much, etc.? I think men go through things too but are less likely to share. And if we’re being honest, I think most couples experience some type of hardship in just staying on one accord with another person while navigating the roller coaster that is life.

Like art that imitates life, the show left me wondering about the meaning in a broader sense and what it has meant in my own life.

By no stretch of the imagination would I have assumed my parents’ relationship was easy. Lawrence’s idealism seemed particularly naïve to me. I think he was more so trying to say, his father met the girl, they saw it through and she became his wife, much like he may have hoped for he and Issa. But I will say that I think many practices from my parents’ generation are indeed toxic. Many people stayed too long and then lost their identity and feared the whole starting over thing as Chad also alluded to. None of that seems healthy.

But on the flip side, it seemed like they also knew how to put themselves aside for a common goal. Our generation seems a little more selfish both for better and at times for worst.

What I fear though, is that with the added amount of options that we have these days, the inter-connectivity, the social media that makes it appear that there are millions more fish in the sea, it may be easier to give up or to label something as toxic without exploration.

Cancel Culture even finds its way into our relationships as Issa D (Issa Rae) reminded Molly (Yvonne Orji) in the same episode. We cancel people and relationships before we ever communicate and get to the bottom of matter, the hurt, the misunderstanding and I think at times we can miss great people that way. At the end of the day, behavior and our interactions with others, should at least leave a gateway to conversation. I generally like understanding before I make a decision one way or another and I believe that is what Issa was looking for from Nathan. I also appreciated the closure that Issa and Lawrence were able to come to at the end of Season 2. If anything, clear communication and understanding from something that didn’t work, can be indicative of the overall health of the next relationship you find yourself in.

The line seems to get blurred because toxicity isn’t always as easily identifiable as abuse, serial cheating, being emotionally unavailable, ghosting, etc. Sometimes a situation simply doesn’t seem to bring out the best in two people and that can be the trouble. At the root of toxic relationships is often unhealthy behavior which doesn’t elevate those involved and becomes detrimental to our well-being. Or maybe it’s not that the person is so toxic, but say they can’t break out of a repeating pattern. The nuance of that, finding a person that is good for you, can cloak the work in a veil of uncertainty.

But I love how Hey Fran Hey put it in their wrap up episode of Insecuritea. A person can have issues, they just need to have an awareness and a willingness to work through them independently of the relationship and that in my estimation is the work. Not only working on how you relate to the person that you’re in a relationship with, but also working on yourself.

No one has it all together the moment that they step into a relationship. And regardless how many relationships you’ve had in the past, there is going to be an adjustment period for each new relationship. You have to learn how to love that specific person and although past ties may have taught you some things, there will always be something new to learn. Their triggers, their likes, their dislikes. All of that is the push and pull of what being in relationship with another person entails.

Both people have to want a healthy relationship and this leads me to believe that even if you experience some tumultuous seasons, you will be able to get through to the other side. Even though those tough seasons can feel like they’re toxic in the moment.

That’s where one of the best solutions when serious about a person or say in a marriage kicks in — therapy and counseling. It can be extremely difficult to work through certain issues with just the two of you. As we move to a culture where therapy and getting help is becoming more socially acceptable, I think we will find more couples seeking these measures together as well.

When it comes down to it, the healthiest relationships seem to have a couple common denominators from my perspective that include boundaries, maintaining expectations, and the all-important but often evasive communication.

You don’t have to search far or wide for examples of toxic relationships. So many people are suffering from various things it’s no surprise that they are not equipped to be healthy partners. From depression, to anxiety, to dealing with childhood assaults, abuse, abandonment issues, daddy and mommy issues and so much more, there is essential inner work that should take place before pursuing a partner and maintained diligently once engaged in a relationship.

But what are some examples of the work? What does that include?

Well, I would say the work is getting on the same page financially which often takes couples some times of heartache and back and forth to figure out together. Same for deciding on how to rear children. Conflict resolution is a big one! Most often how we combat conflict has a lot to do with how we were raised and what we saw happening in our homes. Building trust with one another, learning to let down the walls that many of us build up to protect ourselves.

And how do we know the difference?

At the core of toxic relationships, how is it making you feel a majority of the time? Not the ups and downs of dealing with another human because that will pass. But is it negatively affecting your mental or physical health? Is it constant worry and stress? Does it have you leaving the house in your pajamas with your hair half done and snooping around in the guest bedroom of a stranger’s house while your girlfriend distracts him with dessert?

At the core of the work, even in some of the darkest times, a glimmer of light seems to always remain. Both of you have each other’s best interest at heart and at the end of the day, you’d probably even rather part ways than to not continue to make one another better. I wish it was more romantic than that. But love really isn’t the fairy tale that we’re sold. Sure, there are some fairy tale moments, but at the crux, a true partner is really the person that you want to do the work with. Side by side. With one another.

Is it lifting you up for the most part or dragging you all the way down?

I believe in discernment and I think there is something inside of us that tells us when something just ain’t right and we choose to ignore it. But the danger, is mistaking our neglect, our lack of boundaries, communication, and our unrealistic expectations for toxicity. There is enough of it go around for sure, but it’s important that we don’t project the reality of unhealthy relationships onto the diligence and resilience of the work.