How to Recognize When Someone's Personality Is Truly Toxic
When these women asked me how they could make their relationships healthier, I gave them the bad news first: They couldn’t. The good news: They were now free to stop trying.
A skilled therapist, given enough information, would have diagnosed Melanie’s mom as a narcissist, June’s husband as a psychopath, and Alice’s coworker as a Machiavellian personality. Anybody involved with one of these types, known as the dark triad, should treat the situation like a plane crash: Leave everything behind and get out. This tactic may also be necessary in relationships with people who are too wounded, addicted, or emotionally inaccessible to reciprocate your feelings. You can save yourself enormous pain by acknowledging the plain hard truth that some people can’t really love you.
I could make a list of symptoms for all the personality disorders that might rule out genuine love, but that would fill a very large book. (In fact, it does—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) Anyway, you don’t need a professional to tell you whether a relationship is worth saving, and you don’t need to approach the problem from an evolved perspective. In fact, don’t be evolved at all. Instead, act like an animal.
Ever notice that you rarely see animals begging one another to go to counseling or reading about healing toxic parents? Animals have incredibly attuned warning systems that steer them clear of potential threats: Rabbits, for instance, have nearly 360-degree vision, so they see predators from all angles. When a fox walks by, a rabbit doesn’t stick around; it gets away, as fast as it can hop.
Humans can also sense when we’re in harm’s way, though we often act as if we can’t. Melanie had a string of romances and friendships with narcissists because subconsciously she was desperate to get Mom to love her back. June began feeling crazy around her husband long before she discovered he was cheating, but thought, If only I could be a better wife! Alice had a sinking feeling about her backstabbing buddy early on—but could anybody be that awful?
Each of these women genuinely thought she could make her relationship work—emphasis on thought. Our thinking minds, socialized little creatures that they are, will squash our instincts and insist we keep trying to get love from the unloving, until finally we’re eaten alive.
You have your own internal alarm, which I call an ick-ometer. Your ick-ometer is an instinctive tendency to notice and escape danger. To calibrate yours, first think of a person who genuinely loves you. Notice the warm, expansive sensation in your body. Next, think of your abusive ex or horrible boss. Notice how you physically recoil—the way you want to scrunch up, pull back, and bite down. That’s your ick-ometer reacting to someone who doesn’t deserve your love.
Your ick-ometer sends information before, during, and after your interactions with everyone. When you’re about to have contact with your awful stepmother, you might notice that you’re biting your nails or experiencing virulent road rage. With her, you may grope for words, wondering why you’re suddenly so stupid. Afterward you’ll feel even worse—not about her, but about yourself. Typical sensations include hollowness, exhaustion, and shame. If this pattern occurs consistently, you’re probably trying to love an unloving person. Physically escaping is the best course of action, but if that’s not possible, retreat internally, giving her less and less of yourself, not more and more.
This is counterintuitive for people who want to love everyone, especially those who have had therapy or read a few self-help books. He acts this way because he wasn’t nurtured as a child, we think, or If she could only see how I feel. Melanie told me she’d tried to love her mother the way she’d love a baby, with no expectation of reciprocity—but it hadn’t worked. That’s because it’s a false analogy: Babies grow and one day love you back. Unloving adults never change. I encouraged Melanie to follow her ick-ometer, and it led her all the way to another city, where she found a better mother in the form of a therapist and began healing. June’s instincts told her to get away from her husband—very carefully. While he was on a business trip/booty call, she moved out of their apartment, which gave him less power to hurt her. Alice didn’t cut ties with her coworker, but she backed off, turning their “friendship” into a polite acquaintanceship.
It’s incredibly sad to long for love that you’ll never get, but it’s even sadder to deny the truth. If you start to sense that you’re falling prey to an impossibly painful relationship, follow your hunch and run, or at least keep a wary distance. And monitor your ick-ometer: An animal’s instincts also tell her which creatures to trust—those who don’t show aggression or invade her space, who let her know she’s safe. Find people who can appreciate, cherish, and love you with wild abandon. That’s the way to a peaceable kingdom.
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.