Human beings are social creatures, designed and meant to be in relationships with others. We actively seek out community, friendship, family and love, not just because of how they make us feel emotionally but because they increase our chances of successfully navigating and surviving life. To seek and build community is arguably a biological imperative. Moreover, our society and governments are founded, if even incidentally, upon this human need for community and in order to protect and promote the best of its resulting social contract.
Most of us share this pull toward relationship. Although there are a handful of legitimate loners who shun social contact, even to the point of choosing lifetime solitude, the vast majority of us will marry or otherwise join into a long-term, monogamous romantic relationship (or series of them until we settle on the “perfect” one) at some point or other in our lives. And when one of those relationships ends, generally both former partners will seek out another. Most couples eventually build families of their own and see their bond as expanding their extended family. And when someone is widowed or divorced, relatively few wish to stay that way for long.
It’s much the same with friendship: We look for others who share our interests, outlooks and experiences. From our friends we gain a sense of affirmation and camaraderie, critical to our emotional well-being. The people we voluntarily surround ourselves with — our family and friends and favorite coworkers — are, for most of us, essential components of our mental and physical health. That is, of course, if they’re mentally healthy themselves.
One problem with being such social creatures, so powerfully driven to be in relationship with others, is just how deep down, barking bat-guano crazy some of those other people really are. Then take the human proclivity to look at the ones we love with the rosiest of rose-colored glasses, served with a super-sized slice of denial, and (especially for cops… you know what I’m talking about here) topped with a big dollop of hero-complex and ask yourself: Is it any wonder so many of us find ourselves mired in toxic relationships?
Toxic People, Toxic Relationships
Every single one of us carries around psychological baggage — the negative emotional issues we formed in the past and that we tend to carry with us and let influence our present. Whether our particular set is small (perhaps a well-organized billfold of issues you’ve long since gone through and have a firm mastery of) or large (double-sized steamer trunk, carried strapped across your back, full of dark mysteries you never want to face and making Pandora’s Box look like a trip to Disney World), this baggage may have come from family, friends (or enemies), past relationships and how they affected you, your environment, the way you’re wired or some permutation of the all the above.
Emotionally healthy people are those who recognize the issues of their past and how they potentially impact their decisions and relationships of today, and then consistently rise above them to make healthy choices of actions, words and even thoughts. They both own and control their baggage, having examined and left most of it behind or, if it is still being carried around, remaining aware of its existence and keeping close watch for any sign it’s doing harm. With a good understanding of themselves and corresponding empathy for others, they value mutually beneficial relationships and there’s usually an ease to being in a relationship with them.
And then there are the toxic people and relationships.
There’s not one simple, generally accepted academic definition of just who or what a toxic person is (nor for a toxic relationship), but the toxicity is typically defined in relation to how the individual impacts their personal and professional relationships or how the relationship impacts the persons in it. For our purposes, however, let us define the toxic person as follows:
A toxic person is one who, by acting out certain pervasive personality traits in the form of habitual behaviors or destructive decisions, consistently creates a serious negative impact on others physically, financially, mentally or emotionally on others with whom (s)he is in relationship.
Or, more succinctly, the toxic person is one who does everything possible to eventually suck you dry physically, financially, mentally or emotionally.
Just as the word implies, the toxic person is poison to others with whom they are in a relationship. You might think, “Well, if you have someone like that in your life that’s your own fault! Just leave or, better yet, tell them to hit the bricks. Adios! Sayonara!” Maybe, but the problem is these are often long-term relationships. They may not have always been toxic — people do go through difficult times and may not be on their best behavior in the middle of it, after all — and abandoning them may not be the first or best option. Or they may be a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or a child; it’s nearly impossible — but sometimes necessary — to let go of someone with that deep of a bond. In those cases it may be very important, although very difficult, to set healthy boundaries for yourself while keeping lines of communication and help open as long as possible to try and salvage the relationship.
Toxic Relationships & You
Maybe you’re not one to be sucked into a toxic relationship or sucked dry by a toxic person, but plenty of us have been at some time or another. It’s really not hard. And, believe it or not, it’s not hard for cops, either. In fact, you might even be more susceptible.
As LEOs, you spend your days confronting toxic people, counseling them, consoling them, arresting them. Just look at how many of the folks you come into contact with each day are damaged in one way or another, and how that manifests into the array of behaviors that need our attention. A lot of cops can read people on the street like a book, either intuitively or from cumulative experience, whether they are well known to them or complete strangers. You learn to know when people are telling the truth or lying, withholding or spinning information, nervous, dangerous or getting ready to fight or flee. A good cop reads not just behavior but character. But these are people you keep at relative arms length.
As LEOs, a lot of you go home at the end of your day, and walk into homes and relationships every bit as chaotic or dysfunctional as the ones you visited on shift. You might be sucked into family dramas, preyed on by parasitic “friends” and neighbors, or taken advantage of by someone you love too much to finally tell, “no!” Maybe you have a crazy ex (or two … or three) you can’t believe you ever married in the first place (and just how in hell did you find another, identical one after you were finally free of the first?!?). Maybe you wonder if you are subconsciously drawn to chaos, or why you feel compelled to rescue the lost and lonely.
You see, as cops you may be particularly susceptible to toxic people and relationships. For many police officers (and social workers, for that matter) the impulse to rescue is strong. They see the toxic person not as dangerous but rather someone to save and fix. It may be why you entered the profession and what motivates you to keep showing up each day. And toxic people beg for rescue. For others, a hero complex influences the job and their identity. Not only does the hero stand up for the weak, the hero will never surrender, even if it ultimately dooms him! And some are just simply ill-equipped to manage emotionally damaged or needy people in their personal lives. They may have even come from such solid, functional homes that they failed to learn how to recognize — or escape — crazy! Look at the large number of broken homes and failed relationships in law enforcement. A lot of those resulted from toxic relationships coming to their logical, inevitable end.
Maybe this isn’t you at all. Maybe you have it all together and, if so, keep it up. Just remember to stay vigilant as we can all be susceptible to toxic relationships and they come in so many varieties. Even if it’s not, you probably know someone you work with this describes. But maybe it is. Either way, stay with us as we continue our exploration of relationships in the coming months.
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