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Toxic Men: Our Greatest Teachers

Some of life’s greatest lessons are born from our biggest nightmares. Toxic men can provide just that nightmarish opportunity. C’mon, just think about the word “Toxic.” It conjures up images of nuclear waste sites and Julia Roberts in the award winning movie, ‘Erin Brockovich’. She plays a smart single mom who, against all odds, proves that toxic waste is seeping into a town’s water system and killing its inhabitants.

Toxic men operate in a similar fashion. They seep into the crevices of our lives, not necessarily killing us physically but definitely doing their fair share of emotional damage. If we’re smart and can re-frame our past experiences with these “types” we can learn some crucial lessons as opposed to just feeling victimized. Best of all, if we’re really conscious about the past, we can use those lessons to make better choices in the future.
When a toxic man has penetrated your world you should be able to identify his type in the future and keep him far away. But, realistically, it might take being involved with several toxic men before you recognize them and their wicked ways. Old patterns and misguided attractions die hard.

Stephanie Meyers, author of the current best selling romance novel, Twilight, has created a fascinating toxic lover. Her heroine is a young woman, Bella, who is passionately in love with a vampire, Edward. Edward is smart, dashing, romantic, every woman’s dream except for one terrifying truth. Loving Edward means you are at constant risk of being killed by him. The romantic tension is Bella’s internal debate about whether being with her “true love” is worth not only her life but her soul.

Real life vampires can be more subtle than actual vampires. They don’t have fangs or capes and they don’t sleep in coffins. In fact, their first calling card is subtlety and that can make them difficult to spot until some damage has already been done. Very few of us have been asked out by a guy who says “Hi. I’m a Vampire and if you love me there is a almost a 100 percent chance I will suck the life out of you.” Usually, they are insidious—like a slow creeping fungus that covers your world before you even realize it. Armed with the right information your past can be your garlic necklace. It can make you so smart that you’ll be impervious to toxicity whether it shows up in the form of a vampire or just a guy at the office.

Here are a couple of scenarios to help you turn the damaging effects of any toxic man into fodder for learning and growth:


Maria, a young real estate executive, had been dating Charlie, an emotionally withholding mortgage banker, for three years. They met at work. Maria knew that Charlie had had a string of failed relationships. But she was different. It would work with her because they were in love.

After a short passionate courtship, Charlie made her crazy. He had too many nights with the boys, a weekly family brunch she felt excluded from, and daily distractions. The bottom line is that Maria always felt last on his list. Maria tried to elicit the care and love she so desperately wanted emotionally, financially, and spiritually. She spent hours of her week wondering why Charlie wasn’t adoring her, why he wasn’t responding to her in the way she’d hoped. Maria always forgave his slights and made excuses for her hurt feelings.

The pain of this relationship brought Maria to therapy. When Maria stepped back she realized that for her whole life she had been parenting her parents. Charlie was just like her parents—he wasn’t interested in giving, he just wanted to take. She made excuses for her parents’ preoccupation with their own lives and was willing to be last on yet another person’s list. Charlie did love her but was not available for what Maria needed and deserved. This is the great gift of toxic men. They shine a light on childhood or interpersonal wounds that we often replay in our adult relationships in hopes of healing the past.

Charlie wasn’t going to change and Maria realized nothing she did would make him into the partner she wanted. When she said goodbye to him she thanked him for the wisdom to make a better choice and for the experience of healing a childhood wound which she did not want to be the main attraction of her future relationships. Her awareness helped forge her sense of worthiness.


Missy had been drawn to Peter since the day she saw him in his tux at the high school prom. Ten years later, when he showed up at the hospital she worked at, she knew this was her “Grey’s Anatomy” moment. Her McDreamy had arrived.

They had a fun courtship filled with shy smiles across the fluorescent-lit hospital halls, stale cafeteria coffee, and bad donuts. It came to a climax when he proposed on the rooftop helicopter landing pad, at midnight under a full moon, both of them in their scrubs. It was a definite “yes!”

Missy felt like the luckiest woman in the world. But soon that all changed. She started to feel insecure. Her new husband started to put her down at staff meetings and belittle her efforts to improve hospital administration.

It was a complete replay of the life she had so desperately wanted to leave behind — a childhood in which she just didn’t feel like she measured up. She spent her entire youth trying to make her father feel like a hero and her mother believe she was perfect.

After a respected doctor friend intervened and mentioned Missy’s growing insecurities at work and in her friendships, she had the courage to say enough. Peter was not willing to work on the marriage, he blamed Missy for all of their issues, and Missy said goodbye.

Her toxic man showed her that she was worthy of more than the script her parents (or anyone else from her past) had written for her. After therapy and healing her old wounds, she was able to thank Peter for helping her grow into an accomplished doctor and into being a wife to a man that believed she was star — her second husband.

Melody Beattie, in her groundbreaking book Codependent No More, eloquently details the fine line between love and reason. She believes that love can trigger deep childhood insecurities, which manifest by causing a person to become “emotionally stuck.” But the people who show us these areas of vulnerability can be our greatest teachers.

If you have the self awareness and the courage to reflect back on the toxic men in your life and the childhood desires and fears they awakened in you, you can make yourself a more viable, healthy, and exciting partner for your future. The toxic man in your life can be the person who rewrites you into a romance novel…not a horror movie.

Author’s Note: This article was originally written to appear on eHarmony’s Divorced Mom’s Guide to Dating website. As such, it focuses on women and the affect toxic men may have on them. The authors are aware that there are both toxic men and women and that much of the advice in this article could be applied to either gender.


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