Toxic Relationships are Signposts of Cultural, not Human Dysfunction
James Avery Fuchs, a public speaker, poet, trans educator, and artist in Arizona, summarized his talk on “Consent, Boundaries, and Toxic Relationships” with the following questions.
Do you feel controlled in a way you’re not comfortable with, or do you feel like you’re not allowed to have your own opinions or make decisions different than they would?
Does the relationship feel full of drama?
Do you feel like you do a lot of things you normally wouldn’t be comfortable with just to continue the relationship, especially things that go against your personal morals or values?
Does it feel like there’s a new challenge with the person every time one is cleared up?
When something goes wrong, does it seem like every mistake you’ve ever made is brought up?
Do you feel constantly unworthy when you’re around them?
Do you feel trapped in the relationship?
If you answered any of these in the affirmative, there is a chance that your relationship may be toxic.
During the audience participation period that followed Fuchs’ speech, I commented that, by those standards, the relationships in both of my failed marriages were toxic—for me and the dear women who were trying to live with me. If my experience is any guide, I would guess that most married couples might answer yes to one are more of those questions.
Why does marriage often result in toxic relationships? I believe it has to do with the issue of consent. When we consent to the obligations imposed by the institution of marriage, we are agreeing to fulfill those duties for the rest of our lives. There is a problem with that. Any agreement regarding fulfilling another person’s needs, for life, overlooks two things: 1) We are feeling beings, not machines; 2) We have innate limitations regarding our ability to fulfill another person’s needs.
Feelings = Who we Are
There is a huge difference between wanting to do something, and having to do it. For example, during a dating couple’s evening together, no promises are forever. If a woman consents to having sex, but later in the evening tells her date that she no longer feels like it, her consent is revoked. Her feelings are the controlling element. In marriage, sexual consent is for life. It obligates both spouses to have sex with each other, and only with each other, for the rest of their lives. Promises are the controlling element, not feelings.
In other words, through agreeing to marriage, you commit yourself to having sex with someone at times when—if you were being honest about how you really felt—you would never consent. And you are committing to never having sex outside the marriage, even in the presence of overwhelming feelings of romantic attraction. Clearly, when we obligate ourselves through marriage, we are agreeing to ignore the fact that one’s feelings regarding when and with whom to have sex often change, throughout one’s lifetime.
What about other human needs? Is it even possible for one person to fulfill another person’s needs, for life? We apparently believe so, or we would never consent to marriage. But many marriages fail, and my own two marriages are examples of how that happens. During both of my failed marriages, there were many instances when I was clueless about how to please my wives. Whenever I asked what they needed, they implied, in one way or another, that if I loved them, I would know. I have to admit that this makes sense, because, how could a woman feel that I understood her, much less loved her, if she had to tell me how to show it?
Try as I might—an effort that involved years of marriage counseling—I was never able to “get it right.” The suffering that resulted from our inability to satisfy each other’s needs eventually led to divorce. I didn’t know it at the time, but I did my ex-wives a disservice when I asked for their hand in marriage. This does not mean I am a bad person, that I didn’t want to please them, or that I am unable to please people, in general. It means that I was unaware of my limitations. Now that I am aware of them, I would never again present myself to a woman as a candidate for marriage.
Only Robots can be Programmed
If I were a robot, I would have had no problem fulfilling the obligations of marriage, or of any other institution. I would be programmed to satisfy the needs of a spouse for life. My user manual would specify how to tweak me to handle any situation. My brain could then analyze my wife’s behavior and reveal to me what she needed in order to feel loved, without my having to ask her, or even think about it. Her need to feel loved would be resolved.
But, I am a feeling being, not a machine. I didn’t come with an instruction manual. I was programmed by evolution. This means that my reason for being was with me from birth. That programming expresses itself through feelings. When I behave according to those feelings, I am being true to my reason for being, and I am happy.
When we are unhappy in a relationship, our emotions are telling us that we are not being true to ourselves, or to Life. Yes, I know—and we see it every day in modern society—people can and do ignore their evolutionary programming, in order to fulfill promises, such as marriage vows. But they often do this at tremendous emotional cost, as I learned the hard way. By getting married, my spouses and I set ourselves the task of living in contradiction to much of our genetic programming that prepared us to function as a social species, not a pairbonding one. As a result, my wives and I had to mostly lie about how we really felt, for the duration of our relationships. To me, this explains why our relationships became toxic, despite the sincere desire on both sides for a committed relationship of peace and love.
I’ve come to believe that, like all institutions, marriage treats us as though we were machines that are easily programmable to survive by obeying the law, not feeling beings, programmed by Nature, to take care of life. Institutions don’t respect our feelings. So, how can we?
The answer is, we can’t! Consequently, we routinely tolerate marriage and the toxic relationships that result—but, not because we enjoy working on relationships and managing the pain. We do it because relationships based on promises represent the only concept of family that modern cultures bless. Indeed, when a man and woman live together, without first promising to remain together for life, then signing the contract of marriage, modern people see them as living in sin.
In this way, modern society forces us to consent to relationships that contradict our emotional make-up, as human beings. It has done this by institutionalizing family relationships. This has transformed human families from ones in which we were naturally happy and fulfilled, to ones that severely inhibit our freedom to be who we are.
The Vast Chasm Between Institutional and Natural Life
Some comparisons are in order. Pre-institutionalized families, through which humans were naturally fulfilled, existed for mutual survival. Their relationships knit together groups of people large enough to secure the material things they needed to survive and protect themselves from the dangers of the natural world. The members also collaborated to defend the territory required to sustain themselves.
The emotional ties that resulted were deep ones, fueled by the wisdom of their souls. It was a wisdom refined through eons of evolutionary trial and error, a wisdom optimally fitted to the needs of small, intimate groups of people surviving together. That is the kind of culture in which the social species known as homo sapiens evolved.
From then to now, that evolutionary wisdom has not had time to change in any significant way. Physiologically and emotionally, we remain a social species, not a pairbonding one, even after thousands of years of living in an artificial world, a manmade environment where rules, not feelings, are the controlling factor. It is a world far removed from the time when humans thrived in intimate extended families. All of us are still deeply motivated by our emotional need for closeness and intimacy. We carry a deep and powerful impulse to help one another that leaps to the fore in times of trouble—an impulse which is largely repressed in our rule-orientated world where we answer to the dictates of institutions, not to one another’s needs. The human race has been deprived of natural homes for so long that the very idea of a “natural family” offends modern humans as utterly unnatural—at first.
But, look hard at that dichotomy, for a moment! It marks the measure of the distance we have traveled out onto the limb of artificiality, since humanity took leave of the way of life we had evolved to live. And it brings into bold relief the reason for the emotional suffering that modern people incorrectly assume are “just part of life.”
If what I am suggesting takes you aback, a few questions may be in order:
Is it natural for humans to live with a recurring sense of isolation? Is our high rate of divorce a natural phenomenon, or an ominous sign that we are somehow “trying to fool Mother Nature?” Are humans constituted to tolerate the anxiety we increasingly experience? Does it make sense that so many conflicting belief systems exist among us, many of which turn us into bitter enemies?
All these concerns and many more may well be signs that institutional cultures are, themselves, dysfunctional and that they, not dysfunctional people, are the source of what ails humanity. In view of the perils that face the modern world, a world that at times seems on the verge of collapse, can human dysfunction explain our problems, or are they the result of functional humans being born into dysfunctional cultures? I believe it’s the latter.
These are stark things to consider, I know. But the severity of human emotional suffering in the modern era forces us to consider them seriously. We can no longer let it matter that our minds tell us, instantly, that it is ridiculous to imagine modern human society as fatally flawed. We owe it to ourselves and our posterity to ask whether Thoreau was trying to warn us of these stark truths, when he wrote his famous quotation, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
And, indeed, we should ask why that quotation is so well known. I believe it’s because so many people sense that they are living in a desperate state of mind. They are quiet, not because they don’t want to scream, but because they know it won’t help, and they have no idea what to do about it.
Natural Families vs. Institutionalized Ones
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb, when I say that the answer comes down to human happiness. We are a social species. Our happiness is tied to the nature and quality of our relationships. Only when people’s fates are intertwined by circumstances can their natural impulses to protect, to give and receive help, and to love, come to the fore. In the time when natural human families still flourished, the high-tech safety net and creature comforts we take for granted didn’t exist. People could not survive alone, so human culture was defined by the physical necessity of collaborating with others. They were emotionally and spiritually fulfilled by their relationships. Even during times of hardship and privation, humans were happy, because it was during those times that they particularly found comfort in their relationships. Their idea of “us” included the extended “family” group of people around them, all of them unbreakably bonded by an absolute dependence on and trust in each other.
But modern families hardly resemble those that preceded us. Humanity is divided, now, into minute cultural “cells,” called “nuclear families”—mother, father, children—and further into tiny cultural particles, called individuals, all of whom now compete against each other for a new universal means of survival, a manmade one called money. Even adult siblings often drift apart, or sever relations entirely, over family strifes, typically involving inheritance rights. For modern people, an individual’s sense of “us” is at-best a nuclear family with kids. Often, there is no “us,” as people increasingly find themselves living alone. In modern circumstances, it’s “every man for himself.” We operate from a me-against-the-world perception, and the danger we face doesn’t come from the natural world. It’s other people.
Functional Cultures vs. Dysfunctional Ones
The comparison facing us is clear. Natural culture based on evolution is functional. Manmade culture based on institutions is dysfunctional.
- In a functional culture, individuals are responsible for the wellbeing of those around them. In a dysfunctional culture, individuals are responsible for their own wellbeing.
- A functional culture is governed by feelings that have evolved over eons. A dysfunctional culture is governed by institutionally imposed laws so focused on realizing an idealized future, it’s as if feelings don’t even exist.
- In a functional culture, people live in a state on intimacy, and are validated by simply being who they are. In a dysfunctional culture, people are isolated from each other by competition, and are validated by whatever the culture sees as success, typically wealth and privilege.
- Functional cultures result from free association. They form, without effort or intent, when people are free to do what they feel like doing. Dysfunctional cultures are based on the belief that humans are inherently untrustworthy, and must be regulated.
- In a functional culture, people live in the moment. There are no beliefs—other than origin and destiny stories. In dysfunctional cultures, people live for the future. Beliefs dictate behavior.
- In functional cultures, people are happy, because they are free to be themselves. In dysfunctional cultures, people are anxious because they must largely ignore how they really feel, in order to realize the future for which they dream.
- In a functional culture, population density is sustainable, because female feelings control sex. A dysfunctional culture results in population explosions because, by granting themselves the right to own women, males control sex.
- In functional cultures, people are as one with their environment. They protect, and even worship it. In dysfunctional cultures, people see themselves as having dominion over their environment and use it to their own ends.
- Functional cultures are matriarchal. The spiritual authority of sisterhoods is in control. Dysfunctional cultures are patriarchal. Institutions created by men are in control.
- Functional cultures create an environment in which both the individual and the species thrive. Dysfunctional cultures create an environment that results in human suffering and ignores the wellbeing of the species’, entirely.
Dysfunctional cultures have resulted in the modern upholstered world of conveniences in which we live, today, but at what price? Human happiness and the future of our species.
Faith and fear are intertwined in the conundrum that human life has become. Faith is the saving grace of humanity. Its elemental connection to the human spirit was severed long ago, when humanity let fear of the future turn us to manmade institutions, as the definers of human culture. In our manmade environment, ironically, fear remains. Yet faith endlessly reappears everywhere in the form of myriad beliefs, each one a separate attempt to restore the grace we have lost. Our quest for faith will never end, until we return to where we started, the way of life based on the faith that Nature gave us—our inborn belief in the wisdom of the human spirit. It’s the only way of life with which fear cannot coexist.