First and foremost, a toxic relationship is a game. In this game, only one person knows the rules and the other person doesn’t even realize there is a game going on. Which is why so many people are stuck in the aftermath of a toxic relationship asking “Why?” “What happened?” “What could I have done differently?” “Why did I put up with that?” “What does that say about me?”

The following rules are from the game “Sorry.”

Each player chooses four pawns of one color and places them in his or her Start. One player is selected to play first.

Each player in turn draws one card from the deck and follows its instructions. To begin the game, all of a player’s four pawns are restricted to Start; a player can only move them out onto the rest of the board if he or she draws a 1 or 2 card. A 1 or a 2 places a pawn on the space directly outside of start (a 2 does not entitle the pawn to move a second space).

Pretty standard, right? Now let’s look at the game of a toxic relationship. I would call it “Not Sorry.”

Each player chooses what they need out of a relationship. The toxic person chooses a pawn that he or she can manipulate and control. The victim chooses someone who will need them or someone they hope they can save/change them with their own love. The toxic person is operating out of a need to control and the victim is operating out of a need to love. Both people place their game pieces on Start. The toxic person goes first. In fact, the toxic person always goes first. The victim doesn’t realize what is happening because of his or her desire to love the toxic person.

Each player, in turn, draws one card from the deck and follows its instructions. The instructions read that it is always the toxic person’s turn. They get to choose when they go and they get to choose when the victim goes. They also have the freedom to change the rules to suit their needs. Sometimes, the toxic person acts like they are going to let the victim go first, but they always find some excuse or reason for the game to benefit the toxic person. Usually, this involves making claims that the victim did something wrong so they feel guilty and let the toxic person go first.

You get the idea.

The Rules of the Toxic Relationship Game

  1. I always win.
  2. It is always my turn.
  3. The world owes me. It is your job to make that right.
  4. I can ignore you when it is convenient for me.
  5. I have the right to hurt you when I need to feel better.
  6. I have the right to tear you down both in public and in private.
  7. I have the right to make you think I am your hero when I am really the villain.
  8. You must always make me feel like your hero even when I am hurting you.
  9. We can talk for hours about what you did wrong, but we will never talk about what I did wrong. If you try to bring it up I will remind you that you are always starting something, even if I have been berating you for hours.
  10. You are not allowed to call me out on my poor behavior.
  11. Your job is to feel my pain so I don’t have to.
  12. Your job is to feel happy and positive no matter how I treat you.
  13. I have the right to find out your most vulnerable weaknesses and use them against you.
  14. Your job is to accept the reality that I paint. Don’t trust yourself, trust me.
  15. Your job is to cut out other people, jobs, talents, and interests to focus your energy on my people, my job, my talents and my interests.
  16. We will both be happy when you understand how much better/smarter I am than you.
  17. My anger is okay. Your anger is not.
  18. If you don’t follow the rules then I have the right to use whatever I have at my disposal to keep you in line. This includes making you feel confused and afraid by screaming, cursing, the silent treatment, guilt, gaslighting, stealing, chasing, throwing or hitting.
  19. I have the right to make you feel small so I can feel big.
  20. We never play by the same set of rules. (see rule #1)

Do those rules sound familiar? If so, you have met a toxic person. The game works because you don’t know the rules, nor can you imagine anyone thinking like that. If you are playing a game in which you don’t know the rules then you always lose. In fact, the rules are so baffling that you eventually realize you are in a fog and find yourself trusting yourself less and less. It probably feels as if the rules of the relationship are always changing, but they aren’t. The rules just happen to only work in one person’s favor. Every. Single. Time. If the toxic person allows you a “win” it is to distract you from a bigger win for the toxic person. No matter how well you communicate, no matter how deeply you love, no matter how hard you try you simply can not succeed in this game.

The game is so successful because you have no idea you are in a game. You are a human. And as a normal human, you hope for love. The desire to love and be loved is one of the most precious components of the human experience. The toxic person knows this and uses it to his or her advantage. Wanting to be love and be loved does NOT make you a bad person! Or a weak person! Or a failure! I say on a regular basis that the type of person who doesn’t fall for a toxic relationship is the type of person who wasn’t targeted by a toxic person. They weren’t abused because no one tried to abuse them. They weren’t more intelligent, less needy, or so emotionally stable they would have seen the signs. They just got lucky. So often one of the most difficult pieces of sharing your story is hearing “I can’t believe you put up with that. I would have known better.”

Friends, don’t believe them. The only person who would know better is someone who understood the rules of the game and if someone understands the rules of the game without being in a toxic relationship then they are either incredibly researched or they ARE the toxic person! If someone has made you feel bad for being in a toxic relationship give yourself an extra dose of compassion. You didn’t know the rules of the game. And unless you have experienced the game it is hard to wrap your head around the fact that it exists. Because it is just so unfair!

If you aren’t a toxic person then it goes against everything you believe, everything you imagine, everything you practice to say “It is always my turn, I always win, and I can use whatever means I deem necessary to make that happen.” So you spend months, years, decades, thinking of new ways to act, communicate and live to make the game stop yet. Yet, it never works. The game is about manipulating your kindness, your hope, your efforts to keep trying. They use the best parts of you to their advantage, not the worst parts.

You didn’t get into a toxic relationship because you are weak. You have survived a toxic relationship because you are strong. You just didn’t know the rules of the game.