“Toxic” Relationships in the Affective Age

IF IT SUDDENLY SEEMS like every terrible relationship is “toxic” and that “gaslighting” is commonplace, that’s because the past several years have witnessed a surge in the popularity of these terms, with the Oxford English Dictionary even declaring “toxic” the 2018 “word of the year.” (“Gaslighting” was on the shortlist.) According to its data, there has been a 45 percent rise in online searches for the word — defined as “contains poison; poisonous” — and it has accrued a variety of popular collocates, including: chemical, masculinity, substance, gas, environment, relationship, culture, waste, algae, and air. In an effort to make sense of this development, commentators have focused on post-2016 political conditions, routinely observing that extreme distress has necessitated borrowing from the lexicon of lethal substances. While this may be true, a more thorough account might look to the emergence of Affect Theory in academic circles, which over the past two decades, has systematically redrawn our working image of embodied mental life.

Developed more or less concurrently in the mid-1990s in neuroscience, psychology, and literary-cultural studies, Affect Theory has focused on the influential role of invisible affective forces, demonstrating the individual’s sensitivity to intangible harms, the porousness of self-other boundaries, and the power of nonverbal communication. According to Affect Theory’s proponents, feelings matter, and contrary to how self-enclosed our private lives may seem to be, we are in fact continuously shaped by the emotional textures of our surroundings. From here, realizations about the hidden “toxicity” of things can be seen as a natural extension of the idea that our fundamental emotionality renders us susceptible to kinds of psychological violation that we had never imagined. Indeed, if poststructuralism can be said to have exploded the myth of a bounded, autonomous self, today’s Subject is not only performative but permeable, not merely divided but fundamentally susceptible to being endlessly affected as well.

The growing canon of first-person narratives seeking to track the progression of a “toxic relationship” is exemplary of these intellectual-cultural trends. In three memoirs published over the past few years, a diverse group of female writers grapples with what it means to have a self that is fundamentally affective. In particular, these texts explore situations which were not textbook traumatic per se, but in which the narrators were harmed by losing contact with themselves. The effect of this self-loss is what makes these relationships “toxic” for the women who write about them, and although each experience is unique, these texts share an interest in understanding how a love affair which felt so thrilling while it was happening could have been injurious all along.

Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me (2017) describes a long-distance affair with a married woman that felt exhilarating until she realizes it is isolating, painful, and unhealthy. Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir of queer abuse, In the Dream House (2019), explores the dynamics of “gaslighting” in what otherwise felt like an empowering romantic relationship. And in Alisson Wood’s recently published Being Lolita (2020), an adult narrator tells the story of her secret high school affair with a male teacher that felt electrifying and consensual until she realizes how exploitative and dangerous the arrangement had always been. In each memoir, the narrator establishes her credibility as a sophisticated observer of herself and others, before describing an extended moment when the capacity to self-reflect abruptly disappeared. That is, while on the surface they registered being intensely enthralled by their lovers, the later realization that these affairs were in actuality profoundly damaging prompts each woman to recognize that the whole time something was missing, and it was a vital part of herself. Metaphors of being “like a ghost” and phrases about “losing myself” circulate widely in these texts as the narrators endeavor to explain how they could have become so disconnected from crucial dimensions of their emotional lives.

Situating these memoirs in the “age of affect” enables us to get a fuller grasp of the emotional experiences they describe. As a group, they share certain formal and thematic characteristics: short chapters, extensive intertextuality (often drawing on myths and fairy tales), and archival data (notes, letters, emails) that produce a fast-paced, choppy account of the narrator as simultaneously agentic and compromised, conscious and yet unaware. Moreover, while abuse and sexual exploitation are not, in themselves, new topics of literary exploration, a distinguishing feature of these memoirs is the kind of questions they are asking about such traumas — questions that aren’t about how an innocent protagonist can be injured by a predator, but how the usual mechanisms enabling emotional awareness can be temporarily suspended. In every case, the protagonist has no inkling that the relationship is damaging while she’s in it, prompting her to wonder, in retrospect, where her true feelings (of apprehension, unease, or resistance) had been all along. Putting this psychological puzzle at the center of their stories, this emerging subgenre of contemporary memoirs signals an increasing concern with the durability of continuous selfhood that echoes theoretical findings on the vagaries of affective life. Whereas skepticism toward the illusion of selfhood once dominated experimental memoirs, today there is a growing preoccupation with “self-betrayal” — that bewildering experience in which the self is primary agent of its own annihilation.

As a psychological phenomenon, “self-betrayal” has been at the margins of clinical interest until now. In fact, though the phrase “losing myself” circulates widely in popular discourse, it does not correspond to any diagnosable disease. One possible explanation for this absence can be traced to the “consciousness bias” that permeates our thinking, by which I mean the assumption that affects have to run through consciousness in order to impact psychological experience. Indeed, the very notion of unconscious affects was so unthinkable to Freud that he repeatedly insisted on the fact that affects must be registered by some part of the mind in order to create the conflicts that bring someone to therapy.

Take the presumptive analytic patient: she suffers from anxiety about her career, and therapy uncovers that conflicted feelings originate in her early identification with an unambitious father. This patient has to feel both sides of the conflict in order to suffer emotionally from it (i.e., she feels both sympathy and anger with her father but represses these conflicted feelings). Contrast this with the narrator of Febos’s Abandon Me, who tells the reader that during the entire course of her affair with the married lover, there were no traces of internal conflict. She did not notice feeling anxious or unnerved, but only happy, weightless, more present to every moment than ever been before. She says, “So much of our story is corporeal. I knew about somatic response, how the body takes what the psyche cannot bear and understands it as fever, as sweat and cramp, as cry, as come. But those were concepts. I had never lost my mind in this way, abandoned understanding to the body.” Febos affirms that she’s well versed in the conventions of “talk therapy,” (her mother is a therapist), which is why she monitors herself for any signs of being unconsciously defensive or unhappy. But when she looks for secret feelings, she is surprised to find that she is simply conflict-free — a baffling sensation which she emphasizes in order to convey that instead of hiding unwanted feelings from herself, she simply wasn’t feeling anything adverse at all.

Indeed, if Febos can’t pick up on what’s amiss, it’s not because she is misreading her own cues, but more likely because traditional nosology has no explanation for how feelings can be consummately blocked from becoming feelings in the mind. In psychoanalysis — which arguably offers the most robust speculations on psychological disease — “repression” and “dissociation” account for all the major mental illnesses. According to this story, the mind hides unwanted feelings from itself by either burying them under a mountain of defenses or splitting them off from everyday awareness. In both scenarios, a portion of the mind registers which feelings are unwanted and dismisses them when necessary. This all sounds fine in theory, until we realize that these narrators don’t struggle with feeling conflicted or overwhelmed; quite the opposite: they ultimately suffer because of not being able to register their complicated feelings at all.

Moreover, these women don’t describe having difficulty with feelings in general — in fact, they report feeling in love, elated, restless, energetic, and turned on — just trouble connecting to any feelings that could dampen their excitement (such as anger, hesitation, anxiety, frustration, and annoyance), which suggests these women are motivated to unplug from emotional awareness. The picture that emerges, then, is of women who feel that in order to feel happy in the relationship they must disconnect from unpropitious emotions, only to discover that without direct access to a normal range of internal emotional responses, they no longer feel like themselves. What is remarkable here is not that impairments to autoaffection — the capacity to feel one’s feelings — impede feeling like yourself, but that autoaffection can be so dramatically impaired in the first place. In other words, in repression and dissociation the mind always registers unwanted feelings, it never severs the connection to those feelings in toto.

When Febos describes the intensity of her erotic connection, she says: “I had loved before, but I had never known this mechanical insistence of my own body. It was a physical reaction absent of sense or control, its inertia unbound by consciousness.” Indeed, so thorough is this sensation of being disconnected from self-consciousness, that when the relationship is over, Febos explains: “When I say I lost myself in love I don’t mean that my lover took something from me. I betrayed myself.” In this telling, she had access to a range of feelings before the relationship began and then again after it had ended, but not while it was happening. Indeed, all three memoirs conform to this narrative arc: an intact sense of self prior to the “toxic relationship” and a reclamation of the self when it is over, but while it is happening, a crucial dimension of authentic selfhood is obscured. “You’ll wish she had hit you,” Machado’s narrator says to herself:

[H]it you hard enough that you’d have bruised in grotesque and obvious ways, hard enough that you took photos, hard enough that you went to the cops, hard enough that you could have gotten the restraining order you wanted. Hard enough that the common sense that evaded you for the entirety of your time in the Dream House had been knocked into you. […] Clarity is an intoxicating drug, and you spent almost two years without it, believing you were losing your mind.

Machado traces her difficulty obtaining “common sense” to childhood insecurities about her body and naivete about abuse within queer relationships. But while these conditions help explain what made her particularly vulnerable to mistreatment, they don’t account for the possibility of totalizing self-betrayal. Wood’s narrator likewise draws connections between her susceptibility to an exploitative teacher, and the loneliness and depression she suffered from in childhood, suggesting that her mental breakdowns and instability “primed” her to be “someone’s princess.” In fact, Wood says, “back then, I was grateful to be ghostlike in my own home,” even if now she wishes her “mother realized I was missing.” Present but “missing,” self-reflective but with no access to “clarity,” these narrators describe relationships that feel exhilarating but are nevertheless “happening without me.”

Each memoir tells a version of this story: because of needs derived from childhood, these women can’t afford to lose their lovers, and this extreme conviction requires that they lose themselves instead. Now we may know intuitively or from personal experience that selfhood can be lost and found, but only Affect Theory can explain how, exactly, this is possible. For centuries, our model of the mind has led us to assume that knowing what you feel is automatic, which has rendered inconceivable the kind of absolute emotional disconnection these memoirists describe. But as my work with patients routinely confirms, knowing what you feel is neither guaranteed nor sometimes even possible. Indeed, as Affect Theory shows, there is no inner part of mind that registers our feelings and automatically conveys them, only a “protoself” that emerges dynamically out of interactions between the nervous system and the outer world.

It is precisely because the self is not a unified entity that precedes the work of continual fabrication, that it is susceptible to failures of integration and communication that can — if they occur — capsize the entire production of selfhood. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains,

We do not have a self sculpted in stone and, like stone, resistant to the ravages of time. […] The entire biological edifice, from cells, tissues, and organs to systems and images, is held alive by the constant execution of construction plans, always on the brink of partial or complete collapse.

Affect Theory shows that if selfhood depends upon the ability to register one’s feelings, then we are newly vulnerable once we acknowledge that this crucial mechanism is neither automatic nor unshakable, but delicate and susceptible to dysfunction. If the capacity to feel one’s feelings can be damaged or impaired, then the self it continually generates can sputter and break too.

These findings have prompted a growing number of philosophers, neurobiologists, and clinicians to call for a new model of mental life that recognizes the mind’s plasticity and treats autoaffection as contingent rather than assured. Neuroscientists are discovering an entire category of patients who seem functionally “normal” except for their total inability to process emotional responses — a group of sufferers Catherine Malabou calls the “new wounded.” These “new wounded” challenge the longstanding belief in an indelible, imperishable Unconscious which endures in parallel with the unbroken self.

As these memoirs about “self-betrayal” make clear, it is possible for an individual to function and yet be totally unplugged from their own affectivity, to be present and missing at the same time. Indeed, perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of this body of work is that it finally retires hollow declarations of the “dead” or decentered Subject by revealing the quaint presumptions of these fiery threats — the self is neither unified nor guaranteed but plastic and fragile, the product of complex operations that are nowhere near as secure or inevitable as we might wish them to be.


Gila Ashtor is a critical theorist, psychoanalyst, and writer. She teaches at Columbia University, and is a licensed psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.