Toxic relationships in fiction: what’s going on?

Toxic relationship stories are having a bit of a moment, and whether it’s realising that your partner is a gaslighting piece of shit, or coming to terms with life after a controlling ex, the stories to be told are varied and powerful.

The main books I’ve read that have covered this of late can often be dismissed as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘chick lit’, neither of which are good enough terms to show the depth and sensitivity they exude when dealing with a really delicate situation.

Toxic relationships can come in all forms (and not just romantic) and there can be relationships so toxic that you’re both bad for each other. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the ones that can be qualified as abusive. Where one party wants to control the other. It’s done so subtly in some ways you’d barely notice it – from calling you ‘crazy’ when you show any emotion, to flying off the handle unexpectedly, to punishing you with the silent treatment.

Relationships with a ‘bad ex’ aren’t just about being cheated on or finding yourself unappreciated – they’re experiences that need time and space to heal from. To undo the damage, figure out what’s real and unlearn all those strange behaviours.

In most of the books I’ve read that cover this area, the friends have struggled to deal with the emotionally abusive ex, either stating their dislike outwardly, encouraging her (yes, it’s usually a ‘her’, that’s not to say it always is) to leave him, or waiting around until she finally does (and realising it might take a few tries).

I always really feel for the friends in that situation, because you don’t want to leave your friend isolated, enthralled by someone who is bad to them, but you also can’t get through. You just have to wait.

Some brilliant books that dealt with abusive or toxic exes that I’ve read in the last year included ‘Don’t you forget about me’ by Mhairi Mcfarlane, ‘The Flat Share by Beth O’Leary, ‘How do you like me now?’ by Hollie Bourne and ‘Our Stop’ by Laura Jane Williams.

In my upcoming novel, ‘Before We Part’, there’s no doubt that Loll’s husband Darren is a nasty piece of work (although he’s always capable of sinking lower in people’s estimation – arsehole that he is). He’s never explicitly abusive, and to many readers I’m sure he’ll just look like your standard ex – pretty shit.

What makes the relationship more complex is how Loll feels about it – how she’d built her life around someone else’s opinion of her without even noticing. How she’d forgotten to be herself, because it was easier to be someone who made him happy. When someone chips away at us, day after day, when they identify the things that are ‘wrong’ with us, until we start to believe we really were irrational, or unfair or overreacting…it’s hard to claw your way back to ‘normal’. It’s hard to even see what that is anymore.

My story is not about Darren, and actually, what I love is that he has screwed over two women and neither of them let their story be about him. Because it’s about them – their friendship, their love, their growth, their history. Their adventures. And that takes guts.

So, tell me: have you read a book with a toxic relationship? Have you read a romance where you thought it seemed unhealthy? Have you read any of the wonderful books I’ve listed above, and what did you think?

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