Have you found yourself using the word “toxic” in more ways than you ever thought possible? At one point in life, you may have reserved this adjective to apply to a literally life-threatening chemical or environmental situation. Bleach can be toxic if swallowed, asbestos is toxic if it’s still in your building somewhere, and the air can be toxic if it’s laden with smog. Somehow, the word toxic morphed from being used in this literal sense to a way to describe a person, a relationship, or the atmosphere not in the air but in the workplace. Toxic people radiate ill will, leave others miserable, and as relationship partners can cause endless amounts of suffering. They are easily angered, expect special treatment (and become furious if they don’t get it), and enjoy disrupting the status quo.
Perhaps due to the current political climate, in which people seem to be angrier and more “tribal” than ever, the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary (OED) chose “toxic” as its number one word of 2018 . The choice of the top word by the OED reflects, as they describe it, “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year.” Its original meaning is poisonous, and most people with an elementary education in English would certainly be able to provide this definition if asked to do so. Why, then, would those looking up the meaning of “toxic” in 2018, have risen 45% over the previous year, as calculated by the OED? Searching for the psychological meaning of this common word can only be accounted for by the desire of definition-seekers to understand why they feel as they do in a year when there was so much bitterness.
Saddling a situation with a word as negative as toxic can, as new research shows, have downstream effects on those living in toxic times, particularly children. According to Arizona State University’s Thao Ha and colleagues (2019), so-called “low quality” (i.e. toxic) “relationships are often coercive, containing conflicts fueled with anger, contempt, and interpersonal manipulation that become increasingly difficult for partners to resolve” (p. 207). When such conflict escalates into physical or emotional abuse, the effects trickle down to the children who, in turn, can become adults who pass this negative pattern onto their own children. The only way to intervene successfully, according to Ha et al., is to intervene with a couple who show early signs of trending in the toxic direction, thus preventing them from affecting the healthy development of their children.
The ASU study took advantage of data collected in a larger project known as the “Family Check-Up,” an intervention focused on the families of middle-school children. Ha and her coauthors were able to obtain data from children involved in this study when they were 11-12 years old who were then followed every year until they were 17 years old, then when they were 19, and finally as young adults in their late 20s. At the last follow-up, participants and their partners in committed relationships then provided data on “coercive relationship talk” (i.e. toxic) in an interaction conducted in the laboratory. The previous follow-ups gave the research team rich data on the parenting styles in their families, antisocial behaviors during their teen years, deviancy in interacting with peers while in high school, and retrospective recall of having been traumatized in childhood at the 19-year-old follow up testing.
As you might expect, toxicity in the couple’s relationship as shown in the observational ratings included the extent to which partners engaged in negative and hostile interactions. The second measure of toxicity assessed coercion, as indicated by the extent to which partners dismissed, invalidated, criticized, put down, or showed contempt for each other. The third and final measure assessed commitment to the relationship, as indicated by partners stating that they expected their relationship to continue into the future. The 228 heterosexual and 2 homosexual couples who participated in this experimentally-observed interaction were either seen together in the lab or through the technology of “Zoom” meeting, in which they could easily be seen by the experimental team.
The longitudinal method used in this innovative study allowed Ha et al. to test a statistical model in which antisocial behaviors, disruptive parenting, and lifetime trauma at ages 11-12 were used to predict age 13-14 peer deviancy and antisocial behaviors. These measures in turn became predictors of the age 16 deviancy scores based on how much participants talked with their friends about antisocial behavior or behavior that violated community or social rules. Finally, all of these factors were tested as predictors of coercive relationship talk in the late 20s. As the authors predicted, disruptive parenting in childhood was a strong predictor of coercive relationship talk in young adulthood. However, there was another, even stronger, indirect path in which disruptive parenting predicted antisocial behaviors in early adolescence which, in turn, predicted higher levels of deviancy with peers. This higher deviancy with peers became the final, and strongest, predictor of coercive relationship talk between partners.
The ASU authors concluded that their findings “clearly support a developmental perspective on coercion in adult romantic relationships, with problematic relationships with peers and parents as important socialization agents for conflict resolution and relationship functioning” (p. 212). In what they call a “transactional” process, children develop their ideas about and behavior in romantic relationships based on what they see in their childhood homes. Parents who show this disruptive parenting may reinforce their children’s negative behavior such as whining, shouting, and arguing which in turn will lead to more coercive styles with their own partners when they grow up. Additionally, such parents are physically abusive to their children, as was indicated by the findings showing this recall of traumatic treatment to be related to coercive relationship talk.
There are certainly disturbing implications of the Ha et al. study in that the toxicity reflected by the OED’s awarding of its word of the year to “toxic,” the children exposed to contemporary culture may be affected for decades to come as will their own children. There was no way of controlling for “cultural toxicity” in the ASU study, but external context is known to play an important role in your day-to-day well-being, even if you’re not aware of its impact. The antidote to 2018’s word, we can hope, will provide a greater basis for fulfillment in the year 2019.