The Bewitching Charm of Toxic Men

Love and Sex

The Bewitching Charm of Toxic Men

Illustration: Namaah

As I watched Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam’s grand romance between VC, an Indian military pilot, and Leela, a doctor, set against the backdrop of the Kargil War, I was reminded of The Twilight Saga. The teen vampire romance couldn’t offer a more remote comparison, save for the fact that their main protagonists are entirely similar – and entirely toxic for the women they are with. Of course, VC is not a bloodsucking vampire like Edward Cullen, but both men’s love is certain to kill their sweethearts (in Edward’s case, quite literally).

In a scene in Kaatru Veliyidai, VC drags Leela to the registrar’s office and asks her point blank to marry him. When Leela hesitates – perturbed by his routine hot and cold behaviour toward her, and confused over the emotional manipulation followed by the endless cycle of apologies – he tells her to meet him at the same spot the next afternoon if her answer is yes.

The following day, two witnesses in tow, Leela waits outside the registrar’s office for VC… who never shows up. Dejected, she rushes off to find him, and once she does, he greets her as if nothing’s amiss. Seething with anger, she demands to know why he stood her up.

He forgot, he tells her. As simple as that.

Watching this scene unfold on screen a couple of weeks back, I caught myself smirking, only too certain of how their story would pan out in real life. I’d met the toxic man before. In friends, lovers, and every blighted romance story. Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. Leela was the ever-optimistic Carrie Bradshaw and VC was the commitment-phobic Mr Big. Sex and the City, all six seasons of it, is an ode to toxic men and why women as strong as Carrie and Leela continue to love them.

Edward Cullen, Mr Big, and VC epitomise this quiet flourishing of toxic men that every girl must navigate to find her happily-ever-after. Fluent in the language of mindfuck and mixed signals, these dudes are usually adept at camouflaging their true colours behind the failsafe mysterious-boy aesthetic. They are, almost always, smoother than Justin Trudeau’s PR skills, and list leaving their baes dazed and confused on their résumés.

And yet, we keep falling for them.

Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett was no different. Mr Darcy is proud, aloof, and never leaves any opportunity to show her how superior he is. To her credit, Lizzie tries to show him his place and refuses to give in until he is worthy of her. But Urban Dictionary fittingly summarises the irony of the situation with its definition of Mr Darcy: “Principal character from Pride and Prejudice who is very proud yet is the ideal man. Also, any guy who, although he sends mixed signals, is worth getting.”

Before you know it, you’re dependent on the impulsiveness of not knowing when the relationship will reward you with romance or with a cold punishment.

Why do we continue turning to these emotional vampires? In her book, Toxic Men: 10 Ways To Identify, Deal With and Heal From The Men Who Make You Miserable, Dr Lillian Glass argues that the underlying reason why women become “toxic dude magnets” is because they are convinced that they can “tame the bad boys”. Except, this maladjusted lover has no intentions of changing. According to her, the toxic man is available in several variants that include: the emotional refrigerator (John Mayer), the bully control-freak (Mel Gibson), and the manipulative narcissist (Kanye West).

I was no exception to this pattern. Two years into college, I met a boy who I thought the world of. He was smart, incredibly attractive, and made me laugh. I thought we had a love like no other, and was convinced that no one apart from him would understand me the way he did. It took almost a year to register that I was actually dating a guy who used his feelings as ransom to get me to toe the line: Whether it was something as trivial as meeting someone he didn’t approve of or shutting me down anytime my opinion didn’t match his.

Despite it all, I continued going back to him, dependent on the periodic reinforcement I was subject to. Dating toxic men is like the thrill of skydiving combined with the confusion of deciphering the ending of Inception. It’s all consuming, in a way that no love has ever been, and simultaneously heartbreaking, in a way you want no love to ever be. The unpredictability, the disappearances, and the attempts at controlling keep you swinging from crazy lows to manic highs. But you’re so occupied pining for the highs associated with rare flashes of affection, that you end up disregarding the lows.

Before you know it, you’re dependent on the impulsiveness of not knowing when the relationship will reward you with romance or with a cold punishment. Until you think you’ve had enough, and decide to break your filthy habit and shock your brain with a detox. But then, another “I love you” floats into your inbox and you’re back… more addicted than ever.

You understand that it’s not love. It’s a drug that has as much to do with love as Chetan Bhagat has to do with literature. We go back not for love but for redemption. We go back because we want to be their Chris Martins and fix them into the men we need them to be. But, most importantly, we go back because we’re made to believe that happily-ever-afters await us – just like Leela, Carrie, and Elizabeth had theirs.

What we haven’t been told is that we will find our happily-ever-afters only if we flush these men from our system. Because, dear friend, you and that guy are like the single red wall in the house. It’s a good idea in theory, but somehow, it just won’t work.