I hate toxic people, and after mixing with a number of bitchy females at both school and university, avoid them at all costs. But writing about them is cathartic. The most intense form of toxic relationship is one you cannot walk away from. You have a compulsive need to remain with the person who is damaging you, and are therefore completely trapped. There are many such scenarios. Perhaps you cannot afford to leave your partner as you need to work together to provide a roof over your head and the basic necessities for your children. Maybe your partner threatens to kill you or themselves if you leave. Or your partner has developed cancer and if you stepped away at such a difficult time, guilt would destroy you.
But the toxic relationship which intrigues me most, and is the subject of my latest novel, The Unwelcome Guest, is a bitter mother-in-law, daughter-in-law dynamic. You have no role in choosing one another. Do you know the feeling? You hate your mother-in- law, and she hates you back. Claws are out. Spittle flies. Dr Lillian Glass, a Californian based communication and psychology expert defines a toxic relationship as ‘any relationship between people who don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.’ Many women I have talked to over the years have experienced this battle.
In order to write about it properly I think it is important to consider what causes this dynamic. My characters need to accurately reflect the psychological profile. In my opinion mothers of cherished sons frequently seem to regard the younger more attractive woman as competition, and do, as Lillian Glass suggests, seek to undermine her. Lack of respect, and lack of cohesiveness sadly seem to feature all too frequently in this explosive mix. Why does this happen so often? Why do so many mothers of men fail to welcome their son’s partner into the family with love and warmth? Is it age related jealousy of youth? Does their son’s life moving forwards make them feel old and irrelevant?
I feel very sorry for a son who is caught in such cross-fire. The problem is less intense if the mother is happy and content in her romantic relationship, which is why Caprice, the mother-in-law from hell in my novel, is a bitter lonely widow. The son’s roll is pivotal. If he re-assures both women of his love for them, the competition between them will be reduced. So in my novel every one is fallible. And as many mothers-in-laws know, daughters-in -law are not all plain sailing; often over-eager to cut the umbilical cord.
Writing about toxic relationships is interesting because of its intensity and antagonism. I love layering situations and plot, while creaming it all together with bitchy conversation. Writers are people watchers; magpies collecting snippets of conversation heard over the years. Observing toxic people carefully in order to avoid them has helped me to do this. I am not bitchy and toxic myself, I promise! And by the way my daughter-in-law is wonderful. She is an integral part of our family.
The Unwelcome Guest by Amanda Robson is out now.
MORE FROM BOOKS: Seven things I'd like my readers to know about me, by A.A. Chaudhuri
Tagged in author interview