Last spring, my boyfriend sublet a spare room in his apartment to an aspiring model. The roommate was young and made us feel old, but he was always game for a bottle of wine in the living room, and he seemed to like us, even though he sometimes suggested that we were boring or not that hot.
One night, he and my boyfriend started bickering about which Lorde album is better, the first one or the second one. This kind of argument can be entertaining if the participants are making funny or interesting points, but they weren’t, and they wouldn’t drop it. The roommate was getting louder and louder; my boyfriend was repeating himself. It was Friday; I was tired. I snapped and said, loudly, “This conversation is dumb, and I don’t want to keep having it.” I knew it was rude, but I thought it was expedient, eldest-sibling rude. So I was sort of shocked when the roommate got up without a word, went into his room, slammed the door, and never spoke to me again.
Though he lived in the apartment for several more months, I saw him only one other time, on the way to the bathroom. We didn’t make eye contact. Another time, I was on a Zoom call in the living room and heard, from behind his closed bedroom door, the Avril Lavigne song “Girlfriend,” the chorus of which is a peppy “Hey, hey, you, you, I don’t like your girlfriend,” playing at a pointed volume. Eventually, my boyfriend texted him to see if he would talk about the situation. He replied that there wasn’t much to say, except one thing: “Your girlfriend is toxic,” he warned, followed by an emoji of a monkey covering its face.
This accusation was upsetting because I crave approval at all times from everyone around me. But it was also surprising because toxic is an internet word. I had seen all kinds of advice on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Reddit about how to deal with “toxic” friends, generally by never speaking to them again. But I had rarely heard it used offline, and then only semi-ironically, or in regard to people who were objectively terrible. I had never had to consider whether it was a word that could be applied to me.
The internet is wallpapered with advice, much of it delivered in a cut-and-dried, cut-’em-loose tone. Frankly worded listicles abound. For instance: “7 Tips for Eliminating Toxic People From Your Life,” or “7 Ways to Cut a Toxic Friend Out of Your Life.” On Instagram and Pinterest, the mantras are ruthless: “There is no better self-care than cutting off people who are toxic for you”; “If I cut you off, chances are, you handed me the scissors.” The signature smugness and sass of Twitter are particularly well suited to dispensing these tidbits of advice. I don’t know who needs to hear this, a tweet will begin, suggesting that almost anyone might need to hear it, but if someone hurts your feelings, you are allowed to get rid of them. There is even a WebMD page about how to identify a “toxic person,” defined aggressively unhelpfully as “anyone whose behavior adds negativity and upset to your life.” Well, by that measure … !
I find this stuff tough to read because—like most people I know—I’ve surely hurt everybody I love at least once. Plus the roommate. I talked down to him—an obvious red flag—and he did what he was supposed to do, according to the prevailing online wisdom. He acted quickly to protect himself. A person has no obligation to forgive anyone for anything, he may have been reassured by some tinny internet voice. Or as one “Inspirational Quotes” account tweeted over the summer: “Cut them off silently, they know exactly what they did.”
I can’t say it was a huge loss—our relationship was based almost entirely on proximity. But the advice I’m sifting through isn’t just about sloughing off casual acquaintances; it’s meant to apply to close friends, siblings, partners, parents. The message—implied if not always stated outright—is that other people are simply not my problem.
“These are some signs that you should cut somebody off,” Sahar Dahi, a 22-year-old TikTok creator, announced last year to her millions of followers. She has the air of a big sister—but a fun one, not a scold. The signs include: They can’t tell the truth, they can’t keep your secrets, and they cross your boundaries even though your boundaries are nonnegotiable. “These are definitely red flags,” she told me.
Dahi posts a lot of videos tagged #toxic. When I interviewed her, I asked her if she practices what she preaches, and she told me that she’s actually very big on practicing what she preaches—she’s cut a wild number of toxic people out of her life. How many, exactly? She paused. “Like, just doing a quick count? Oh my God, I’d say, like, 10.” (In the past year.)
I should stop here to note that I’m not looking to instigate some kind of moral panic. Maybe #toxic posts are popular because relationship drama is good entertainment, especially on TikTok—an app for teenagers whose literal role in society is to explore the full spectrum of irrational behavior. Maybe this advice is just what’s in style right now. But at a time when our most intimate relationships really do seem to be becoming more brittle, it’s hard to laugh off the possibility that some people are taking all of this to heart.
Nobody tracks breakups between unmarried romantic partners, let alone friends or subletters. But we do know that all kinds of relationships seem to be snapping. Last year in The Atlantic, Joshua Coleman, a psychologist focused on family estrangement, described advising an influx of parents whose adult children had cut them out of their lives. Karl Pillemer, a professor at Cornell University, published a book on the topic in 2020 in which he estimated that about 67 million Americans were estranged from a family member.
Some blame self-absorbed young people. In a New York Times column last year, David Brooks employed the work of Pillemer and other experts to argue that the estrangement epidemic might be driven by “a generational shift in what constitutes abuse”—difficult or distant parents, redefined as dangerous. He wondered whether today’s young people view the family as a “launchpad for personal fulfillment,” rather than the site of lifelong obligation. Brooks then painted a lonely picture of the “psychological unraveling of America,” working in high rates of depression and suicide, as well as the sizable percentages of Americans who feel that they do not have even one close friend and that nobody truly knows them.
Two decades ago, Robert D. Putnam lamented the breakdown of social ties in Bowling Alone. Americans, pressed for time and money, were abandoning their bridge clubs, bowling leagues, and broader community obligations. Putnam diagnosed a generational posture toward society, but what’s going on now is different: a generational mutation in the philosophy of interpersonal relationships. It’s more intimate, and maybe more distressing.
Why is this happening? Maybe young people have been inspired by the impermanence and infinite choice baked into online dating and social media. Maybe our brains have been pickled in wellness culture and “self-care” rhetoric, which stress the need to privilege our own well-being above all else. Or maybe we’re just good American capitalists, encouraged by the cult of individualism to think of ourselves as compelling brands, the main characters of cinematic star vehicles, the centers of the universe.
The line between internet advice and bona fide mental-health guidance can get a little blurry. A few TikTok personalities have branched out into something that looks more like therapy—charging for one-on-one consultations. And I spoke with professionals who told me that this school of online advice has made its way into their own consultation rooms.
Lina Perl, a clinical psychologist in New York, said her patients sometimes talk about toxic friends and the internet’s advice for dealing with them. She gets the appeal. “People love rules,” she told me. They want to know what their responsibilities are. “When do I get to say, ‘That’s it. I cut you out’?”
Jack Worthy, a psychotherapist in New York, doesn’t care for the word toxic: “As far as I know, it’s not an actual psychological construct that has validity and reliability.” But lately, he told me, it’s been coming up “again and again” in his practice. Many patients “want to explore ideas or frameworks that they learned online.”
Worthy noted that self-help is much older than social media, but that reading an entire Brené Brown book takes far more commitment than passively consuming what’s presented to you in an algorithmic feed. “I think previously it might not have been so easy to find content to validate what you already feel,” he said.
The advice is not just easier to find; it’s easier to follow, too. Earlier iterations of self-help often stressed the hard work of building and maintaining relationships, of opening up and connecting with others. That’s more arduous than simply removing from your social network anyone who causes you discomfort.
Social media, by its nature, can make people appear more extreme than they are. Consider a recent incident involving Lindy Ford, a 21-year-old influencer from Spokane, Washington, who posts videos on Twitch of herself playing fantasy games like The Elder Scrolls V. Though her modest audience follows her for gaming content, she has also been candid about her anxiety and panic disorders, as well as her relationships; sometimes, on Twitter, she’ll offer bits of advice. Last year, she posted:
here’s your reminder that unless someone explicitly told you with their words they are upset with you, there is no need for you to worry yourself sick. you have no mental or emotional obligation to people who do not communicate with you. no matter how much you love them.
Pretty intense! The tweet was shared more than 50,000 times—in many cases approvingly. But others saw Ford’s message as wrong or even dangerous, describing it as an “insane thing to say” and a “great entry in the short but rich history of sociopathic advice on social media.”
When I spoke with Ford soon after, I was curious about whether she was surprised by that backlash. “That is just the way it is online,” she told me. Her followers knew she was alluding to her own tendencies to overthink things and be too self-critical. But she understood why other people thought “it was quote-unquote sociopathic … They were reading it as if I were saying, ‘If you hurt someone, then you have no obligation to fix it, because they didn’t tell you that you hurt them.’ ” That wasn’t what she meant. It’s only what she wrote.
The beauty of a tweet is its simplicity: You can hear a gavel bang at the end of each sentence. But that just doesn’t correspond to the messiness of life. What mistakes can we make and still ask for forgiveness? What do we owe one another? What do we owe ourselves? You can discuss these questions forever. This is why I love reality TV—especially the Real Housewives universe, which, stripped of the glitz, is about nothing other than how and when to give an apology, and under what terms to accept one.
In her 1987 memoir, Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick describes her relationship with her unhappy and demanding mother. The story doesn’t come to a dramatic end in which Gornick stops talking to her mother forever. Instead, Gornick painfully, slowly, gains a little freedom. “We are no longer nose to nose, she and I. A degree of distance has been permanently achieved … This little bit of space provides me with the intermittent but useful excitement that comes of believing I begin and end with myself.”
Beginning and ending with yourself is not the same as suggesting that your self is your only obligation, which is plainly nonsense. Even the influencers with the most followers, putting out the toughest advice, must know that’s no way to live. Because if the people in our lives aren’t our responsibility, then what is?
Catherine Hodes, a social worker in Massachusetts, doesn’t spend a lot of time on the internet, but she has devoted her career to thinking about how people treat one another. In 2013, when she was the director of the Safe Homes Project, a domestic-violence program, she started a workshop called “Is It Conflict or Abuse?” An abusive dynamic, she argues, requires one person to have power over the other, whereas conflict involves two people struggling for power. The distinction can be confusing, and in some cases “both people feel like they’re being abused, because they’re not getting their needs met or they’re not getting their way.”
The relationship advice I’ve been describing doesn’t necessarily encourage anyone to think of themselves as a victim of abuse, but it does imply that one person is always in the right, while the other is in the wrong—so much so that the person in the right should summarily dismiss the person in the wrong. To demonstrate the error of this thinking, Hodes told me a story.
She once attended a conference where a group of people shared experiences of abuse. One young man was asked to tell his story of abusing someone else. He said that he’d been jealous when his girlfriend spoke to other guys, that he cursed at her and felt the need to exert control over her. He had thought this was a normal part of being in a couple, but he’d since been corrected.
“He spoke very softly and he looked down, and he seemed shy and maybe ashamed,” Hodes recalled. As he spoke, she was thinking, “Wait a minute. Why is this being called abuse? It sounds like a 16- or 17-year-old kid with no experience with relationships who doesn’t know anything about intimacy … I saw his confusion and his pain and his humanity. And I had no desire to label him as being bad.”
In 2016, the writer Sarah Schulman published a book called Conflict Is Not Abuse, elaborating on Hodes’s work. She argues that overstatement of harm can itself cause more harm. The person seen as good will be supported and the person seen as bad will be shunned. On social media, Hodes said, these binaries become even more entrenched, because people are encouraged to take sides. This was the case with Ford’s tweet, and thousands of other ephemeral dramas.
One of the easiest explanations for the “toxic” trend is clearly false: Young people aren’t misanthropes. In the past few years, Millennials and Gen Zers have helped rejuvenate the concept of mutual aid, participated in some of the country’s largest-ever demonstrations in favor of racial justice, and expressed a renewed interest in organizing labor. Many of us are thinking hard about our interconnectedness and sometimes tying ourselves in knots trying to do the right thing.
But too often this does not square with the way we discuss our personal lives. I never feel quite so worried that I could die alone and unloved as I do when scrolling through the relationship-sphere, hit by so many emphatic declarations of who should be dead to me and why I should be dead to others.
And yet, I don’t feel hopeless. I have “no obligation,” I’m told, but we all feel obligation, or we wouldn’t be looking so desperately for some relief from that sensation. The very existence of the relationship-advice ecosystem implies an attitude of responsibility and generosity toward our fellow travelers (I don’t know who needs to hear this, but …). That attitude will remain, I think, long after the chilly tone of today’s advice-givers goes out of style.
This article appears in the September 2022 print edition with the headline “That’s It. You’re Dead to Me.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.