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Love, loyalty & lies: Helen Callaghan on toxic relationships

It’s the most wonderful time of year to be discussing relationships. In particular terrible ones, because they are the most interesting.

In my new novel, Everything Is Lies, Sophia is shocked and devastated when the police tell her that her mother, Nina, has committed suicide. Refusing to believe that this is true, Sophia starts to investigate and discovers that her mother’s past was not all that it seems – and that she had written a tell-all memoir about her experiences. But powerful forces have a lot to lose if the book is published. What steps might they have they taken to silence Nina? And is Sophia next?

I wanted to explore the cruel and unusual ways that we can hurt one another, even when we think we are operating under informed consent. So many of the relationships in the book – between children and parents, friends and lovers, bosses and colleagues – are toxic, sometimes lethally so.

But it made me have to stop and think – what do I mean by a toxic relationship? Whilst all relationships have their ups and downs, they still, in a fundamental way, enhance our lives over the long haul. A toxic, draining relationship does the opposite – it drags you down.

If that’s the case, however, then why do people tolerate them? What do they get out of them? Perhaps it’s a problem with many causes:

1. We expect people to treat us as we would treat them. When they don’t, we wonder what we’ve done to deserve it. This only works if the other person does the same – but sometimes you really are just a means to an end, and it takes distance and emotional maturity to work this out.

2. We tell ourselves that people that mistreat those they purport to love are wounded/insecure/frightened. Perhaps they are. Perhaps, however, it’s simply a strategy that works for them – such as the guy that’s “been cheated on before” and makes you feel uncomfortable seeing any of your friends, so you stop. He’s controlling your social life now – for him, this is a result. Or what about the guy who never describes you as his girlfriend due to his “fear of commitment” and yet within a year of your breakup his relationship status on Facebook has changed to “Married”?

3. There is one absolute rule for life – you’ll never know what another person is truly feeling or thinking. Rather than wasting time in mental gymnastics that explain away bad behaviour, I try to consider the ultimate mark of a person – and that’s their deeds, not their speech. Distinguishing between these is harder than it looks. But what we do is who we are, not what we say.

Something that I wanted to convey in Everything Is Lies is that the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions – the tenets we abide by in order to be good lovers, spouses, and parents can sometimes be the very things that weigh us down into hopeless situations and can expose us to predators. By hiding her past from her daughter, Nina was trying to keep Sophia from harm. But by protecting her through omission, Nina has in fact endangered Sophia more than she could ever know.

helen callaghan
helen callaghan
Helen Callaghan

Helen Callaghan was born in Los Angeles, California, to British parents, and her early years were spent in both the US and UK. After several early false starts as a nurse, barmaid and actor, she settled into bookselling, working as a fiction specialist and buyer for a variety of bookshops. Eventually, she studied for her A-levels at night school and achieved a place at Cambridge University as a mature student. Helen’s debut novel, Dear Amy, was a Sunday Times bestseller.

Follow Helen on Twitter.

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