What the Netflix Series 'You' Can Teach You About Toxic Relationships

For three seasons, viewers have witnessed Penn Badgley's Joe Goldberg engage in troubling relationships. But when it comes to challenging situations IRL, is there a way to avoid ending up in sticky scenarios?

You - Toxic Relationships
Photo: Netflix

Netflix's hit series You returned to the streaming platform earlier this month, much to the delight of fans who have been waiting nearly two years (!) for Season 3. While some familiar faces returned — hello, you... err, Joe Goldberg (played by Gossip Girl alum Penn Badgley) — the third season also featured new additions, including librarian Marianne Bellamy (portrayed by Tati Gabrielle of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), who — slight spoiler alert — becomes the object of Joe's obsessive affections.

Over the course of three seasons, Joe has become fixated on certain women — Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) of Season 1 and the recurring Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) — and often goes to the extremes to make the relationships work. And whether or not you've yet made it to the finish line of Season 3 (fair warning ⚠️ spoilers ahead), there's a chance you've pondered: How could all these women fall for a man like Joe? (

There's a common pattern that appears in You: A pattern that folks may have experienced at some point in their lives if not many times: The pattern of holding back and not saying anything. Of not speaking your mind and standing up for yourself. This typically ends horribly and has the potential for going down harmful, if not toxic, paths, be it with a boy, a friend, or even a family member.

While You may be just another drama on your Netflix queue, the fact is, there's so much more beneath the surface. For one, it serves as a perfect (albeit extreme) example of how people fall into toxic relationships from which they may not know how to escape.

But what is a toxic relationship, exactly? These unhealthy relationships can be defined as ones "in which there is no real connection — or a very poor connection between partners," said Gary Brown, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., F.A.P.A., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, to Shape. "At worst, it is a relationship that suffers from either malignant neglect or chronic high-conflict." Given what's transpired between Joe and his paramours over the past few seasons, it's evident no relationship of his stands a chance of succeeding in a healthy manner. What does that look and feel like IRL? It may be a toxic relationship if you feel icky when you are around this person. Any time you feel that tightening feeling in your stomach because something they did or said didn't feel good to you, that can be a sign of toxicity or lead to eventually being toxic. (See: 7 Signs That You Might Be In a Toxic Relationship)

Let's rewind to Season 1, for example. Heroine Beck has a bitch best friend who constantly belittles her. Add in a father who throws money her way, believing it can repair past damage, as well as an ex-boyfriend who talks down to her and treats her like a sex toy. Beck puts up with this gross behavior from all of them. And worse, she internalizes all of their toxic behavior and forms her own belief that she's not good enough for anything better. That she's not worthy of more.

Words and how others treat us have much more power than people realize. What we say ourselves and the words we hear from others have massive impacts on our perception of who we are at the core. Say for years you constantly hear how smart you are or how pretty you are. What does that mean if you get a bad mark on a paper or your looks start to fade? Who are you then?Even more so, if you're told over and over again negative things that can potentially impact your self-esteem or that it's ok to be treated a certain way, you start to believe it. (See: Your Negative Self-Talk Could Be Harming Your Health — Here's How to Stop)

If you don't form tools to override the beliefs about yourself that get told to you or shown to you, toxicity can start to rear its ugly head.

Because of how Beck is feeling, being in such a vulnerable state, and having her guard down, she's is in a place emotionally where it's easy to fall for someone who says "all the right things," à la Joe. He was the first person who saw her and lifted her up instead of pushing her down. Who wouldn't want to be around a person that they felt really saw them at the core and had their best interest at heart? (Read more: 5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Sex and Dating, According to a Relationships Therapist)

And how could anyone see red flags waving in front of them when all they're also being showered in rainbows, butterflies, and warm hugs? As a result of this love, support, and admiration being shown to her for the first time, Beck thrived. She wrote, she succeeded, she became her best self.

Fast forward: Love Quinn, Joe's primary love interest in Season 2, also found solace in an unexpected place. And while Love didn't have toxic friends like Beck, she grew up with parents whom she just couldn't seem to please, believing that she simply was not enough and could do no right no matter how hard she tried. Amid a challenging family dynamic, Joe offered Love a stable (albeit, twisted) source of emotional comfort.

Then in Season 3, in terms of Marianne and Joe's connection, while they got off to a bit of a bumpy start, the pair ultimately connected over their challenging upbringings. "[Marianne] was taken aback by the prospect of being able to actually connect with somebody and feel seen," said actress Tati Gabrielle in a recent interview. "In this town, she doesn't fit in... I just think that she needed love and was in a very lonely place. And she found comfort in Joe."

In short, Joe gave each of these women exactly what they needed: open communication, unconditional love, and the freedom to speak their minds and be heard.

But here's the thing: Joe's romantic relationships throughout the series were not based on trust and honesty. Between Joe using extreme tactics to get close to these women and then those women, whom he "trusts," manipulating him (i.e. Love revealing in Season 2 that she made Joe fall in love with her after studying his past), how can a real relationship thrive when it's based on lies?

"Yeah, you did some terrible things, but that's what sensitive people do when they're trapped in a bad relationship," said Love of Joe and Beck's doomed romance in the Season 2 finale.

But how do you even know you're heading down a potentially troubling path? And should you find yourself in a toxic relationship, what do you do?

Honestly, you listen to your gut: that little voice inside you that says, "this isn't right," or "I deserve better." And if that inner voice pops up a few times telling you to run for the emergency exit, then it's time to take action with these critical steps. (Note: These steps can apply to both romantic relationships and those with platonic loved ones as well.)

Taking Action with Toxic Relationships

  1. Build Yourself Up: Remind yourself of why you are wonderful and worthy of being treated with love, respect, and kindness. As a relationship coach, this exercise is something I often give to my clients; they're instructed to write a list of 10 to 20 things that are awesome about themselves, such as "I'm a hard worker" or "I'm a loyal friend." You too can do this exercise by creating a list and reading it to yourself (whether out loud or in your head).
  2. Speak Up: Don't yell. Don't get mad. Don't be mean. Just simply speak your mind. If someone in your life keeps putting you down, even if it comes from a place of love, tell them to stop. For example, if Season 1's Beck had told her rude BFF that she no longer wanted any part of that friendship, perhaps Peach may have taken it as a wake-up call and changed her ways to preserve the relationship. If that happened, there's a possibility Beck would have never found comfort in Joe as her focus may have been to repair her friendship with Peach. And, in a more extreme circumstance from Season 2, had Love decided to speak up about her au pair's previous indiscretion with her underage brother, a less brutal outcome — the au pair's death at Love's hands — may have been avoided.
  3. Set Boundaries: Write out a list of five to 10 things that you will not accept in a relationship. These boundaries need to make sense for you. Maybe they're things you've ignored or disliked in the past and then caused harm later on, and you want to ensure that they are not part of your future. If there are repeated actions from a loved one that don't sit right with you, establish a boundary around it. Write your boundary down on a post-it note (i.e. "I will not allow someone to flake on me for plans") and keep it within your vision so that way, you can see this every day and remember your value. In the third season of You, for example, Joe finds himself as a victim of toxicity in his own relationship with Love. Instead of instilling his own boundaries, he gets sucked into a life that he never wanted for himself (a family man in the suburbs with neighbors he doesn't exactly click with — sans Natalie, may she RIP). Had he set clear boundaries with Love in Season 2, he may not have been in this situation in the first place. (Read more: How to Set Boundaries with Anyone In Your Life)
  4. Stick to Those Boundaries: Even more important than creating boundaries is abiding by them — which can be challenging. But in order for these boundaries to become a part of you, you have to carry them out. For instance, if you have a boundary against men calling you over at random hours of the night, don't answer the phone. Be polite and kind if you want and tell him, "I'm actually looking for more than a guy who just wants a booty call. If you want to take me on a date, get to know me, I'd be more than happy to do that. If not, sadly this is not going to happen." And then stick to it! In the case of Beck and Joe, while Peach didn't mince words when describing her BFF's new beau — calling him a "creepy retail loser" — in an alternate universe, if Beck perhaps heeded Peach's warning, there's a possibility Beck would have cut her loses from Joe and moved forward entirely. (

While You may be a work of fiction, toxic relationships very much exist in the real world. Should you find yourself in a bad romance or a troublesome friendship, take a step back and think about what may be the best way to move forward for yourself. Yes, ending relationships, whether romantic or platonic, can be difficult, but sacrificing your well-being is never worth it in the end. In fact, moving on from a relationship that no longer serves you gives you the opportunity to write a whole new chapter in your life story.

Marni Kinrys is an author and the founder of The Wing Girl Method, helping gentlemen navigate the often tricky waters of dating.

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