Why Do We Love Toxic Relationships in Pop Culture?

Joker and Harley should not be #relationshipgoals


As a society, we love drama. Sometimes we root for the two sides to have a peaceful resolution, other times, we want one party to get their comeuppance. We are often presented with characters who do not get along and drive the story’s conflict on our televisions and movie screens.

One popular trope is the toxic relationship. Depending on how these relationships are portrayed, they can be played for laughs or as a plot point where we are waiting for one of the two to get out of the situation, we may be able to ignore why those two characters are wrong for each other.

While fans of these shows and movies will often debate the relationships of these characters on formats such as Reddit, there looks to be no shortage of toxic relationships in pop culture. This is not always bag, as storytelling needs conflict and nothing makes characters more relatable than real relationships.

Speaking of Reddit, a recent r/AskReddit post inspired this article. The original poster asked about the worst toxic couples in pop culture. Many posts mentioned Ross and Rachel on Friends, Ted and Robin on How I Met Your Mother, Bella and Edward from Twilight. There was some drama because there can be arguments for and against these views, and none of the relationships would be categorized as abusive.

Then there is Harley Quinn and the Joker. As a kid I remember watching the Batman animated series and the introduction of the Joker’s henchwoman/girlfriend. She was an entertaining character infatuated with the Joker. However, the audience would see Joker neglect, talk down to, and abuse Harley. At one point Batman asks why she stays with him when the Joker is so mean to her. We didn’t have a word for gaslighting or toxic relationships back then, but it was the first time an issue like that was handled in a kid’s show.

While the relationships of these two characters were developed further in comics, video games, and further animated television it was not until 2016’s Suicide Squad came out that people started idolizing the couple.

Electroshock and torture or rarely the hallmarks of a healthy relationship.

I recall seeing young women and girls going on social media talking about wanting to be like Joker and Harley. This is concerning, as the film tried to show how wrong the two characters were for each other.

While there were some scenes that showed Joker being willing to do anything to get Harley back, it is obvious it is more about possession than true love. Harley seems to have come to her senses (at least relationship-wise).

So why are we attracted to such toxic relationships? And why do some so idolize them?

Perhaps it is because toxic relationships are genuine. Seeing a character come out the other side may be cathartic for some who went through a toxic relationship. Sometimes these relationships don’t seem toxic on the surface until we look deeper. Fans of the television show Friends spend several seasons wishing Ross and Rachel to become a couple but never question how emotionally draining it must have been for both characters.

One of the significant issues with these portrayals of relationships is that people often mold their ideas of a good relationship. While it may not be the intended result, it can warp young people’s perception and expectations of what a relationship looks like. Girls may expect a boy who loves them to be a little mean or just not supportive (Look at Roy and Pam on The Office). For boys, they may take the message of a show like How I Met Your Mother as if you just wait long enough. The girl you are secretly pining for will come to her senses (or follow Barney’s rulebook).

So while toxic relationships are as old as pop culture, the audience must recognize these relationships. They are not characters we should necessarily want to be like. Their stories are trying to teach us a lesson on life or simply trying to entertain us.

If you want to emulate healthy relationships, look at Phil and Claire or Cam and Mitch from Modern Family, Turk and Carla on Scrubs, or Pam and Jim on the Office. While they may have their ups and downs throughout life, they show love and support for each other.

The perfect healthy couple is Gomez and Morticia of Addams Family fame. Sure, they’re creepy and kooky, but they are obsessively in love with themselves and support their children.

So while you watch your favorite show, think about why you may like this toxic couple so much. Is it because it drives the story, or do you idealize them? If you find you fall in the latter, try watching some Addams Family reruns.



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Nick Howard

Nick Howard

I am an educator and a writer. My topics of interest include sports, movies, comics, history, professional wrestling, food, music, and hobbies.