Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

When Someone You Love is Toxic – How to Let Go, Without Guilt

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When Someone You Love is Toxic How to Let Go of a Toxic Relationship, Without Guilt

If toxic people were an ingestible substance, they would come with a high-powered warning and secure packaging to prevent any chance of accidental contact. Sadly, families are not immune to the poisonous lashings of a toxic relationship.

Though families and relationships can feel impossibly tough at times, they were never meant to ruin. All relationships have their flaws and none of them come packaged with the permanent glow of sunlight and goodness and beautiful things. In any normal relationship there will be fights from time to time. Things will be said and done and forgiven, and occasionally rehashed at strategic moments. For the most part though, they will feel nurturing and life-giving to be in. At the very least, they won’t hurt.

Why do toxic people do toxic things?

Toxic people thrive on control. Not the loving, healthy control that tries to keep everyone safe and happy – buckle your seatbelt, be kind, wear sunscreen – but the type that keeps people small and diminished. 

Everything they do is to keep people small and manageable. This will play out through criticism, judgement, oppression – whatever it takes to keep someone in their place. The more you try to step out of ‘your place’, the more a toxic person will call on toxic behaviour to bring you back and squash you into the tiny box they believe you belong in.

It is likely that toxic people learned their behaviour during their own childhood, either by being exposed to the toxic behaviour of others or by being overpraised without being taught the key quality of empathy. In any toxic relationship there will be other qualities missing too, such as respect, kindness and compassion, but at the heart of a toxic person’s behaviour is the lack of concern around their impact on others. They come with a critical failure to see past their own needs and wants.

Toxic people have a way of choosing open, kind people with beautiful, lavish hearts because these are the ones who will be more likely to fight for the relationship and less likely to abandon.

Even the strongest people can find themselves in a toxic relationship but the longer they stay, the more they are likely to evolve into someone who is a smaller, less confident, more wounded version of the person they used to be.

Non-toxic people who stay in a toxic relationship will never stop trying to make the relationship better, and toxic people know this. They count on it. Non-toxic people will strive to make the relationship work and when they do, the toxic person has exactly what he or she wants – control. 

Toxic Families – A Special Kind of Toxic

Families are a witness to our lives – our best, our worst, our catastrophes, our frailties and flaws. All families come with lessons that we need to learn along the way to being a decent, thriving human. The lessons begin early and they don’t stop, but not everything a family teaches will come with an afterglow. Sometimes the lessons they teach are deeply painful ones that shudder against our core.

Rather than being lessons on how to love and safely open up to the world, the lessons some families teach are about closing down, staying small and burying needs – but for every disempowering lesson, there is one of empowerment, strength and growth that exists with it. In toxic families, these are around how to walk away from the ones we love, how to let go with strength and love, and how to let go of guilt and any fantasy that things could ever be different. And here’s the rub – the pain of a toxic relationship won’t soften until the lesson has been learned.

Love and loyalty don’t always exist together.

Love has a fierce way of keeping us tied to people who wound us. The problem with family is that we grow up in the fold, believing that the way they do things is the way the world works. We trust them, listen to them and absorb what they say. There would have been a time for all of us that regardless of how mind-blowingly destructive the messages from our family were, we would have received them all with a beautiful, wide-eyed innocence, grabbing every detail and letting them shape who we were growing up to be.

Our survival would have once depended on believing in everything they said and did, and resisting the need to challenge or question that we might deserve better. The things we believe when we are young are powerful. They fix themselves upon us and they stay, at least until we realise one day how wrong and small-hearted those messages have been.

At some point, the environment changes – we grow up – but our beliefs don’t always change with it. We stop depending on our family for survival but we hang on to the belief that we have to stay connected and loyal, even though being with them hurts.

The obligation to love and stay loyal to a family member can be immense, but love and loyalty are two separate things and they don’t always belong together.

Loyalty can be a confusing, loaded term and is often the reason that people stay stuck in toxic relationships. What you need to know is this: When loyalty comes with a diminishing of the self, it’s not loyalty, it’s submission.

We stop having to answer to family when we become adults and capable of our own minds.

Why are toxic relationships so destructive?

In any healthy relationship, love is circular – when you give love, it comes back. When what comes back is scrappy, stingy intent under the guise of love, it will eventually leave you small and depleted, which falls wildly, terrifyingly short of where anyone is meant to be.

Healthy people welcome the support and growth of the people they love, even if it means having to change a little to accommodate. When one person in a system changes, whether it’s a relationship of two or a family of many, it can be challenging. Even the strongest and most loving relationships can be touched by feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and insecurity at times in response to somebody’s growth or happiness. We are all vulnerable to feeling the very normal, messy emotions that come with being human.

The difference is that healthy families and relationships will work through the tough stuff. Unhealthy ones will blame, manipulate and lie – whatever they have to do to return things to the way they’ve always been, with the toxic person in control.

Why a Toxic Relationship Will never change.

Reasonable people, however strong and independently minded they are, can easily be drawn into thinking that if they could find the switch, do less, do more, manage it, tweak it, that the relationship will be okay. The cold truth is that if anything was going to be different it would have happened by now. 

Toxic people can change, but it’s highly unlikely. What is certain is that nothing anyone else does can change them. It is likely there will be broken people, broken hearts and broken relationships around them – but the carnage will always be explained away as someone else’s fault. There will be no remorse, regret or insight. What is more likely is that any broken relationship will amplify their toxic behaviour.

Why are toxic people so hard to leave?

If you try to leave a toxic person, things might get worse before they get better – but they will always get better. Always.

Few things will ramp up feelings of insecurity or a need for control more than when someone questions familiar, old behaviour, or tries to break away from old, established patterns in a relationship. For a person whose signature moves involve manipulation, lies, criticism or any other toxic behaviour, when something feels as though it’s changing, they will use even more of their typical toxic behaviour to bring the relationship (or the person) back to a state that feels acceptable.

When things don’t seem to be working, people will always do more of what used to work, even if that behaviour is at the heart of the problem. It’s what we all do. If you are someone who is naturally open and giving, when things don’t feel right in a relationship you will likely give more of yourself, offer more support, be more loving, to get things back on track. 

Breaking away from a toxic relationship can feel like tearing at barbed wire with bare hands. The more you do it, the more it hurts, so for a while, you stop tearing, until you realise that it’s not the tearing that hurts, it’s the barbed wire – the relationship – and whether you tear at it or not, it won’t stop cutting into you.

Think of it like this. Imagine that all relationships and families occupy a space. In healthy ones, the shape of that space will be fluid and open to change, with a lot of space for people to grow. People will move to accommodate the growth and flight of each other. 

For a toxic family or a toxic relationship, that shape is rigid and unyielding. There is no flexibility, no bending, and no room for growth. Everyone has a clearly defined space and for some, that space will be small and heavily boxed. When one person starts to break out of the shape, the whole family feels their own individual sections change. The shape might wobble and things might feel vulnerable, weakened or scary. This is normal, but toxic people will do whatever it takes to restore the space to the way it was. Often, that will mean crumpling the ones who are changing so they fit their space again.

Sometimes out of a sense of love and terribly misplaced loyalty, people caught in a toxic relationship might sacrifice growth and change and step back into the rigid tiny space a toxic person manipulates them towards. It will be clear when this has happened because of the soul-sucking grief at being back there in the mess with people (or person) who feel so bad to be with.

But they do it because they love me. They said so.

Sometimes toxic people will hide behind the defence that they are doing what they do because they love you, or that what they do is ‘no big deal’ and that you’re the one causing the trouble because you’re just too sensitive, too serious, too – weak, stupid, useless, needy, insecure, jealous – too ‘whatever’ to get it. You will have heard the word plenty of times before. 

The only truth you need to know is this: If it hurts, it’s hurtful. Fullstop.

Love never holds people back from growing. It doesn’t diminish, and it doesn’t contaminate. If someone loves you, it feels like love. It feels supportive and nurturing and life-giving. If it doesn’t do this, it’s not love. It’s self-serving crap designed to keep you tethered and bound to someone else’s idea of how you should be.

There is no such thing as a perfect relationship, but a healthy one is a tolerant, loving, accepting, responsive one.

The one truth that matters.

If it feels like growth or something that will nourish you, follow that. It might mean walking away from people you care about – parents, sisters, brothers, friends – but this can be done with love and the door left open for when they are able to meet you closer to your terms – ones that don’t break you.

Set the boundaries with grace and love and leave it to the toxic person to decide which side of that boundary they want to stand on. Boundaries aren’t about spite or manipulation and they don’t have to be about ending the relationship. They are something drawn in strength and courage to let people see with great clarity where the doorway is to you. If the relationship ends, it’s not because of your lack of love or loyalty, but because the toxic person chose not to treat you in the way you deserve. Their choice. 

Though it is up to you to decide the conditions on which you will let someone close to you, whether or not somebody wants to be close to you enough to respect those conditions is up to them. The choice to trample over what you need means they are choosing not to be with you. It doesn’t mean you are excluding them from your life.

Toxic people also have their conditions of relationship and though they might not be explicit, they are likely to include an expectation that you will tolerate ridicule, judgement, criticism, oppression, lying, manipulation – whatever they do. No relationship is worth that and it is always okay to say ‘no’ to anything that diminishes you.

The world and those who genuinely love you want you to be as whole as you can be. Sometimes choosing health and wholeness means stepping bravely away from that which would see your spirit broken and malnourished.

When you were young and vulnerable and dependent for survival on the adults in your life, you had no say in the conditions on which you let people close to you. But your life isn’t like that now. You get to say. You get to choose the terms of your relationships and the people you get close to.

There is absolutely no obligation to choose people who are toxic just because they are family. If they are toxic, the simple truth is that they have not chosen you. The version of you that they have chosen is the one that is less than the person you would be without them.

The growth.

Walking away from a toxic relationship isn’t easy, but it is always brave and always strong. It is always okay. And it is always – always – worth it. This is the learning and the growth that is hidden in the toxic mess.

Letting go will likely come with guilt, anger and grief for the family or person you thought you had. They might fight harder for you to stay. They will probably be crueller, more manipulative and more toxic than ever. They will do what they’ve always done because it has always worked. Keep moving forward and let every hurtful, small-hearted thing they say or do fuel your step.

You can’t pretend toxic behaviour away or love it away or eat it, drink it, smoke it, depress it or gamble it away. You can’t avoid the impact by being smaller, by crouching or bending or flexing around it. But you can walk away from it – so far away that the most guided toxic fuelled missile that’s thrown at you won’t find you.

One day they might catch up to you – not catch you, catch up to you – with their growth and their healing but until then, choose your own health and happiness over their need to control you. 

You can love people, let go of them and keep the door open on your terms, for whenever they are ready to treat you with love, respect and kindness. This is one of the hardest lessons but one of the most life-giving and courageous ones.

Sometimes there are not two sides. There is only one. Toxic people will have you believing that the one truthful side is theirs. It’s not. It never was. Don’t believe their highly diseased, stingy version of love. It’s been drawing your breath, suffocating you and it will slowly kill you if you let it, and the way you ‘let it’ is by standing still while it spirals around you, takes aim and shoots. 

If you want to stay, that’s completely okay, but see their toxic behaviour for what it is – a desperate attempt to keep you little and controlled. Be bigger, stronger, braver than anything that would lessen you. Be authentic and real and give yourself whatever you need to let that be. Be her. Be him. Be whoever you can be if the small minds and tiny hearts of others couldn’t stop you.

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655 Comments

John

Hello ,

I love this article, however it makes me wonder who is the toxic one in my relationship.
In my situation, I don’t believe she is all to blame. Our relationship started toxic , ( it was an affair) so there was never a solid foundation of trust or respect.
While reading through this I see Her and Me , we both know we are no good for each other , but we act like we are addicted to each other .
We don’t like being with each other that much but we HATE NOT being with each other . It’s the most unhealthy relationship I have ever been in , and leaving it , is harder then anything I have done .

We have caused each other more hurt in 3 years , then I have ever experienced in all of my relationships combined and I’m 48 ), but if she contacted me today , I would go to her !

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Shannon

I have the exact same story I would like very much to talk about it with you. Would you be willing to contact me?

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Dela

Personally having read your comments i dont think it would be a good thing for you to connect. The reason fr your connection appears to be to reaffirm each others feelings about your toxic partners and what stood out to me the most as the common denominator was the fact that you all agree that you would take you toxic partners back at the drop of a hat. I would be concerned that your connection would simply serve to justify the feelings and reasons of taking your toxic partners back rather than letting them go. Taking someone back you are addicted to is never a good thing. Like any addiction it can eventually destroy you. I just left a toxic relationship today. I wrote him a long note after speaking to him. I felt we were also addicted to each other and it is very easy to mistake this addiction for some type of fate that whispers that you belong together and that your bond is some sign of positive significance when in fact it is no more than your weakness and the one thing that is pure illusion unless that bond brings you happiness and a healthy relationship with that person.

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Clare

Wow, I feel like I am living the exact same way as you right now, started off badly as an affair too. We just don’t get along when together but find it impossible to be apart. I’ve been trying to get out this relationship but it is so hard and I’m trying to come up with a strategy to make it end as peacefully as possible. Please let me know how you were able to break up with her.

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Robert

Hello All,

I am in the same situation. We met while she was still married and I was going through a custody battle. We lacked the respect and growth required of a relationship and used each other to “escape” from our situations.
I have grown to love her more than anything and have sacrificed friends, family, and even my child in the pursuit of making us whole and forgiving the pain and hurt we have caused each other. I see a lot of myself as well as her in this article but I seem to be the only one at this point killing myself to make it work and get the help which we need. It doesn’t help that I suffer from Depression and Anxiety which seems to always be the crutch used to blame me because I overreact or withdraw.
We both had horrible childhoods which have led us to our inability to make rational decisions with regard to the relationship, but she definitely wields all of the control. She once again left and didn’t speak to me for more than 3 months, changed her phone number, etc. I moved to Utah in January for her and she woke up one morning, started a huge fight with me which as usual got out of control and left. She just recently called me and I immediately let her berate me about things I did in the past (its never anything she did) for 7 hours and then promptly talked her into canceling her flight to VA (still living with now ex-husband) and drove all night straight to LA from Utah to get her. Things were amazing for the first few days with me trying my best not to rock the boat and make plans for us to see a therapist. The arguing and blaming me for everything once again started 5 days after picking her up and she left again, and of course it is all my fault. I have setup numerous couples counseling appointments which she refuses to attend as I am the one who needs to change and she needs to see that change yet she does not communicate with me at all unless she feels like it. I am so lost, hurt and utterly destroyed after spending months finally putting the pieces of my life back together. My heart has once again led me down a dark hole I want desperately to climb out of.

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Nikolas

Glad to know I not alone in this situation. Yes although i know my affair is toxic, and it deterioating my self, i would always go back to her whenever she call me. Maybe its my dream for us that kept me, or my ego to save her, to become “hero” in her toxic marriage.
Now she conceived my child and want to keep it. At first i terrified and have a feeling of guilt and shame
, and to know that i could never be with her again, it devastated me. After several fights, it became clear to me, what i done to her is ruin her despite what all i want is her happiness.
I know i wrong and i couldnt do anything to undo it, i just hope for her happiness and “our” baby. But habit is indeed powerful thing, i still struggling not to think about her, text her, reminisce how she love me.
Sorry for my english, I just want to share

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guy

Hi. What a moving article. I see a lot of my own actions in what you describe. I believe I have been the toxic one. Not for a need for control because I think I thought I didnt need that because my partner loved me but because I took her love for granted and stopped making an effort. I believe I have belittled her over the years but not to be nasty rather for fun believing she enjoyed it too. I can see now that after enough time it was not fun at all just unnecessary ribbing. I have always loved and supported but my love was not generous or rich. I believe I am loosing her now and it is making me take a long hard look at myself and how I have behaved over the years. The many missed opportunities to express my love and make her feel special. that was all she ever wanted and mostly I failed. My father was very demeaning and unpleasant to my mother so I know my behaviour is learnt, I just hope that I can change for good and that its not too late to make a difference and my partner to see and believe that I never want to go back to how I have been. when you see the possibility of losing the most important person in your life it has for me enabled me to look deep inside and recognise a significant need for change and improvement. We have been together for 17 years and have 3 young children. I am determined to break the mould and show them how to love properly to respect honour and cherish the wonderful woman that is their mother.

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Cynnethia

Its amazing u was able to recognize your past mistake. That is the first postive step in moving forward. I pray your family works out

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Aaron

i know the relationship i just left (only moments before writing this) was toxic. I am a guy who was verbally and emotionally abused. If anything upset her, she would immediately call me names. She would go on rants about how she never loved me only to say she really did love me later in the day. If I didnt do what she wanted, then she would threaten to do things to cause emotional harm to me.

We actually broke up a week prior, and even though I had been through all this stuff, I still wanted to go back! Why? I dont even understand myself.

I dont know how I am going to do it, but I have to find the strength to never go back to her.

Are there any other guys who have gone through similar? even a woman’s point of view, who has gone through similar, would be generously accepted. what have others done to make sure they keep the strength to keep saying they wont go back and stick to it?

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Juan

I am going through something similar. It has been 5-6 years on and off.
I have had my time of separation with her yet every time she crawls back into my thoughts i go after her. Even if she was the one who was wrong. I just drop all my pride and run towards her.

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Paz

I just finished a 2 year toxic relationship. The woman ended it. She took everything from me. The thing what is killing me is the fact that she showed no emotion. The part of this article that really hit home to me was the part about being a giving person. That has always been my problem. The thing that scares me the most is I know that I should be happy that it is over but I still feel horrible. What do I do to just let go!!!

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Unknown

Maybe, you can help me with my situation. It’s similar, my husbands family is very toxic. We have been together for 14 years, I have felt with their verbal and emotional abuse for quite sometime. But here is the kicker, about 3 years ago his family tried to have me prosecuted and taken away from my 3 beautiful children. They put my children, husband, and mainly myself through so much heartache and pain. This heartache and pain I carry with me daily, my case was closed unfounded in February 2017. But my husband family continues to slander myself through social media, in the community where we live in which is not very big. We don’t live near them at all our kids don’t go to the same school either. My kids great grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins had not had anything to do with them the past 3 years but was a huge part of their lives for 10 years. I don’t talk about adult issues with my children because they are children. When they asked me why don’t their Grandmother, Aunt, Uncle, Cousins call them on holidays and their birthday, I as a mother chose to tell my kids they they have chosen not to be a part of our lives right now and it isn’t their fault at all or your mommy or daddy’s and left it at that. That is just a brief overview. There is still one particular family of my husbands that continues to be a part of our lives which I am grateful for on the count of our children because besides them it’s just my family. They are loved by many of course. But my issue is all of this heartache and pain I have been dealing with for the last 3 years has completely drained me as a person. I know one of my down falls is I have a big heart and I do carry it on my shoulder and I let people take advantage of my kindness, I am aware of that, in which I am working on it. But the main reason I am replying to this article is for some advice because I can’t talk to anyone in my family because they don’t listen to me, they much rather tell me what to do and pass judgement on me, so I stopped trying. So let me get to the point here. I love my husband he is the father of our 3 beautiful children and I always thought we would spend the rest of our lives together. But these past 3 years have been very difficult for me, even though none of it was my fault or his it has taken a toll on our relationship. I see him hurting from not seeing his grandmother even though I tell him he can it is fine with me, he could even take our children with him but he choose not too. This incident his toxic family created to cause me hurt pain because I am a successful educated women and they think I owe them something has made me look differently toward my own husband. Why is that? I have tried so hard not too, but even time I look at him it’s like the wound in my heart I am trying to heal from his family gets torn open again and when one set of his family comes by to visit some way some how they mention the toxic part of the family in front of me and there goes that wound being torn open again. I know people change, some for the better, some for the worst but my question is how can I heal from his hurt I carry with me daily? I know people do grow apart and change and I feel like this has happened with me as a person but should I continue to relive this pain daily and be unhappy or should I make a change for the better of my family? I am so emotional, physical, and mental confused. I cry about this almost daily to we’re I am starting to full numb inside and I know this is not healthy or normal. Can you please advise? Thank you in advance!

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D

wow this was so intense… i felt like its my story as well… sighs…i wish everyone light, love and peace…

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nikki

I just ended a 9 year relationship, I feel that I have been taking advantage of thru out those years, everything has been on me, I have token care of all the bills, now I have to admit that he has always live with me in my home, the previous home was our family home were I grow up at, so I decided to buy me home the who process was done by me myself and I, and after moving into my new home, I try to fight him off but he kept pressuring me so 3 months later, I let him move in, he had an job and had been on it for a couple of year, so I figure ok I will try it again, so it been a little of a year In a half since he live with me, well he quit his job, so I had, had enough, so I ask him to leave cause I could not depend on him to there finically, he move but now my problem is the pressure he keep calling me all day and night, he keeps telling me he has nowhere to go, that he is sleeping in his car, and that make me feel guilty, mind you the whole year in a half that he was living here he did not help me pay no bills. I guess I put up with it, cause see I can paid my bills and still have a little extra, but when he quite his job I had to help him pay his car note, so that he wouldn’t want to drive mines. I just need to know how to get over the guilt cause I do feel bad for him I’m not trying to hurt anyone so do I be unhappy so that he can be happy he a grown man……please help hurt and confuse

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Opal Smithstone

I too was caught in feeling sorry for the toxic man that I supported for five years! He had all the sob story excuses why things were hard or bad for him, and he was such a good guy in many ways, I fell for it. I did feel sorry for him! Even though I was not even in love with him, even though he would yell at me! How sick was I???? But I am out now, and I have been working on the guilt with a therapist, and all these kinds of websites. Nikki, these are grown men who are capable of living their own lives. Why do WE feel more sorry for them than we do for our own selves! What has helped me is to write out all the things I did for him, then I wrote out all the things he got when I left him… He got the house, most of the furniture, all the appliances, etc. because I just had to get out and I did not care about those things. How he handles it or is able to maintain it all is not my problem. Good luck, keep working on yourself. Where is it written we have to take care of others forsaking ourselves.

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Nina

I love this article. It definitely opened my eyes to things in my life that I was deliberately shutting off to. It is so well written and honest. Thank you.

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Rebekah

My granddaughter won’t talk to me anymore because she feels that her fathers funeral cost shouldn’t be taken from his estate and repaid to my daughter. It is very selfish of her and her brother to think that my daughter shouldn’t be paid back $2,000.00 out of an estate of over $200,000.00 dollars. Nothing I say to her will change her mind. She said until we agree to not ever talk about it again she had nothing to say to me. It will be hard but I know I have to walk away from this toxic relationship with my granddaughter.

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Jack

This was good to read, I have been with someone for 5 years and 2 years ago she left me so I slept with another woman.

She came back and I admitted the truth of sleeping with another, ( I know maybe stupid but I really hate lying)

She admitted to being unjust and sorry for leaving, but the level of abuse I receive daily is at a point where she will tell me to kill myself very angrily with such animosity it feels spine chilling.

I was only trying to move on when I slept with someone else and she was the one dumping me about the 3rd time by then.

I wonder has anyone detoxifed a romance this sour?

Can someone heal when they feel cheated by you?

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Opal

Why would one walk away from a toxic relationship but keep the door open? Toxic people won’t change and keeping the door open keeps alive that wish or hope that it will one day work. This seems like a push pull decision that does not help one heal. I am out of the toxic relationship now, learning a lot about myself and why I attracted/stayed, and am doing NO contact and do not want any open doors.

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