Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Toxic Relationships: How to Let Go When It’s Unhappily Ever After

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Toxic Relationships: How to Let Go When It's Unhappily Ever After

If life ran like a storybook, the person we fall in love would not be the person who broke us. Sadly, we humans tend to be a bit more human than that. We fall in love, we commit, we get hurt – over and over – and we stay.  People need people, but sometimes the cost is a heavy one. When it’s a toxic relationship, the breakage can be far-reaching.

Love is addictive. So is the hope of love. All relationships can be likened to an addiction, but sometimes the power of this can be self-destructive. When relationships become loveless, hostile, stingy or dangerous, you would think they would be easy to leave, but they can be the hardest ones to walk away from.

A bad relationship isn’t about being on the downward slide of the usual relationship ups and downs. It is one that consistently steals your joy and follows you around with that undeniable clamour that this isn’t how it’s meant to be.

Knowing when to let go.

Sometimes the signs are clear – emotional and physical abuse, constant criticism, lying, cheating, emotional starvation. Sometimes there is nothing outstandingly obvious – it just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it did once but that ended long ago. The signs might lie in the loneliness, a gentle but constant heartache, a lack of security, connection or intimacy or the distance between you both. 

Whatever it involves, there are important needs that stay hungry, for one of both people in the relationship. The relationship exists but that’s all it does, and sometimes barely even that. It doesn’t thrive and it doesn’t nurture. It is maintained, not through love and connection, but through habit. 

Sometimes there are circumstances that make leaving difficult. Sometimes though, there’s nothing in your way except you. Some of the signs that you might be addicted to the relationship are:

  • You know it’s bad, but you stay.
  • You want more for yourself, but you stay.
  • There are important needs in you that are so hungry (intimacy, connection, friendship, love, security, respect), and you know in this relationship they’ll stay that way. But you stay. 
  • You have tried ending the relationship before, but the pain of being on your own always brings you back.

What to do when leaving feels as bad as staying.

Leaving any relationship is difficult. Leaving a bad one isn’t necessarily any easier. The shift from powerless to empowered is a gentle one, but lies in the way you experience the relationship. It often takes as much resourcefulness, energy and strength to stay in a bad relationship as it does to leave. With a shift in mindset, experience and expectation, the resources you use to stay and to blind out the seething hopelessness of it all can be used to propel you forward.

  1. Be present.

    The pull to live in the past (the way it was/ the way I was) or in the future (it will get better – I just need to find the switch) can be spectacular, but the energy to move forward exists fully in the present. It’s always there, but you have to be in the present to access it. To do this, fully experience the relationship as it is, without needing to change it or control it. 

    This might be scary, particularly if the environment you are in is hostile or lonely, but the only way to be okay with leaving what you have, is to fully experience how broken it is.

    No relationship is perfect. All couples fight and hurt each other and say and do things they shouldn’t. That’s a normal part of living and loving together. The problem comes with having to repeatedly live in the past or the future to tolerate the present – the abuse, the harm, the insecurity, the jealousy, the loneliness and the grief of the relationship as it stands – just so that it’s easier to stay.

  2. Keep track.

    Keep a record of how you feel in the relationship, the good and bad. If writing isn’t your thing, take a photo of your face at the same time every day. You’ll see it in your eyes. Photos and journalling will capture the intimate, day to day detail of you in this relationship. Set a time period – weeks or months – and at the end take a look over your photos or your writing. Can you see patterns? What do you notice about the things that hurt you and the things that feel good? The frequency? The intensity? What do you see in the photos? Can you see the life in you? Or has it been drained away. Is this the person you want to be? Or is it a faded, sadder version? This can help to see your experience in the relationship for what it is – stripped of the filters and the softening that comes with time. 

  3. Be aware of what’s happening in your body. It’s trying to tell you something.

    The connection between the mind and the body is a powerful one. If you shut down the messages that are coming from your mind, your body will take over. There will be signs in the way you hold yourself, the sensations in your body (heaviness, heartache, tension) and the way it works. Has your body slowed down? Is there physical pain? Does it ache? Does it feel heavy? Restless? Tired? Drained? Do you feel your body withering, scrunched or as though it’s holding back? If your body could speak, what would it want you to know?

    Try this exercise:

    Finish this sentence: 

    ‘My body is …’ (tired/crumpled/hurting – whatever fits for you)’.

    Now, keep your ending but replace the words, ‘My body is’ with ‘I am’ or ‘My life is’.

    Notice what happens when you do that.

  4. How do you avoid the truth?

    Notice what you do to shift away from your reality. Are there unhealthy behaviours you do to stop from feeling bad? Or maybe there are healthy beahviours that you do in unhealthy ways?

    Try staying with the discomfort rather than avoiding it. Contained in the pain is the wisdom, courage and strength you need to find the happier version of yourself and your life. 

  5. Give it a deadline.

    It’s easy to forget how long you’ve been living with what you don’t want, hoping that one day it will be better. Pick your ‘one day’. Let it be six weeks, six months – whatever feels right for you. In that time, give the relationship everything you’ve got. When that ‘one day’ comes, be honest and act from a place of strength, self-respect and self-love. The answer will be in front of you.

  6. Become selfish.

    The way we think about selfishness is broken. Selfishness is about recognising what you need and doing what you can to meet those needs. Sometimes there will be fallout, but there will also be fallout by ignoring what you need and letting the noise shout you down. You matter. What you need matters. It always has. Sometimes that will mean putting yourself first on your list. This is even more important if it is the only list that has you anywhere near the top.

  7. Be honest about your part.

    Is there anything you can do to put the relationship back on track? It takes guts to open up to what you might need to do differently, but it’s important. If you’re not sure, ask your partner. Of course, just because your partner names things he or she would like you to do differently, it for you to decide whether this is a direction you want to move in. If the response is ‘Yeah actually. You can stop asking me where I go at night. K?’ then you can either respond with, ‘Sure baby – it’s totally fine with me if you leave the house smelling like man musk and secrets. Just come home when you feel like it hey. Do you want me to keep dinner for you?’ Or, you can Google, ‘Somewhere I can live without idiots.’

  8. What’s your role in the relationship?

    It’s likely that there will be a rhythm in the relationship that keeps it breathing the way it does. You and your partner will each have a role that keeps each other’s behaviour possible. This in no way means either of you are to blame or that either of you deserve to be treated the way you are. What it means is that over time you would have fallen into a way of being together that makes the dysfunction easier and more tolerable – a healthy adjustment to an unhealthy situation.

    It’s common in relationships for one person to be the ‘reacher’ and one to be the ‘retreater’. In healthy relationships, this is balanced or the roles shift around. There’s an easy flexibility. In unhealthy relationships, these roles become polarised. The more someone retreats, the more the other reaches, and this is where the roles become fixed.

    Explore your roles. Which one of you is ‘the commitment phobe’, ‘the non-communicator,’ ‘the abuser,’  ‘the critic’, ‘the disinterested one’? And who is ‘the ‘enabler’, ‘the victim,’ ‘the helpless one,’ ‘the reacher’, ‘the rescuer’, ‘the justifier’, ‘the fantasiser’. Try shifting out of your role. This will shift the dynamic and either force change or make the dysfunction all the more glaring – and easier to walk away from.

  9. Let go of the fantasy.

    The fantasy of what could be will keep you stuck. Every time. It could be better – so much better – but just not with this person. How do you know? Because you’ve been trying. And you’re tired. And there’s nothing more to give.

    The fantasy stands between you and reality and throws flowers at your feet so you never look up and see things as they are.

    The more you fantasise about what could be, the more the reality is embellished and changed into something reasonable. The fantasy will persuade you to hold on for a little longer, and always at the cost of moving forward. Lose the fantasy that things will be different. They won’t be. If you could have lived the fantasy with this relationship, you would have done that by now. Let your fantasy instead be one of all the losers who have ever crossed your path sprawled on the couch, wearing saggy Star Wars underwear as they gaze at your photo, listen to Adele and regret like mad ever losing you, while you eat tacos, listen to Beyonce and not miss them at all. There you go.

  10. Accept what is.

    It’s paradoxical, but the more you can accept where you are, the greater the capacity for change. This will let your decisions be driven by information that’s real and accurate, not a glossed up fairy tale image of what could be. Accept your reality as it is – your relationship, your partner and what it means for you. When you accept the truth, you live the truth. This will expand your courage, strength and capacity to decide whether this relationship is the best option for you – or not. You will have a clarity that will propel you forward, whatever that might mean for you.

  11. Fight for you.

    You have to fight for the things you love and the things you believe in, but one of those things has to be you. What would you say to someone you love who was feeling the pain or the deadness that you are feeling? Inside you is more courage and strength than you will ever need. You are a queen, a king, a fighter, a warrior, you are powerful and beautiful and everything good in the world – and you deserve to be happy. But first, you might have to fight for it. Fight for you the way you would fight for anyone you love – fiercely, boldly, bravely.

  12. Stop making excuses.

    Be honest.What do you want from this relationship? Have you ever had it? How different is what you want from what you have? And how long has it been this way? If you are loved, it feels like love. Even in the midst of a storm, a loving relationship still feels loving. Despite the stress, the exhaustion, the things you do or say – a loving relationship has an undercurrent of safety, security and respect, even when times are tough. If it doesn’t feel good for you, it’s not.

  13. Replace ‘can’t leave’ with ‘won’t leave’.

    Claim back your power by replacing ‘can’t leave‘ with ‘won’t leave‘. Sometimes circumstances mean that it’s difficult to leave. Whatever you choose to do, do it from a place of strength, not from a place of helplessness. If you stay, let it be because you have made the decision that this is the best option for you at this moment in time, not because somebody has claimed ownership of your life. Keep your power and your independence of mind, whatever is going on around you. There’s only one of you and you’re too important to let yourself fade into circumstance or the manipulation.

  14. Not making a decision is making a decision.

    You might decide to put off making a decision, to give it some time. Make no mistake, this is making a decision – to stay. Own your decision and experience fully what that decision means for you. Don’t live on the outskirts of your reality by claiming to be somewhere in between committing to the relationship and leaving it. You’re one or the other. In it or out of it. Claiming indecision might feel okay in the short term, but in the long term it will just keep you stuck, without the energy you need to move closer to what will be healthier for you.

And finally …

If the relationship feels bad, then it’s bad for you. That’s the only truth that matters. Fight hard to keep your relationship intact, but when there is no fight left, the truth will be staring you down like a hunted thing.

All relationships will go through make it or break it times, but healthy relationships recover. They grow closer and become stronger and more resilient. Relationships have a limited amount of resources available – emotional, physical, financial. Sometimes the relationship will be barreled around by a storm and this might use up a vast chunk of the resources that have been banked over time. If the relationship is healthy, it will only be a matter of time before this is topped up. If it isn’t, it will shrivel up from lack of nourishment and eventually die. 

Only you can decide whether to stay or go, but be mindful of your reasons. Sometimes the bravest, most difficult, and most life-changing things lie not in what we do, but in what we stop doing. 

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63 Comments

Giana

This has helped me so much today. I may have to read it everyday. I am only one week out of a toxic 5 year relationship where I clearly loved him more than I did myself. I held on and prayed it would get better, he made it SO hard to leave….I still cant believe I did it. He is starting to date and making sure I know about it, which he knows cuts right through my heart. Trying to be strong, can barely eat, not even sure how I am functioning at work, but praying that I get through it like all of you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased this has been able to give you some comfort when you needed it. Leaving any relationship can be hard but with toxic ones there can be so much self-doubt and manipulation that goes with it. You have so much strength in you and the time will come when you will be so clear of this, and so grateful for the courage you had to let go. I know it’s hard right now, but you will get there. Stay strong. Love to you.

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Holding it together

Hello,

This website has content that is informative and expertly outlines the various emotions that go hand in hand with tumultuous events in life. That being said, I need to share my current experience with a toxic relationship with my wife. The marriage has taken a turn for the worse over the last 9 months. It was a slow progression and the emotional/verbal abuse that I’ve endured has gone beyond it’s peak. I’ve taken accountability for my part in what has brought us to this point. I tried to calmly reason and talk, but that has never meant anything.

We have a daughter who is 1 and she is sometimes caught in the middle of my wifes rampage and yelling. I walk away from fights when the baby is around because my wife can’t control her rage and reasoning with her is futile. I sometimes take the upstairs to escape the chaos while my wife is downstairs berating me, even what I’m not in the room. Couples therapy that has lasted about 7months and we are now on our 2nd couples therapist. It’s a waste of time when my wife refuses to address her mental well being and fills the therapy session with everything except avoiding talking about her behavior. One example is her barricading the bedroom door during the morning and not allowing my daughter and I to leave the bedroom until she got an explanation for what I plan to do to “fix things.” As if I was the only one responsible for the last few months. Thanks to that 20minute baracade, I was late to a meeting at work and our daughter was crying for her morning milk. My wife didn’t care…she just wanted her explanation. That’s a completely selfish act and her selfishness has taken various shapes. I can go on and on, link the signs of a toxic relationship that are outlined here, but ultimately I still have to go home to this life and try to keep the peace for my daughters sake as well.

-feeling lost

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I so wish that you and your baby daughter didn’t have to go through this. It also sounds as though your wife is struggling with things at the moment. I notice that you have said that your daughter is 1, and that your marriage took a turn for the worse 9 months ago. Has the possibility of post-natal depression in your wife been ruled out? Depression doesn’t always look like sadness or withdrawal. Sometimes it can look like anger and the confusion you’re describing here. It’s just something to think about. Post-natal depression is very real and can really change women and relationships when it happens. It can certainly be managed effectively though. Of course, I can only go by what you have described, and it might not be PND at all, but it might be. A clue would be the difference in your wife’s behaviour between now and the way she was before the birth of your daughter. If there is any chance it might be post-natal depression, please encourage your wife to speak with a doctor. It will be important for your wife, your daughter and you. A doctor will be able to see if depression is driving your wife’s behaviour. If it is post-natal depression, there are really effective ways to manage it to bring hormones, neurochemicals etc back to balance.

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Lauren

How timely, and I can’t thank you enough. I ended my brief but toxic relationship with a man I had only been dating for several months. We met via an online dating site but it was under the pretense that he was divorced and single. Unbeknownst to me, while he WAS divorced, he was still living with his “ex-girlfriend” of 6 years but in supposed separate bedrooms and they were on the outs. By the time our first date happened, I was hooked, and he didn’t tell me about the the ex-GF until we were on this date. He made it sound like she was moving out and they had been on the outs for 6 months already. So…I believed him… and waited for her to move out.

We got closer, enjoyed our time together, became intimate as well as closer emotionally, and I deluded myself into thinking she would move out soon — especially because he appeared to be falling for me…

But…he kept a photo of the two of them as his profile photo, told me she would “always have a place in his heart,” reminding me every time we were together that this “didn’t mean he and I were going steady” — and that was supposed to be funny. He didn’t want to consider us being in a relationship, yet when he spent the weekend with me, cooked me breakfast, was intimate with me, took me to dinner, it had all the hallmarks of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. We laughed, held hands, shared stories about our families, our past, etc.

It would, however, take him sometimes a day or more to respond to a text from me. Or he wouldn’t answer his cell phone even though I knew he had just texted me. Sometimes he would seem to pick a fight with me by text for no obvious reason. He could go days without contacting me. He told me he regarded me as a “dress shirt he wore every now and then and liked to carefully put on a hanger and hang in his closet until he took it out again” — and all I did was ignore the obvious and hear what I wanted to hear. I kept hoping that the more amazing I was to him, the closer he’d be to making “Cam” (not her real name) move out and then we’d have a “real relationship.” Any time I brought up the subject with him, he made it clear it wasn’t a subject he was willing to discuss with me. Kept saying it was “complicated.”

I also walked on eggshells with texting him. He frequently misconstrued my words (and I’m a good communicator) and accused me of being icy or testy with him — which was never the case.

The final straw was yesterday. We had just spent an entire weekend at my home together — a very good one. I am leaving for vacation with my 2 daughters on Feb 16 and was hoping to spend time with him before I left — hopefully celebrating Valentine’s a day early. He had yet to mention it but made a point to mock any tv commercial he saw that mentioned the holiday. I laughed at most of them too. When I let him know what days I was free leading up to my trip, I didn’t even mention the holiday. It took him 24 hours to respond and said he couldn’t remember what dates I’d mentioned. When I told him again, I suggested Monday and maybe even celebrating the holiday with me Monday. His response was that he didn’t celebrate that holiday and that I’d “have to do better than THAT.” I told him maybe he’d like to plan something else as I liked surprises. This led him to accuse me of “fishing for a gift” and reminding we weren’t even in a “full-blown relationship” because he was still “untangling his old one.” I also have no idea whether he was planning to spend VD with “Cam” either – from what he said, they did not have a romantic relationship anymore — but who knows.

I had tried ending things with him a month ago and couldn’t. Just as your article said, I was more afraid of losing the intimacy with him and the time I got to spend with him than accepting that I felt insecure about what and who he was going home to, his lack of showing me that he cared, and his frequent anger at me via text when I hinted at my developing feelings for him.

I finally got the strength last night to tell him we were done and I didn’t want to do this anymore. This situation was toxic and unhealthy for me. He was not to contact me FOR ANY REASON until he untangled his relationship with “Cam,” felt it was a healthy decision, and still wanted to be with me. Then and only then would I PERHAPS consider being with him…but for now, I have made a decision that has been more difficult than I thought it would be. I really wanted things to work with him but know that I was looking ahead to a possible fantasy future that did not exist.

He texted me this morning (so much for not texting me for any reason) to say he was sorry but that he also was not trying to change my mind. He told me I was a beautiful and good woman. I know I am. I still can’t help hoping “Cam” will move out, and he will change his life, but I also know I can’t sit back and allow myself to continue in this type of situation.

I will most likely be reading your article over and over again to remind myself that I did the best thing I could for myself even if it is difficult and painful. I deserve so much better than what he has been giving me.

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Petra

Please remember those that carry contagious disease, and are quite literally “toxic people” that try to form “toxic relationships”… The threat maybe real! Thank you for avoiding them, because their contagious diseases are often preventable! An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as a saying goes. Goodbye, toxic people! We’re just trying to live our lives in love and peace.

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