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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879 Comments

Dan C

Thank you , very insightful and true .

it is important to know that toxic person can then get you on their level and before you know it you become toxic defending yourself so you don’t feel like you’ve been walked all over and used .

there’s also a sense of entitlement with toxic people and they feel like you owe them something almost as if you should pay them for being with you .

The most humiliating thing is to have your wife say very disrespectful and mean things that your children would never forget … Then also anytime they’re mad or upset with you bring in other family members and friends and tell them their spin on the story to make you look like you’re the bad guy it’s totally manipulative and effective to keep them in control .

I know that most the time it seems to be men that are controlling women but in my case and many others most men don’t speak it out because it makes them seem less than a man to say that a woman can be so hurtful and dangerous to your psychological and physical self .
most people will stay in a relationship thinking that they can change it and end up just basically doing everything that their spouse wants him to do regardless of how demeaning and controlling you know it really is if you Buck them they get worse and worse and worse until you finally just decide to go along with them so you don’t have the conflict if nothing else for the children .

There’s absolutely no way to win you cannot win because if you really want an adult relationship with another person that is equal and fair loving and kind you will never find it with a toxic person that is probably a narcissist or sociopath as well. there’s absolutely no way to win you cannot win because if you really want an adult relationship with another person that is equal and fair loving and kind you will never find it with a toxic person that is probably a narcissist or sociopath as well
i’ve done a lot of research and I think that the only way to get away from them is to absolutely just abruptly and immediately leave and then not know where you are. period

no way to have a commonsense adult conversation because they are not going to let you talk you’re going to talk over you and everything you say they do not listen and everything they say they feel is true and important what you say means nothing

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Julie

I think this article is so misleading. My recent boyfriend just broke up with me after reading this article. We were together3 1/2 years, we were talking about getting married. You have truly made me lose the best thing in my life! Turned my world completely upside down and made me feel broken.Most of the stuff in this article is so untrue. You make people, that are supposedly “toxic” feel terrible. I know I can change, anyone can change as long as they know what needs to be changed. Talk to the person, let them know so they are aware of their actions, don’t just kick them out of your life, no one is perfect.

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Phil

Hello Julie,
If you feel like this article was the cause you’re wrongly mistaken. He chose to leave after reading this but already felt the need to leave prior to that’s why he searched for this information to validate what he was already feeling. If you feel that is not you that is being identified in here then don’t take it to heart. He made this choice not the author here. What’s meant to be will be no matter the storm. Don’t ever forget that.

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Davis

14 years together. I had never met a person like this. I always thought they just need time,patients,an love. Here I am still trying. Some days I want to walk away. Some days I think I’m strong I can take it. I’m not without my part in this at least for the past 2 years. I have given them he’ll feeling as though I had gave it back.the truth is I only hurt them an myself. I’m still here but my patients an anger has changed. I still try I still love them an it would be the hardest thing for me to do to walk away. My hope keeps me here but my own happiness wants to walk me out of here. I don’t know what I’ll do just yet but a decision is making its way to the surface. I really hope we can change an come together. I love them so much even with all things that make me sad I know one day light will come back to them an life of a full heart with kindness, compaction,gratitude,thankfulness take hold an replace old to become new. I hope an pray. I wait an watch. I stand an stay prepared. I won’t allow this to stand much longer. I want to be happy an successful. I will leave if that the only option they leave me.

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Steph J

I never leave comments on Web articles but felt compelled to leave one here. Absolutely fantastic article, you have given me the strength to put into place something I’ve wanted and needed to do for 20yrs. Thank you.

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Kelsey T.

I just got out of a bad relationship of two years. Hes such a jerk. He would tell me to go out with this guy who’s in his 60s when I’m only in my 20s. I kept telling him I dont like elderly men, but he would torture me saying I liked way to old men , when I dont. He would also call me names that arnt true. I hope you guys out there know u dont have to be mean to women who arnt the way u want them to be.

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Phil

Hello Kelsey,
Sorry you experienced what you did. That person is considered to be toxic and what you’re saying about him sounds more like he had no respect for you and in essence was trying to act as your pimp. Be thankful that you walked away not all men and women are the same. There is happiness out there for everyone.

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Anonymous

Two years ago my husband had a dream that I had an affair with someone we know. The next morning he told me to leave. It broke me. Since then, I have been accused of sneaking around with that man. My motivations behind wearing perfume or a bra that isn’t a nursing bra (we have 4 children) is something shady. He told me Thursday that I wasn’t wearing perfume or a “sexy bra” for him. It must have been for someone else. Now he just told me, “good luck finding a husband who will allow you to stay home with the kids and provide for you like I have. You’ll need to find one who will cook and clean and care for the kids, too” I feel so worthless. I’m so angry and hurt. I don’t have a job outside of the home. I take care of our kids, and run our dog-boarding business inside of our home, but nothing has my name on it. I know this relationship is toxic, but I’m trapped. He told me I have no ambition, and HE is the one who has to tell me what to do or else I won’t get anything done. My house is cluttered, but I work hard caring for everyone. He told me HE is tired of feeling rejected (I have rejected his sexual advances since Thursday when he insulted me and told me I was wearing a sexy bra for someone else), and he told me he owes me no apology because he knows he’s right. He voluntarily slept on the couch last night. he just told me he will until our 5 month old is 18 because he’s “DONE WITH IT”. He told me I have changed 20 different times since getting married, and he’s had to cope with the changes. He, on the other hand, “has stayed the same.” I am currently going through post-partum depression, and I have been “off my meds” for 2 weeks now. my family came to visit last weekend, and his family this weekend. I didn’t want to begin taking them again before either of our families came to visit because the pills take about 1 week to acclimate. They make you feel drunk and drowsy for that whole week. He told me I’m an asshole without them, and that I need them. He makes me feel like I’m a crazy person. I feel so unloved.

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Kt

I just got out of a toxic relationship of two years. He was just using me until I broke up with him last week. Hes such a jerk. He would call me bad names and say it was my fault he called me that. He would talk to other girls behind my back. I’m so glad I realized I can find a better man out there.

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Rachel

I really needed to read that right now. I’m stuck in a toxic relationship that I can’t get out of. I feel like either way I get hurt. Whether I stay with him or try to leave both horribly painful but staying hurts a little less. I love him and I really wish I didn’t. Every day he makes me feel worthless and belittles me. I want to leave but I just can’t, it hurts too much. I feel stuck and trapped.

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Nickkiey

I understand what you’re going through! I have been with my boyfriend for 7 years. 3 years ago I left for 3 months and my stupid self didn’t know he was toxic or what that even was. Last july 2018 I had left again this time for a year. I was happy but missed him so much. I tried to see other people but was afraid h ed would show up all the time. He alighted me so badly I felt like I was always hearing his truck out side my room. And of course he snoozed his way back into my life and my best friend I lived with had a major argument and kicked me out. My 15 yr old daughter couldn’t go back to my moms with all the crap he did so us being on a friendship level said we could stay there. I’m so stupid! It immediately turned back to a romantic relationship. I had also lost my job 3 months before that so he know I needed him. He told me all the good things I wanted to hear and as a dummy I moved back in. He is now so much worse than he ever was and meaner x 10. Ugg I have no job, no $, and i a m stuck here. Fortunately I have a car again as I lost mine 1 month after I lost my job. The issue isn’t that I don’t know he’s toxic because I do. The problem is it hurts so bad to not be around him or with him, but the feeling I had just being around positive people was so uplifting I never even know that feeling existed.ive tried so hard to show my daughter the strength of a women but when I met him something in me went different . I’m not longer strong now I’m only weak. Long story short the law of attraction has been so helpful in gaining my self worth I highly suggest you read it. It really does help.good luck my friend and stay strong !

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agata

Same here, stuck in a toxic relationship of 4.5 years- im so scared of leaving but I cant live with him anymore. Its so hard.

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April D

Not sure if the article was the most helpful or the stories from the feed. Letting go of a 2 year one.. No kids and avoided having to move to another country and giving up everything that is great for me here at home. Every toxic relationship will take a big part of you and change you. Hopefully for the better so you don’t bring any baggage to the next one. It’s a crazy cycle between the lives of the toxic and non-toxic person.

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Joanna H

I really needed the read what you had written. I have just come out of my 2nd toxic relationship (you’d think i would have learnt by now) but this was by far the worst and cut the deepest and your words have really helped so thank you x

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Cyn

I found this article and it was so insightful and honestly an eye opener. For the longest time I just thought the toxic traits were normal and that they would get better and that somehow I could make it change. It’s been 6 years and nothing has really changed. We have a son together and I know this is not what I want my son to see as a “healthy” relationship often times my son will ask me why does dad get so mad or why doesn’t he come home, and the truth is I don’t know. He does what he wants when he wants and as he pleases. I realize if I love my son and myself I need to walk away. Parts of me are scared and feel guilty like I’m leaving him alone. But the reality is he doesn’t care if I’m alone. He doesn’t care that he doesn’t come home. He thinks I overreact. So why is it still a challenge for me? Why do I feel bad?

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Hannah

Because you love him and he has made you feel this way, please believe me. This is a narcissist and he will never change for you or your son, I’m sorry to say. I can bet it is ,or would be a problem ,should you stay out all night or perhaps go out at all. I have been in the same position and I’m finding it hard to break away. Their behavior will always be acceptable and of course you’re overreacting( you’re not, you are setting healthy boundaries for yourself and maintaining self respect, something I’ll bet he wishes you never had) I hope you don’t mind me saying this just maybe needed someone to say this to me.

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steven

its not worth it you all try to terminate these toxic relationships before you lose years of your life

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Tabitha

Wow this article is so true. I was with my boyfriend for about 2 years. He consistently accused me of cheating, he belittled me, disrespected me, manipulated and controlled me. Every time we broke up, he knew the exact words I wanted to hear and did everything I always asked him to do, so I took him back. He deployed and this time we both decided to break up because our futures weren’t aligning and because of all our problems. However I found out a few weeks later that he was with someone who he was deployed with less than two weeks later meaning he was cheating while we we’re together. I finally learned the truth about him and how our relationship really was full of lies and deceit. Yes, he was very good at it too. I learned he was using me and stringing me along the whole time. Finding that out a few days ago still hurts so much. But I can’t wait till I heal and see that I deserve so much better and how what I went through wasn’t the definition of love. Thank you for this article, I still sometimes find me blaming myself and asking myself what I did wrong for him to treat me that way and cheat on me…

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Mary

I’ve never been more moved in my life. Perfectly said. I’ve just left a 34 year toxic relationship. Let’s face it not every second of all 34 years were horrible, but they were toxic.
I was 15 years “young” when we started dating. My key word was that I was “insecure”.
I will save a read this article a lot.
34 years together, 25 years married… very toxic. I stayed as the right thing to do for my for my son, which by the way turns out to be not so respected “thing” to do. My son saw and heard things no one should and “I have to live with that”. Which I’ll happily do knowing that my son didn’t have to change schools in elementary years, lose great and gifted teachers, Because I stayed, I didn’t lose my footing trying to make it on my own, sleeping around, man after man, and not being there at the kitchen table every night doing homework with him.
So grateful to my alive, having not gone crazy feeling so miserable and unimportant.

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