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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815 Comments

shawn k

Desperately, I have been searching for why I still love my ex wife. She “left” over two years ago and keeps returning when she falls on her face. We have 2 young children together. She essentially abandoned them. Hasn’t paid child support in over a year. now living in a homeless shelter. Recommended to after I dropped her off at a mental institution. 4 days. that was her stay. We miss her so much. And she is so cold to us. Pushing us away while shacking up with whatever man will have her. Only to ask us for help when she fails again. I have been broken so badly by her. My weakness I suppose. I do not claim innocence. I wasn’t as emotionally supportive as I should have been. We went through hard times together. I was fighting drug addiction and alcoholism when she met me. Odd thing is it was when I quit cold turkey, alcohol and drugs, went to school, she started cheating. Blatantly cheating. even after 6 years just writing about this gets me burning. How is it we can love someone so much who only means to use, manipulate, lie and hurt us intentionally. I have had other relationships since. But they aren’t her. My heart just cant allow the emotion I have for my ex wife to be there for the relationship. And sadly I have lost every one. But I am still on good terms with all of them. I guess I will never understand it. A sense of regret constantly fills me and a hope that she will call and say, Please, come get me, I am ready. what do we do with this burden of loss. How do we recover. I play strong for my kids. She doesn’t even get to visit them. unless I approve it. And usually, I wont because I know nothing good is going to come from it. I did appreciate this article and am thankful I found this site. this has been a bit of an eye opener. whats the next step to release? to overcome the fear of letting go and how do I move forward without my head down, feeling so ashamed and ugly because surely if this person who I love so much can not love me, with all that she does, No one else can. what do I do next. I am poor. cant afford counceling or insurance. But I make too much to receive any assistance. Any advice would greatly help me, I think.

Sincerely, truly broken hearted.

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Jason

I’ve been on a two year journey of grief, gas lighting, trying to fix my toxic spouse, and then hoping she might magically change.
I’ve had the knowledge in my head about letting go for my own sake and for my children, but after 16 years of marriage, and frankly, the love I still have for her, it has been a hard lesson to learn.
Thank you for this article. It’s one tool of many of late which is helping me make the choice to step away from the toxicity and let her go. I appreciate the idea that I can step away from the toxicity, but not slam the door.

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jj

Jason, I have also been married 16 years in a toxic situation. Its the hardest thing Ive ever done to leave her because she is the love of my life. We have so many great adventures and memories. But, we only get along if I do it her way, have her opinion, treat her well. its all very performance based love on her end. I have lashed out and fought and quarreled with her constantly because I don’t like being dominated and controlled. I am not submissive yet I have found I became more and more submissive in order to find peace in our marriage. I often blamed myself for losing my temper saying and doing things I regret because I reached my breaking point so many times before. I feel bad about it still and find myself trying to make it right and heal wounds and apologize. Yet she rarely sees anything wrong with her own words or actions, rarely apologizes if ever. I even with all that being said, I still love her and when its good its great, but when its bad its hell.

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YG

I’m in the same situation. I’ve been with my high school sweetheart for over 30 years. He was physical, mentally, and verbally abusive. About 10 years ago the abuse stopped. And for the past 5 years I find no interests in him and despise him, but now he is super super nice and doesnt want me to leave. He said that I must have found someone else. This is one of his lines for years.
He cries daily and gives me my space in hoping I dont leave.

My mom has dementia now so I cannot move in with her because my sister and nephew is helping her. My daughters are upset with me and said I’m being selfish and that makes me feel guilty. But I want out now. I just dont know where and how to get up and go. I love him because I’ve been with him for many years. But I’m not in love with him no more. I’m soooo lost , confused, and want out. I dont know anymore.

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Rosemarie D

My husband is crazy. He keeps me from family and friends. Now he wants to keep me from my 1st grandchild. He just lost his son. He has bladder cancer. I cant cope anymore.

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Barbara

I’ve just read your brilliant article about toxic relationships. I set myself free but you have underlined and endorsed that what I did was so correct and right. I cannot thank you enough. I can go to sleep now a very contented and happy person. What a ⭐️ you are. xxx

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Cindy

I have a question. After decades of my Mother abusing me in a toxic relationship and my sister following in her footsteps, the last straw came when my husband and I purchased a house for my parents and sister to live in and they pay the mortgage. My sister brought in her daughter and now my niece brought in a dog. We did not want the dog and my parents told my husband they did not either. Next day, you know what happened. My Mother said she never said it and my sister went into her typical toxic rage on my husband. I had told him many times about this but this was his first time experiencing it. I am now done. I am so sad because this does not have to be but it has to for my own mental health. So long story short, I have read about many people telling their abusers they are quitting them but I don’t want another abusive argument. Is it best to tell them or not?

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YG

‘m 50 years old, and a married woman and I am confused more than ever in my life. My mom has dementia now so I cant talk to her like I use too and I don’t have no one to talk too.

I’ve been with my husband since we were in high school, and have two daughters.

He was very abusive physically, verbally, and mentally as we were growing up as well as cheated on me many of times. I spent my years trying to do my very best on raising my daughters.

He stopped being physically abusive for about 10 years now. However, the verbal abuse still has been on going. But with me being older now I do argue back with him and will call him ugly names back and I don’t like it. I feel very mean now and feisty and I don’t want to be mean.

For a couple of years now I do not find interests with him anymore, and would like a peace of mind for the remaining years of my life. However, now that I want to call it quits he is all over me and is being super nice to me, because he knows I’m serious. I hear him crying in another room whenever we are home. I actually feel sorry for him, which is what he did all our lives together and I fell for it. But now I just want a peace of mind.

I have an old 2000 jeep so it seems that he likes for it to break down on me so that I can ask him to take it to get fixed, because he always took my cars to get fixed. But it seems that since I really want to back off with our relationship my truck is breaking down even more.

I told my daughters that I’m ready now to start my life and they are not happy with it, they told me that I’m being selfish and need to think of everyone that is in my life and especially of my two beautiful grandkids. They are not being supportive.They know of the abuse but feel like I’m too old and need to really think about it.

I stood in this relationship because of my girls and not wanting them to not have a dad. But I really feel like I can’t live like this anymore, even with him being super nice too me.

I even look at the way other men treat their spouses and admire it.

The home we live in is only under his name, because his parents signed over the house to him after they took out a huge loan. Right now I dont have the money to move, I’m only 5K in debt so I was planning on asking my daughter if I can stay with her, but since both daughters say I’m being selfish, I feel like I will be a nuisance.

I am going through menopause but I dont feel its menopause I’ve been feeling like this for a very long time.

I’m so lost and I don’t know what to do. I know you’ve seen or talked too many people in similar situations.

I would like some advise. Can you help me with giving me advise? Am I doing wrong? I dont know anyone else to turn to. Am I being selfish?

Reply
Annie

Hi. So. Here is my humble opinion… you need professional counseling. It’s really helpful when you have low self esteem, which you do. Also, don’t leave your husband, just use him for what he can give you. He gives you a home, and some form of security. I would take that and emotionally detach. Live your own life. Find your own hobbies, make new friends, join a group… do new things and become who you want to really be. Practice your own ability to ignore him, and just simply stop trying to make it work and focus on your own happiness.

Good luck.

Reply
Dorothy

I think a congratulations is in order: Congratulations for listening to yourself 🙂 All this time, you have been fulfilling the needs of others to the detriment of your own. You chose them over yourself. And personally, I think children need parents to think of them, but now that your daughters are old enough to fulfill their own needs, you can take that weight off your shoulders. BREATHE. It is YOUR turn 🙂
Do you have an income that will give you the opportunity to move out on your own?
Be prepared that people will be shocked at the changes you make and whilst their reactions may not be positive – in no way should you be swayed by them. Like I said: it is your turn 🙂
Once you listen to yourself and do what you need to do – positive people will surround you 🙂

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Linda N

Please leave immediately! I just turned 55 and have been disabled sixteen years. I have left a near 13 year abusive relationship. My own adult daughter that is not his I have come to realize has helped hide all he has done for over a decade. I am currently homeless. They expected me to die from complications of diabetes and starvation. It has been very hard. I have experienced abuse at two shelters froze in the streets but wouldn’t trade ever again for my peice of mind, freedom , and happiness to be me and live my life as I want enjoying my interests. I know it will get better in time. It is still better than being with someone who secretly hated me. This is the one year anniversary of his first murder attempt. He has also sent people to assault/kidnap me. Just today hooked up with DV center to help with housing. Your daughter’s attitude shows how much they care nothing about your feelings. Live for yourself there is no guilt in that! Years of your life have been sacrifed for a family that cared nothing about all you have given up to give them Peace and Happiness, IT IS YOUR TURN NOW! Contact the nearest DV center and start making your exit plan. Don’t discuss it with your family as they very obviously don’t have your best interest in their hearts. Good Luck, and Peace be with you all of your days.

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Yedda

For 7 years I loved someone more then myself this showed in how much weight I gained over those years. He constantly made me feel unattractive unloved and unwanted. Strung me along for 7 years knowing he never wanted to be in a relationship. He did just enough to keep me on a short leash as I basically catered to his needs and mine were never met. I was considered “friend” he never took me out always made me feel like I was unattractive and doing something wrong.I finally decided to walk away two weeks ago.He was under the assumption that even though I decided to move out that I would still pay half of the rent until May. (Not going to happen) Since I am refusing to pay rent for a residence I no longer reside in he has expressed that he will never speak to me again and has blocked my number. This kind of behavior he has done for 7 years as a way to manipulate me when I don’t do things the way he wants.Now I am left depressed and questioning my self worth and trying hard to fight through it.

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Beth

Thank you for this article. It has helped me examine one of those last thorny questions. Does my mom love me?

My mom labeled me as a child who “overreacts”, told me that my dad never hit me, told me is was shameful to be afraid of him, and finally told me that if anything ever had happened, it was my fault. When I confided in a trusted adult, my parents doubled down on the “overreact” narrative, and alienated me from the family.

After forty years, a fortune spent on professional help, long talks with mom, and lots of prayer, I understand that it is unlikely that mom will ever change.

And after reading this article, I can finally acknowledge, without a tear, that my mom does not love me. It does not feel like love, it feels like hurt. It has felt like hurt for years and years.

This may seem like a bad thing, this realization. And it is bad. But it is good too. Because for many years, when I have voiced “my mom does not love me”, to my spouse or friend, I have been told “of course she does!” or “she loves you in her own way”. This is to make me fell better, because of course, everyone’s mother should love them.

But in fact, these comments make me feel worse. What is wrong with me? If she loves me, and our relationship is so broken, then I must fix it. If she loves me, and it feels so bad, it must be my fault. If she loves me and she treats me this way, than I must be a an ungrateful child who deserves it. And if she loves me, and says that the abuse never happened, then did it?

The realization that my mom does not love me is freeing. It is not my fault.

And do I love her? I am not sure. I do know that if you do not love someone, it is harder for them to hurt you, and that is a good thing. I want less hurt. I want to be a better mother, a better wife and a better person. For now, I am going to ask God to love her, as God surly does, because I cannot love her enough.

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Alia

This article hit the nail right on the head. My father is the most emotionally manipulative person I have met in my life. My childhood and adolescence was filled with emotional and physical abuse (largely when he drank). I vowed to myself that the minute I turned 18, I’d walk away.

I still haven’t been able to. I come from an Asian background whereby I was always taught that your parents are your responsibility. Throw in the part where my mom passed away when I was a child (making him a single parent) and it makes it really hard to walk away.

He’s burned bridges with all of his family and regularly fights with his friends. All he has is my sibling and I but my sibling doesn’t share my concerns or responsibilities. He’s always been a drinker but the last few years have been really rough including hospitalisations for alcohol poisoning. I so desperately want to walk away from stress and constant worrying. I feel like I’m unable to live my own life. My friends and sibling travel and have fun but I feel like I can’t do any of these things.

I really wish I could just walk away but my sense of obligation runs too deep. I wish I could find away to walk away and still live with myself – without the guilt that I know will accompany me.

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Lauren

Yeah I know what it’s like I have been hit and pushed by my brother and I’ve been trying Tom get out of the house for a long time I never thought he would get violent until a few years ago and then again a a week ago almost and I almost left my family house next time I’m actually going to get the police involved

Reply

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