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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208 Comments

Lisa

Thank you for this article, I’ve been in a very toxic relationship for the past 27 years! Yup 27! My youngest is 16 years old and it is time, I’m so unhappy and so lonely, I can’t begin to tell you how much and yet I have stayed. That little voice of doubt in your head can twist you in knots and make you believe you can’t do it yourself. I’m ashamed that I’ve stayed this long and allowed my children to see me not stand up for myself and leave. My husband after 4 years of marriage told me he was transgender and identified as a woman, my immediate response was that I can’t be with you through this and I need to leave which I did, all the promises under the sun that he wasn’t going through with it brought me back, our daughter was born and it all started again to the extent that he saw a phsycologist and started taking hormones, I was in a position where I couldn’t leave, he had his testicles removed after our son was born (another time I left and went back and my boy was the result) and grew breasts from taking hormones and then decided that it wasn’t for him after all. We haven’t had sex or any kind of intimate relationship for well over 5 years now! I am deeply unhappy and have told him I want a divorce and his answer was he would pick up his stuff and walk away and leave me with all the debt (over $350,000 including the mortgage on our house that he insisted on buying) knowing full well that there is no way I can handle the debt on my own. His constant mantra is ‘ I need you to survive’ everyday I am so angry and sad and my resentment of him is so strong I am beginning to detest him, but I don’t know how to leave him. He is not mentally stable and I know he’ll never let me go! Every day is a new struggle to make it through the day without crumpling in a heap! I feel so ashamed that I don’t know how to leave, my New Years wish was praying for the strength to walk away from this relationship this year before it kills me. I have no one in the country that I live in, my family are all overseas, no one to run to or turn to but I’m going to get to a stage where I will just walk away I’ve saved this article and I will read it every day in the hope that it will help me get the courage that to need!

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IT

I recently got out of a relationship as well, reading this seems to help but I feel weak. I’ve known this guy for 5 years and have been on and off for 4. I am so young and the way I feel should not ever be felt by any one of any age. I am 21, I have high hopes for myself but being with someone like him made me feel otherwise when we were upset at one another. Everything felt as if it was always my fault, he said I didn’t give him enough space to breath. There are 7 days a week I see him sometimes all those 7 or sometimes 6 or 5, and he works a 9-6 job. Five days a week He come home around 8 sometimes 10. That’s a bit of time to talk about our day then get ready for bed. Is it wrong of me to want to spend time with someone I love on the weekend when I can only see him on Saturday night and some hours Sunday bc of my job? I guess maybe I asked for too much but after years of infidelity I thought I had deserved that time with him. I encourage him to see his family as often as he wanted but he never took it. He would rather go out with his friends and not tell me about it. That’s just a bit of what I have been dealing with the past few years. Although, he did strive for me and make me feel significant and worthy and successful at times. His words hurt when he was upset, through time he everntually knew what to say to hurt me emotionally and mentally. Sometimes physically. After those altercations, I was there begging for him to come back to me and apologizing when the roles should be reversed. He was too shaken up to look me in the after all the hurtful words he said and reminder of what he had done. It has only been a couple of hours since he told me to pack my belongings and go back to my parents. I’m scared that I am to weak and will eventually try to contact him. I want to be myself again. My five years ago self before I ever met him. I read this article and it made me feel a bit better. I am hopeful that I will be happy again within time and that I will move on bravely.

Reply
MH

There’s a book called GETTING PAST YOUR BREAKUP that you needto read. Also do a Google search for “Lewis Howes – Boundaries” podcast. Boundaries are extremely important in relationships and seeing someone 7 days a week may not be the healthiest based on your circumstances. Good luck IT.

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Gloria tucker

You will never be your past self, you will be a stronger self, more intuitive. Its hard to leave an abusive relationship, but none of the tocic issues are yours. They’re his. You need to be absolutely selfish, i.e., think about yourself, your future, your well being, your future, your wants, your needs. Obviously he is not meetinh any of these and have told you he will not by telling you to leave. Leave. Givr yourself time to heal, to learn from your experience. Yes, like drug abuse, you may want to return to your abuser, but fill your time and thoughts eith improving yourself, take a class of your interests, be active, seek to think positively, thats the hardest. Healing eill come, after the pain, the anger, the resentment, the regrets, it will come. Ypu must cut off all, all, all contact eith this man.. if you see him on tje street, walk by as if hes a stranger. Dont know him, dont chat, dont have lunch, dont nothing. Abusive ppl have long standing issues that have nothing to do with you and are not your responsibility. Nothing you can help them with or change. Learn how to recognixe this type of personality. Its hards to identify, but the first time it rares its ugly head, leave. You owe no one any explanations for taking care of yourself mentally, emotionally and psychologically. You should never take abuse and disrespect, no matter how much you love someone. Never invest more in a relationship than the other person.

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michelle

Yes, this article was very informative. It is easier said then done to make change. You are young and have a whole life ahead of you. The advice of like to give is live for you. Now is the time to put you first. Especially if you do not have children. Do all you have on your bucket list before you start another relasho ship or at least tackle a few of those want to do things by yourself. It will bring you strength. Good luck, as I need some too. I have 21 years in a marriage that has struggled for about it’s entirety. Have 5 beautiful kids and a house filled with animals and I’m exhausted from our failing marriage. Physically and mentally. I need strength to let go. Good luck.

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Britt

I am also currently in a very toxic relationship that I know I need to leave. I do not live with him…he is 41 years old…has plenty of money…and lives with his parents. This has been going on for almost 6 years. Rationally I know I would vehemently tell anyone else to leave a situation like mine. I’ve become the rescuer and nurturer while he continues to take my self respect and self esteem. And I just sit by and let it happen. I have worked really hard at being independent…I’m a nurse…put myself through college at 40 on my own while raising 2 boys. I am kind and loving…I love my patients and friends…I am honest… compassionate. So I don’t understand why he cheats…lies and disrespects me. And why do I stay for it???? He recently went on a drug binge…I took him to rehab today. I will not be able to speak to him for 7 days…my plan is to look deep inside and find the courage to make the break. He hid his phone from me today but gave it to his mom…she can look in it but I can’t…as I’m sure there are several women on the hook. This has all been such a mind blowing destructive experience. I’m intelligent….but none of that matters or has helped me. I need to find myself again and realize that I’m not meant to be in pain constantly while smiling at the outside world. Anyone else going through something similar….I’m sending good vibes and love your way. Stay strong!

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M

Read Getting Past Your Breakup and read material on self-love. This is what’s helping me A LOT at the moment.

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Melissa

I felt as if I was reading my own story. It’s really hard to walk away when you have given someone your all. I made countless sacrifices and cry myself to sleep nightly how do I become stronger. Just know you are not alone

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Britt

It does help to know I’m not alone. People that haven’t experienced something like this don’t get it. I absolutely have to walk away. I know I’ll be fine once I do. I don’t even understand it. I am reading a lot on addictive resltionships and the difficulty of getting out. Remember….you’re not alone either. Much love

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Tammy

After 2 years with a guy who would never fully commit, I’m packing my things and moving out while he is out of town. I always thought that if you give something everything you have, then it will work out. I never asked for marriage or forever, I just wanted him to try. I stayed with him when he had nothing. Through cheating, difficulties at work, through him criticising my weight and everything else about me, I stayed and always put him first. I’ve given everything I have, put aside my pride and dignity countless times… I’m done. There are no words to describe this feeling: grief mixed with a healthy dose of “Finally!”

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