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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317 Comments

Notlongerinlove

Having such a hard timing making the decision I know I have to make.. my partner and I have been together for 4 years now. He left his last relationship because he found out she was texting someone else. He explained all of this before we got serious and said he’d be a total wreck if he ever had to go through it again. He is 9 years old than me and has two children from this relationship. I was 23 when we met and had never really had a serious relationship before. I was never tied down to one person at this point for an extended time. Partying non stop. Making poor choices, lying and just an overall mess. It’s not a part of my life that I’m very proud of. After we met I really started to turn things around, I stopped partying, went back to school, got a good job. But for the first year of our relationship I was still working at a bar and I ended up kissing someone else (so not proud of this and regret it everyday) I also lied several time to him about where I was (going out with friends after work). I know I’m terrible, judge me if you will. HOWEVER, eventually I owned up to all of these things and although we had a huge fight about it we choose to stick it out and he said we’d be okay and that he’d forgive me. Since then I have given him nothing but honestly, loyalty, the perfect housewife you name it. We now have a daughter that is 1.5. Over the last three years he’s become so spiteful and hateful towards me. He acts my character and calls me a whore and slut. I feel so down on myself all the time and have zero confidence left at all. I try to stand up for myself and end up cowering because he gets scary. A few weeks ago I got mad because he poked me in the face and out of reaction I slapped him. He then instantly out of reaction slapped me so hard I flew into the kitchen counter. I just find that he’s becoming more and more aggressive lately. He tells me he loves me and wants to marry me but treats me like shit and talks to me like I’m worthless. I know I deserve more but I am hard on myself because he said he warned me and I created this. We have a beautiful child together and I hate the thought of her growing up in a broken home. But in reality our home is broken as it is. I have a huge support system with my family but I’m still scared. He is very much a depressed person. He’s gone through a lot in his life and I’m scared that if I leave he’ll do something to himself. I fight with myself everyday and then end up feeling guilty for feeling this way and not saying anything to him about it. I’ve threatened to leave before and even spent a few nights with our daughter and my parents place. He always says sorry and then things are good until they arnt. Leaving just seems so hard even though I know it’s what I should do. How do you tell someone that you still love them but you’re no longer in love with them.

Reply
dlw

You have all the gift that the heavens could give you in your daughter. Every move you make is meant to teach her how to move through this world. You know what you need to do if not for yourself, for her. Given my own history, I would put a plan together, an exit strategy if you will, before you have that talk with him. You may not see it now but you’re so lucky that you don’t have to take him to court to get a divorce.

Reply
Pablo

I just got out of a relationship this past Monday 6/15/20. I am very heartbroken because I feel that all the work I put in didn’t pay off at all. It feels awful to find out that your girlfriend of one year and three month doesn’t have the respect and decency to tell you in person that she doesn’t feel the same way about me as I do for her…and decides to end things over text messages for the second time. This feels very immature and selfish of her and makes me wonder if she even loved me. This has all left me in complete emptiness, she told me that I did everything possible to love her but it wasn’t enough and that once again she didn’t see herself getting married and having kids with me after she led me on for so long. She says she wants to try to be friends further down the line but considering this is not the first time we break things off, I have made the decision to fully cut ties from all sources and begin my healing process. She said she is so sorry and told me she was doing me a favor while at the same time explaining to me that I should explore more options out of which she is certain I would find the perfect woman for me who would love me and give me all that I deserve. She also mentioned she is thankful for me treating her like a queen and for when I find the one perfect for me, that woman will be so lucky because I really do know how to treat a woman. This seems so manipulating since she always struggled with bad communication and with all this words of buttering up after she went to see her sister this past weekend; I wish I could have just gotten the truth about her maybe just losing interest and just starting to see someone else when it was obvious the signs were there. It is so toxic to stay in a relationship with someone who isn’t showing the same level of interest as you are. I had bought her a silver necklace out of which she broke up with me a week after I gave it to her most recently. She said she doesn’t believe in returning gifts, so she offered to pay me back for it. She has such a weird ideology about money. I decided to be a gentleman, and leave it alone. This way, it is 100% definite that I did everything in my part to do what is right, it would seem so petty to ask for the money back. I know she feels so guilty for leaving me at my lowest of a heartbreak. At the end of all this, this is my time to get my self-esteem strength back and go to a couple of therapy sessions to process this and understand that this experience will make me a wiser person to choose my next romantic partner and also to process how no matter how much work I put in a relationship, I can’t fix the other person’s insecurity issues which cause them to be very indecisive and in the end will make me suffer and give me depression and endless anxiety. I am glad we parted ways, it is her loss, and at this point, on to the next who will be a better fit and who will be equal for what I deserve: security-love-respect!   

Reply
dlw

Please please consider watching a brilliant young man who has been through what you’re going through. His YouTube channel is called “Mouth of The Ape”. He is serene, patient, wise and vulnerable. His words will speak to you better than can I.
paz,

Reply
Rebecca E

This article just so happens to be exactly what I needed which I find ironic at the moment because it highlights something I intentionally have repeated to my two daughters since they were born. I tell them that they have a built in and generally accurate way of knowing if a person or situation isn’t right for them. If one of them isn’t sure if someone or something is healthy for them I tell them to think about how they feel in their body when they are around the person or situation. I watch as they discover that the answer is pretty clear as they remember that they did notice getting a stomach right before seeing the person or being in a situation that they weren’t sure about. I also try to remember to randomly ask them to notice how their body is feeling at the moment and if one says they have a tummy ache or something we then take some time to check in about our surroundings or who is around to see if maybe we can figure out who or what might be the cause of the bellyache or if they don’t have anything physical hurts or if they notice they feel better than usual they should take stock of what is happening around them or who is with them so they can make a mental note about the things/people around and look for more of it. Today my husband and I had another fight which doesn’t happen a lot but when it does is always the same even if the details differ. Typically I will be the one who feels hurt or victimized and when I try to let him know that whatever just happened hurt m feelings he immediately gets defensive and might deny his behavior or blame it on something or someone else, or he will ignore my feedback entirely and flip it suddenly to where something I did or said hurt his feelings first or something about how me telling him he had hurt my feelings was the real issue because he’s never good enough for me or that I’m always telling him he failed again etc. Today’s fight felt different to me. As I listened to myself I suddenly realized that, while it’s not every day or even every week that we fight at all-it’s always the same because he either can’t or doesn’t want to do things differently. Suddenly the disappointment I felt was gone and instead I felt relief. I have been walking on eggshells for so long and felt stuck but realizing what I did or didn’t do wasn’t going to make a difference because it was up to him. To then read this article and once again feeling relieved because the answer is pretty clear that if it was going to change it would have and it hurts so it’s hurtful and I can let go of the notion that maybe it’s going to finally click after this one and if I leave now and the happiness I dreamed of was right around the corner, I would have never forgiven myself for giving up too soon. Realizing I know what to do is also a relief because I really don’t want to keep wrestling with the same thing over until I go back and apologize for the fight so we could move on-after all if we discussed any of it we’d just fight. Ack! Enough. My tummy hurts. Thank you for reminding me the answer was there all along

Reply
Gina

I have been in a relationship for 2 and a half years. I find that we have different sexual needs and he will get pouty if I reject his advances. He will do self destructive things for his career and act irresponsible whenever we get in a fight, knowing I will cave.
I usually cool down easier and reach out to him first, as I do care about him and have invested all my time and energy into this relationship. But it’s been getting more and more frustrating. I have become resentful and I call him out aggressively when he pulls away and acts childishly.
I want to walk away but at the same time it hurts to think about what it will mean.

Reply
dlw

I would strongly ask you to consider the slot machine metaphor that goes something like this:

You keep putting good energy in to the relationship. Every now and then you get a small pay off. This gives you the belief that if you keep putting more energy in then you might get a big pay off.

There is a reason that slot machines are more successful than the people that play them. I say this to you because I find myself in this emotional situation where I am putting in good energy with infrequent payoffs. I am becoming fatigued at losing so much of my good energy.

Reply
Kayla

I have been married to my husband for almost 2 years I’ve loved him and adored him since the age 13 im 33 now not even 2 months after we got married he left me while i was pregnant with our son and i had no clue why because we were so happy together i had no way to contact him he just left and stayed gone for about a month i couldnt call him nor speak to him at all … All the while im thinking he just left to get himself together as a man because we were struggling and he couldn’t provide like he wanted to… But oh no… I found out that he was with his baby mama sleeping with her to so called see his son bad mouthing me to her and sleeping with other females so i forgave hime allowed him to come back not even 2 months later he was not coming home and ignoring my calls due to him being with other females and this continued like every other week he didn’t want me around anyone had me cut all my friends and family off to be with his family.. He would get upset with me like it was my fault when i would address what he was doing to hurt me… Then he started becoming abusive choking me, smacking me, tossing me like a rag doll just because i would be angry confronting him about what he was doing to me so long story short every other month he would contact his baby mama to try to get back with her… Then he stopped for a while. Hasn’t stepped out that i know of within the last 7 months.. He doesn’t do anything but work and doesn’t work long hours might i add .. But complains all the time im pregnant now he acts as if im his maid i do everything for the kids i cant get his attention to save my life barely get a conversation…he doesn’t spend time with the kids… He wont even take out the trash he says that im supposed to do everything as long as he is working …he doesn’t even clean up behinnd himself.. Ever since he left the first time he has been like this ever since i cant even get him to look at at me or make eye contact but i have to witness him making deep eye contact with other women i try to talk to him and tell him what bothers me and try to get him to understand what im going through but he just cuts me off and continually direct everything towards him his needs and wants he does not even take my needs into consideration at all I’ve been knowing him all my life and never pictured him being this way towards me of all people… He has always given me respect and everything i needed and wanted before we got in a relationship but once he left me after we got married he has never been the same since and things have been toxic ever since he says i should just let it go and forgive him but yet i still dont get what i need i gave him my all and more i just don’t anymore to give at this point he doesnt respect me or how i feel he just blows it off…

Reply
katy

Sister, you are so much better than him! So not worth your time, your money, etc. Dump his a$$. You will feel so much better after the storm.

Reply
T

I’ve been a relationship for 4 years with my GF. I walked away 2 months ago and am still struggling. She said over and over that she needed space, wanted to be more selfish, and is finding her voice. This past summer she went on a girls trip with her children (Of which i was not allowed to join) and met up with her ex. I found myself drinking more and more. I got tired of being put down and called names. Tired of being made to feel pointless and worthless. I over the past 6-8 months found myself yelling as much as she did and putting her down like she did to me. I was embarrassed that this is what I’ve turned into as a man. The last straw was her birthday trip to Vegas. She said she needed space, then she said she wanted to work on the relationship. When she got back she said she doesn’t want to work on the relationship. I packed my stuff and left 2 day’s later. It’s been 2 months since and I can’t get her out my mind and still call. I’m hurt because I’m not sure if i could have fixed things. She said things would have been possible if i would not have made such a hasty move out. Was I wrong? Could i have done it different?

Reply

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A brain that gets anxious sometimes is doing exactly what brains were meant to do - keep you alive, warn you of danger, and remind you how much you love your favourite things. It just works a little too hard on the first two, but with a little tweaking - mindfulness, exercise, a happy belly and other things that brains love - anxiety can be brought back to small enough.
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