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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258 Comments

mischa

yeah, i was also in a toxic toxic relationship.

It was physically, emotionally and psychologically so abusive, i hated it so much.

i loved him really so much, it was so passionate, it was spontaneous, it was wild. we did a lot of wild things together.

I however started to see some bad signs of manipulation, controlling behaviour, mistrust, power games.

We eventually broke up, and then he realized he wanted me back and he tried to change everything but then expected me to change everything too that he wanted, was it fair yes.

i was not ready to change in the way he wanted, i felt like i coulsnt do it, he wanted me to show him a lot of love and intimacy but i just couldnt, i really couldnt. I was just stuck with the pain of the past, he was so awful to me and i didnt trust that he would stop with the manipulation and shitty behaviours, it came out in a few more fights that he was still going to play psycological games with me.

I cried a lot, i felt like i was not a good person for leaving him so broken but then i realized, well fuck im broken too, i should be happy too :/

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Shauna

I’m 21 years old and I have been in a relationship for 4 years off and on. The relationship itself has turned into one that is resentful and always taken to a level that is hurtful and damaging to one another. Over the years, the man I was with had many issues he had to deal with, one of those being his anger. We both continued to hurt one another, whether through lies or when he cheated/wanted other people. It’s always been more difficult for me to let go. I get this overwhelming sense that I’m doing what’s best for myself to leave but always have this void in me like even though it will end, I will still feel like he is someone that I wanted to be with. Lately, it’s been so much worse. We fight constantly, break up and say nasty things to eachother and arguments get incredibly heated. Overtime he started to attack my character, the type of person I was, and on top of that with the consistently disloyalty and rage that he had had towards me has caused me to feel broken. I don’t feel like myself anymore, I feel insecure and helpless. For so long I have gone back to him thinking that maybe he’d get it or if I tried harder things would work out. I’ve gone back to him knowing he didn’t truly love me, for reasons that now seem stupid. I’m really hoping now, after breaking up recently, that I have the strength to be secure in myself and have the strength to move on from this debilitating relationship. Sometimes it feels impossible though, and I question whether I have the strength to move on for my own good.

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Aaron

I’ve been going through the same thing for 2 years, we met, fell in love then she just started the toxic behavior 5 months in, constantly flirting with other men, on and off again, making me feel like it was me? All I ever wanted was a normal loving relationship. I tried to convince myself she wasn’t good for me but we kept coming back to eachother, I was in love with her! Finally she had told me there were other guys she was seeing after 2 years together, I think I was in a fantasy imagining what I thought we could be and she was never there emotionally or physically, I compromised my values and feelings for the few and far between connection we had for a chance! In the end it wasn’t worth it, we put our lover on a pedestal for unknown reasons and they become an emotional vampire sucking the life from you to prop there self up because they know you will always be there go to person! But they never really loved or respected you to begin with.

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Annie

It amazes me how toxic a relationship can become. How two people who are so in love can be so cruel to one another. I believe it’s the worst kind of pain in the world aside from losing a child. He was my soul mate – the man I wanted to spend my whole life with. I still don’t understand why we couldn’t make it work- I will probably never know because nothing actually happened – it was always fighting over the fear of what might happen. It was him being triggered constantly over little things which I believe stemmed from his fear of being hurt . He would get mad and mean and say the worst things to me – questioning my character – he would work so hard to try and change everything about me – the way I dressed, friends EVERYTHING!! I always felt so picked apart . It got to the point where I stopped living my life ( stopped seeing friends, stopped exercising , deleted social media , stopped being myself ) to try and make things work and It STIll DIDNT WORK- I felt like the life had been sucked out of me. I wasn’t the same girl – I had been beaten down. I kept telling myself that if I did something different , it would work. We have broken up 20 times and gotten back together, EVERYTIME with the same results. We have gone around and around in circles in this toxic Marry go round and basically have lost a year and a half of our lives . When I speak to him- he feels the same- it’s time to end it for good. We have no other choice. My heart is broken.

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CLee

Shauna, I can’t help but comment on your post. I am 43 and I am almost finally divorced from my husband whom I have been with since I was 26. The dynamic you describe between you and your ex is almost exactly what my husband and I shared. I too lost my sense of worth and self and I have spent this last year trying to rebuild and learning how to live my own life.

I want you to know that as hard as I am sure that this time is right now, you are so brave and smart to know that boundaries are being crossed and that you want and deserve more. I stayed because I too thought if I just tried harder, our issues would stop. I went back to him time and time again even though there were many red flags: insecurities, anger, bullying, threats, etc. It never got better but because he was a “good guy”, decent, hardworking, talented and funny I stayed.

I am ashamed to say that I would have kept on trying but he came home one day last March and told me he had filed for divorce. I was furious and outraged but now I am actually bothered that I didn’t have the courage to do what you did- walk away on my own. Through therapy and research, I finally understand that he is a narcissist and that we should have parted ways years ago. I am resentful and regretful that I allowed some of the best years of my life to be wasted on/with him.

Don’t settle. You are so wonderfully young and you have many years ahead of you to find someone who loves you exactly for who you are and not who you are in relation to them. You sound incredibly strong and healthy to me, even if you don’t always feel it or at least feel that way right now. You know at 21 what it took me years to figure out. You’re impressive and you will find someone else who thinks so too.

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Renee

I needed this today, I cannot tell even begin to describe how many times I’ve googled or binged different words but today it’s like a God given word without scripture reference. I was dating a trans man and he had so many issues from drinking, yo being abusive mentally and then ultimately physically. I always went back, the drinking stopped and he began to get himself on track but it never felt right because his anger would send him over board. I even went back after an argument we had that resulted from him choking me in front of my 5yr old daughter. I made excuses by saying he was fighting 2 hormones the estrogen and the testosterone he was taking, I said it was the drinking, his temper etc. I loved him and care about him deeply but I knew I couldn’t stay, in my heart the damage had been done and he could of taken my life. I had to look at my child and choose her, choose life, choose me. Even though I’m typing this with tears in my eyes this entire article is how I felt for a year and a half. All the signs the inner desperation, the loneliness I can identify with every word. This only reassures what I’ve known all along, love me and continue to move forward as I should have so long ago

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Vincent K

You need to seek some councelling to help you in this decision I was in a toxic relationship for 6 years and I was also abusive and the toxic person. Sadly it ended in tragedy and with a range of other emotions and circumstances my partner hung herself.

I would advise you to seek help for this situation as it will end badly if you or another stay. I urge you to please seek some help. You can not do this on your own.

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Tracey D

I fell for a guy instantly. He didn’t have a job, because he said he is in transition so I, of course helped out with his bills well let’s say I really poured everything I had into him. He has 2 daughters and I treated them like my own. Surprise to me!! I eventually realized he is an alcoholic. I have never dealt with one. It’s been over 2 years with so much pain, unbearable pain. I was supporting him as a child. He took it all to. Was living with me, kept his car legal and credentials ins plan phone plan clothes gifts. By now you are shaking your head and thinking what are you stupid? Well yes, yes I was. I drai ed everything I had for this man and his kids financially to where I have nothing to fall back on if Iose my job. I am disabled and can only do certain jobs. We belong to the same organization, which I believe, is what kept me blinded to what I have been heading for. I since have kicked him out, took him off my ins and phone plan but we still stayed together. I just couldn’t understand why he would want to keep staying with me. I have now been to ala non and CoDa for codependency. He is also a drug addict as I found out after he got a DUI.
Now I’m facing the fact that he has been with another woman in the same organization whom is married yet offered him a room in ber home and is also dating another guy in this same organization. WTH! right. This has just happened as I asked him about her once again. He denied but he said “even if I was interested, do you think I would really want to be 2nd or 3rd?”
I was shocked because to me this was the admission. My gut has been telling me this all along for the past couple of years. Now, I’m so humiliated, overwhelmed devastated constantly breaking down which this part is normal. It’s just so painful. I wonder why I haven’t just gotten rid of him a long time ago. I am in love with an addict. Toxic. Paying such a high price for loving caring supporting someone I thought was on the same page developing a future together. All I can do now is do my best to avoid him and pray for healing. I do not know how to do this. I’m lost and in despair. I have been financially, emotionally, mentally and verbally abused. I need help and have no idea at this point where or what to do. Not sure if this could be posted but I just want woman to know if you suspect an addict stay away learn those red flags. If you don’t your life will be unmanageable and left I despair

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Consuelo B

Hello My Name is Consuelo and I’m 26 I am going through a toxic break up as well. It’s been tough but I’ve been hanging in there every day having mixed emotions confused, lonely, and sad. We’ve been broken up for 7 months now! My ex would manipulate me every day accuse me made me cry all of the above!! I wake up every day trying to get him out of my head but it sucks it is hard but I’ve been distracting myself by riding my bike going to parks for a walk and going to the gym. Let me tell you it has been working, you just always got to be occupied or you will sink in the ship again! Be with friends paint, hang out with family. I have blocked him on social media because he would call me every other day around 4:00 Am he always tells me that’s the time I’m awake in his dreams (weird) He stalks me every day and even shows up at the locations I am at to see who what when where and why ? I used to think it was kind of hot lol but then he would threaten me and I was like wow okay that’s not cool ! I have a restringing order on him but I haven’t heard from the court. He always tells that he will find me and who ever I am talking to he’s going to kill us He is CRAZY AND PHSCO but I ask myself why do I still love him! I’m not sure myself why I do? Maybe I’m lonely or I just fantasied too much with him Love is blind ! but we got this! It’s all mind over matter just have faith it’s a slow process but I’m pretty sure we will get it threw we just have to have faith!

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May S

I am in love with a guy who I believe loves me too. Every moment of his display of love is usually accompanied by an equal measure of display of hatred. Insecure, he constantly fears that I could abandon him and from what I read about his symtops from Borderline Personality Disorder Demystified by Linsy B. i cannot help buy feel perhaps I should walk away

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tania

I was married for 11 yrs. Things were hard from the beginning as he was very controlling, but since I was from a different country, I always thought maybe it is me, I need to change. We had two kids, and thru all the time I was working so that he could become a doctor. Once he graduated, he started loosing a lot of weight and gained a lot of confidence and made me feel like I was not enough for him. I always had been athletic so I helped him in his process. He screamed at me, told me how in the world I became an engineer if I was so stupid? how he was so smart. He told me, I don’t know what did I looked in you to marry you. Things wend down the road and in 3 months from filing divoce we were divorced. Things haven’t changed much, he still yells, he stills repeated told me how stupid I am… He does has a gf, a nurse since before the divorce was finalized. I don’t talk to his family, or him unless is regarding the boys. I just don’t understand why does it still hurts so much each time, I go to a game, or a family event to drop of the kids and all his family, who was in his favor all the time, look at me and say nothing.
My ex mother in law was cruel to me, she even came one time and yelled to me, how I didn’t deserve the “great doctor” that I was artistic, and he needed something better.
I had to move place, as my ex mother in law lived two blocks away from me, my ex a mile and were following me and my mom when dropping kids to school.
I don’t understand this type of controlling situation and if it is common here in the USA.

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Jonathan L

I have about 2 months without my ex. I miss her so fucking much and we both loved each other its just things kept getting in the way and kept picking at our relatioship. We were together for a year but we were constantly on and off. The last time we broke up she met someone and she had feelings for him. I tried loving her so much her to make her fall for me but she had feelings for him still. Our break up wasnt a formal break up I just stopped talking to her. I want her back so much but I know that there are lots of problems involved. Im with someone new now ,I know im on the rebound, and shes a lot more like me but its not the same. I miss my ex so fucking much.

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Lerato

I gave him 10 years of my life. He swiped condoms with my debit card n had a nerve to lie about ever buying them or even cheated. I dumped him the same day he went and buy a ring. He proposed but everytime I asked him we must sit a set a date he gave me excuses until 4 years after the proposal he then told me tgsf he feels that I’m putting pressure on him. Hes not ready for marriage. I remember crying that whole week because his mistress told my colleagues that there will never be any wedding happening between us he proposed to make me. forgive him. As if that wasn’t enough last week after 10 n half years he had z nerve to tell me he met Gugu and he cant do us anymore. He stopped caring about me last year December. His reason for leaving us(me and the kids) is I’m too overprotective. Like seriously after 10 good years. I’m stressed I cant even eat all I do is cry. He calls me it’s ok I have to answer I call him he doesnt pick up he feels like I’m keeping taps on him with a phone. I want so desperate to forget about him,,to hate him and stop loving him but I cant. Hes making all kinds of excuses it’s like he doesnt wanna move out anymore like he enjoys sticking around just to make me suffer. I’m tired crying I’m so worried about our kids. What I’m I gonna tell them?? How do u tell 5 n 7 years old that their dad found a new girl and hes leaving??

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Jen

I needed to read this today… I’m in the middle of a very ugly, very abusive, very toxic relationship. It has cost me my healthy, happiness, and most recently my job. My life has turned upside down and I find myself even more attached to the one thing that’s ruining it all. I cannot believe I love a man who has simultaneously ruined my life. I feel crazy. I feel like I can’t tray my own thoughts and emotions. I’ve tried to walk away so many times, but my love for him keeps me coming back. I’m drowning because I can’t walk away. My career is ruined. I look like I’ve aged 10 years in the last year. I cry constantly. I start a new job tomorrow and I’m hoping throwing myself into that and being surrounded by new people and new energy will give me the courage to leave for good.

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Juliette

Man, for 10.5 yrs. it’s not going to go away quickly. Now you have to take back your pride and self-respect. Let it go. Check off each day you’ve avoided hem on a calendar and give yourself a small reward each week. If you are starting a new job in the same field, then you haven’t ruined your career – yet.

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