Toxic Relationships: How to Let Go When It’s Unhappily Ever After

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. 

411 Comments

Ana

I was married for 23 years with the love of my life, we had a happy family with 3 children. Now they are all grown up. One year and half ago he ghosted me, and he speaks very little to our youngest son. Six months ago our divorce was finalized. Everything happened so fast, I’m still numbed and my kids are devastated. My 2 daughters won’t speak to him at all.
I don’t know anything about narcissism, but we had him in a pedestal because he worked so hard for our family, we understood if he was having a bad day several times a week. I always nade an excuse for his behavior and my kid’s followed my example. Always trying to keep our home in peace.
Reading your article I’m learning at my 53 years old that I’m the enabler. But the worst part is that taught my children to be one too, how to undo this will be impossible. I’m older and I lived my life, but what about my children, are they going to have my same fate? Marrying an abuser without knowing it.

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Linda

I left an abusive husband of 52 yrs. Over the yrs I’ve left many times and gone back because of promises he made to be different.

I couldn’t take the mental and physical abuse any longer.

I heard he may be seeing someone and I’m ashamed to say it bothers me.
Why would I let that bother me after all he’s done to me?
Lynn

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Daniele

I feel all of this but still feeling so confused like maybe I could have been a better partner like he said and we could have avoided getting to this point. I reached my breaking point one day and abruptly ended the relationship.I couldn’t take how he was speaking to me anymore. And I feel guilty. Like I should have communicated better and maybe we could have resolved things. He says I abandoned him and why didn’t I communicate what I want? I thought I did, but maybe he’s right? We were together 3 years isn’t that enough time to know? Shouldn’t it have felt right by then? Struggling to accept my decision with all of these thoughts. I’m 37 and feel like I’ve imploded my life and chance for a family. Moving back in with my mom once again.

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joe

i to was ,and still am ,that person will always be in my heart forever ,she was my one and only ,no women could ever replace her ,my world has gone ,since she waliked out of my life ,iv never been the same ,i could never be in arelationship with an other women ,we both made mistakes ,i always hope one day we will be together ,

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Lauren

I am just coming out of a long, destructive relationship. With a man , that mentally and emotionally sucked the life out of me and has bled m dry. But I loved him.And went back over and over .Why??? Fear of being alone. B fore he came along I was alone many years. He did have some goodness. He has BPD . I am not young and fear never finding anyone.The end has dragged on for weeks.This time am not going back when he sudd enly decides he still wants me.

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Destroyed by madness

Lauren,
I am in the same boat as you~ Mine spouse has BPD and drained me in all aspects of life!
I out a stop to it. We also went back and forth over the last several years.

Stay strong, you are not alone! People like the ones we encountered are selfish, self centered and are soul drainers.

Learn to love you and you be selfish, don’t be a victim.

Make the free ride stop!

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Christine

Great article and I’ve read many. I am trying to take the first steps to try and become strong enough to leave my 3.5 yr relationship. I am being used and abused sexually and emotionally by my bf and I look back at his messages and go: why? Why are you letting him !? I feel weak and stupid .. people say he is bad for me snd they don’t know half of it. I am too embarrassed to tell them

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Zach T

This article was everything. Best thing google has given me in a Time like this. I wish I read this before
I emailed him

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T G

Me too same thing going on with me. My fiancé passed away. As soon as I decide to try and live again. I get the worse man I ever meet treated me lile pure s. At the beginning it was good then came the lies secrets gaslighting mental abuse. I wish my fiancé didn’t die. He was the best man I ever been with . I pray that u will be able to leave and get your power back. Peace an blessings.🙏

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joe

i hope shes ok ,wherevshe is ,i know she regretts what happened ,9years together ,i cant just let go .we done alot together .been threw alot .even tho the situation she put me in ill always be here for her.im sure we can fix things up ,but sitting here dreaming aint doing me any good ,everyone needs a second chance ,like that they learn from there stupid mistakes ,iv learned

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Nick

All the comments are from women. I’m a guy and I am stuck in a very toxic relationship. I need to get out of it. Men are people too. The woman is mean, demanding, cruel even. I don’t know why I put up with it.

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Christine

We sometimes forget woman can be abusers too. Abuse happens to men and women. Why do you stay and let her ?

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Chelby

Oh f*ck off Christine have you ever been in an abusive relationship?
There is no “letting” her abuse him. The emotional and psychological abuse beats him down long term and ultimately forces him to stay.
Nick leaving will be hardest, but most rewarding thing you ever do I promise it is worth it. Have faith in your future without her even though it feels impossible.
You’re not alone.

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Stella

Amazing text and really helpful. It resonates a lot with what I am experiencing and I was able to clearly see what path I should take. Thanks for much for sharing.

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Betty

How long were you guys together?

Like i did with my ex-husband, i offered him a second chance to change but he refused saying there was no problem. My path was difficult but clear like yours.

There are instances where people do change, if they truly understand what they have done and dedicate work towards changing. My Daughter and her husband have been quite happy for the last 5 years since going to counselling together ,as it was just a wake-up call he needed, it really did make their relationship stronger.

However like my ex,if you feel you have truly tried giving him a second chance, its best to walk away.

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Marie

This article was extremely helpful. Been in my marriage for 17 yrs (dated for 10 before), and I’ve never felt good about it. He has been emotionally/verbally abusive and yet I still want his validation. I realize I have some self-esteem issues. I am educated with a successful career and yet here I am longing for his approval and spending most days unhappy and uncomfortable. He has adhd and I’m constantly walking on eggshells. I’m financially stable since I had been the primary breadwinner up until the last few years and could leave, but don’t. This article truly gave me perspective and action steps.
Thank you so much. I’m in tears as I respond to this.

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Deborah

I’ve been in my relationship for 20yrs. Married 13yrs. 4 teenage kids later. I’m always walking on eggshells. He wants a maid not a wife. He’s emotionally abusive. I feel I want to leave but wander why it’s hard to go. We both had trust issues. We both cheated in the past but I recently found more evidence that he denies.We also have culture difference. He’s from Mexico. How do I let go and walk away?

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Julie

I have now tried leaving my ex so many times but he keeps coming back to me. He won’t let me go. I am weak because I’ve gone back every time but I am not happy! Why is it so difficult to leave. I’m sick of myself!

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Fearful50

I feel the exact same way. I am well aware that my relationship has become toxic but I keep going back to him thinking that it could work out. I’m afraid and believe that I might not find someone else or I fear having to start the whole dating thing again after vesting a whole year with this man. I fear that because I am now 50 years old, It won’t be so easy to find someone else. I hate myself for allowing this man to treat me the way he does sometimes. I dismiss things that I would have NEVER tolerated before.
Just crazy, I need to get out of this funk!

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Charla

WHY is always the question!! Here i am AGAIN at 3am screaming at myself WHY do you let him continue to manipulate his way back?? Our relationship, or lack of, has never really been happy or healthy. He has never been faithful especially right at this moment but I still cling to his all powerful words WE’RE GONNA GET THROUGH THIS….I know exactly how you feel and the self loathing is unbearable 😫

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Jeannina G

I have been in a relationship for 13 years and just last jan I found out he was talking to another woman from his job, I looked up my phone records and her number was on his every day they would text all day and when he would get off of work they would talk for hours at a time, I work 12 hour shifts so he had plenty of time to do this. He lied and told me they were just friends and that he would stop talking to her, that she was not important enough to even care to stop talking to her, he said I would never see her number on my phone, he berthed me to forgive him and to give him a chance to make it right. I decided to give him a chance, ate all I love him everybody makes mistakes and I wanted to give him a second chance. Fast for forward to this jan. He was still doing Everything right , he was calling me on his lunch calling me on the way home from work, very loving and affectionate towards me ,I had a tracker on his phone, he knew this. we even had lots of sex , but my mind always wondered cuz she works with him, so I put in a secret camera, and bam I just do happened to open the camera app at 9am on the morning and I see them walking to the from doorand he kisses her then she leaves. I know he slept with her, I had gone to work at 630 on the morning and she came over. Im still in shock and devastated 😢, I told him to be honest with me , he said he thought he could get away with having a side chick, that he would Newberg leave me for somebody like her. I just need the courage to leave the thought of starting all over and being alone hurts so much but I know I have to leave this relationship , I asked him why would you just leave me? His answer because im a good woman that does everything for him. Help

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Annette S

Sounds like he enjoys having a Moma that takes care of him, even sexually. He may love you, but his actions hurt you. Your trust has been destroyed. Unless you can live in an open relationship, you must leave. The door to happiness in another relationship cannot open as long as you hold on to him and compromise your own personal desires for security within your relationship with him. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Maybe he says this is one he couldn’t leave you for. What happens when she gets tired of his refusal to leave you, and he goes on to the next one. What if she’s the one he could leave you for. Take the leap and leave. Open the doors of your heart to the possibility of new love. Is being alone really worse than this torture?

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Kenya

Wow, this happened to me two years ago. My husband is the reason that she works at the same employer and they still work on the same team. He expects me to trust him that nothing is going on but just like you, my mind wanders every day. I know how devious they both were to keep the relationship a secret for four years, but I’m supposed to believe him now that nothing is happening? I’ve realized that our relationship can’t progress or get any higher we are functioning and maintaining out of habit just like the article states. I also caught him by my own means.

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Anna

I 100% understand how you feel. After 7 years of a toxic relationship, feeling physical sickness as a result, I have had to let go. I love the guy, but cannot endure anymore stress as I am not coping and it’s affecting my ability to work. Likewise, it is having flowing effects with how I deal with issues with friends and family, and I am constantly being out down, told I have daddy issues etc. As painful as it is, I’m starting to realise it’s not worth it sometimes. It’s not worth having half a life, because the other half of you is numb, hurt, or mentally absent. I recommend moving forwards. Don’t think about (future) friendship or love with them. Honestly, this won’t help one but. Just focus on how you feel right now. After dismissing my own feelings for years, my counsellor of a few weeks told me to just focus on the present- be present. She also said listen to yourself, because you have the answer. Do not dismiss your own feeling as deep down you know the truth. Sometimes your mind has to override your heart. Just keep living, but do not spend your time waiting for this person. I have spent months, if not years waiting and I have lost so much time and am no longer that young. Stay strong. You must stay strong and just try to get through each day. It will get easier. You will always love this person, but eventually in a different way, and you are likely to meet a better version (for you)of this person if only you believe in yourself. Do not dismiss your emotions.b It’s not worth being unhappy so frequently.

Alternatively, if they’re willing to, and you’re able to get to that stage, participate in therapy with them and alone. If you don’t get this opportunity, see a therapist on your own and focus on yourself. You sound like a lovely person that is hurt and caught up in a toxic relationship. it’s not at all your fault, as sometimes life isn’t particularly friendly. But trust that it will get better if you give yourself time. I’m sending my love your way.

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Gina

Honestly this is the only article that is realistic and helps. It really feels like you know what it’s like to be in the shoes. The advice are all very very helpful, and to the point. They all helped me leave my ex-husband. Thank you so much. You’ve changed lives.

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xxx

im stuck and at the first stages of wanting to leave. ive been in a relationship for 11.5 years and just found out hes been cheating the last year, we dont live together but we are engaged. this is the second time ive found out hes been cheating, what do i do???? he has no job, i work 40+ hours a week and support him. please help me, i am afraid to leave and be alone and start all over again, i am 30!

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Indecision

30.. so much potential! You are accepting less that you deserve. Love won’t fulfill you if you have to be constantly on guard. The hard times with kids etc are even harder without trust. I’m 31 and accepting less than l deserve. I want kids but am realising that the foundation l have with my partner won’t survive the tests that come with children.. l think our relationship will end soon.

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Faye

Good for you! I am looking for my strength to get out of an abusive 18 year marriage. Good luck! 💕

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Rachel

My relationship started being madly in love with that man since 2014, and knowing he is not interested, as I already got rejected while trying a vague approach. Still it wasn’t so clear for me if he liked me or not because he is of flirty nature. So by 2018, when I got totally obsessed and destroyed by that situation of not knowing and ongoing obsession, I reached out and told him about my feelings.
He answered that actually he’d been in love with me before 2014 but I was mean to him so he erased me from his mind and behaved like never liked me since…
So little by little, even though he was very closed to my affection, very locked, with time he opened up a little, at least we had sex, the best sex ever possible on this earth, really. We kept seeing each other for two years, arguing a lot and all the sex led to pregnancy… we felt the magic of this event and wanted to keep the child but at the same time were very very scared so eventually I had an abortion as planned. He couldn’t be there for me emotionally, because he was traumatised apparently he experienced this event as being my decision and he felt powerless and sad about it. So he couldn’t even help me walk from the hospital, couldn’t give no support, he was in freeze mode. This relationship continued after, with still very bad arguments, much blame shifting etc, me always feeling insecure, stressed and worn out even just by seeing him, although I really wanted to…
This relationship was also a deep feeling of union, a strong physical proximity, and I do really love him and would have loved to be with him.
After many times of heart, mind and body breaking arguments and misunderstandings, we had a final one last week. I decided I couldn’t take it once more or I would literally die of exhaustion and of this unbearable feeling of injustice and misunderstanding.
He told me he had put our relationship to trash because the last time we saw some friends, he felt like I was flirty as usual, because I am who I am and I am always flirting with men… while I literally actually never flirted with anyone except him since 2014…His jealousy problem stems from a deep fear of abandonment, so he attacks before anyone attacks him, incapable of a secure bond, incapable of holding space, unable to engage truly in this relationship. At the same time, he is very conscious of many many things, very sensitive and loving, really, and this situation is so unbearable mostly because of this. Because there are a couple things he just won’t aknowledge in himself and blames me instead, endlessly.
For two years I’ve been in this turmoil of a relationship, hoping endlessly that we will arrange this, that he is conscious enough of his flaws and patterns to be able to evolve… but he is still blame shifting and unconsciously manipulating me into believing that I am the problem, that I am not trustworthy as a woman and that I always seduce men which hurts him so much…
My dream is that he would heal from his problem and we could be together one day ..
I am a sick person for hoping that ?

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Monica

I can totally relate and would love to have you as a friend, we could support each other! Talk to me on my Snapchat: miss_keettlynn.

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Anna

Please refer to the response written above your own in the comments section of your page. I am going through something similar and wish to share my experience with you. I feel for you and send my love your way. I’m in my early 30s and have spent many years in a relationship not too dissimilar to your own. I wish you the best of luck and truly hope you do what’s best for you today, if not for the future. Though I realise you probably wrestle with this answer everyday, I believe that you may, deep down, already know the true answer to your questions. Do not hesitate to write back if you feel the need to talk it through. Take care of yourself and please out yourself first. Please do not feel like you’ve failed if you choose to leave the relationship and move forwards. If you choose to stay, it may be worth going through some form of therapy, either alone or with your partner if they accept. I wish I could give you a huge hug right now.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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