A good romantic relationship can elevate your life in the very best ways, whereas a bad one can leave you heartbroken and depressed. If you suspect you might be in a toxic relationship, don’t worry, toxic relationships are actually more common than you might think, and their effects can often be crippling. When you’re on the outside of a toxic relationship, it can be easy to spot. Surely, if someone makes you miserable or is physically or emotionally abusive, the obvious decision is to leave, right? Unfortunately, reality is often more complicated due to many factors.
A toxic relationship is an interpersonal relationship that causes harm. While some signs of a toxic relationship are more overt—like physical abuse, repeated infidelity, and inappropriate sexual behavior—others can be harder to detect. Emotional and prolonged psychological abuse can involve disrespect, dishonesty, or controlling behavior. For example, if your romantic partner cuts you down frequently, your mental health may begin to suffer as a result.
While a relationship does not have to involve abuse for it to be considered toxic, all abusive relationships are toxic. Abuse can manifest in different ways including emotional, verbal, economic, sexual, and physical. Signs of an abusive relationship can be manifested in physical or sexual violence, name-calling, humiliation, or threats. These types of relationships are almost always typically characterized by possessive and controlling behaviors.
The question of how to end a toxic relationship has many answers, but they all boil down to one: you do it very carefully. Most often, you’ll need to do a lot of emotional work, planning, talking it out, and then walking the tightrope to a new life. You may be trying to figure out how to break up a toxic romantic relationship.
But toxic relationships aren’t limited to romance. A toxic person may be also be a:
partner of a friend or relative
student at your school
A toxic relationship can be extremely difficult to break free from. Some might feel trapped financially or worry about their children’s well being. In abusive relationships, victims make an average of seven attempts to end the relationship before they do, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Here are reasons why people might find it difficult to get out of a toxic relationship:
Fear: In abusive relationships, one romantic partner is likely to be extremely manipulative towards the other. This frequently involves making physical, emotional, or financial threats if the other person talks about leaving. As a result, the victim might be afraid to leave their partner.
Children: For couples who have children together, it can be very challenging to leave because of the perceived negative impact on the children. There may also be concerns about custody battles.
Love: There may be lingering feelings of love keeping someone in a relationship, which can cloud judgment when it comes to safety.
Finances: If one partner is financially dependent on the other, that could complicate the logistics involved in leaving if there isn’t a financial safety net in place.
Shame: Many people hide the nature of their relationships from their friends, family, and acquaintances because they are embarrassed that they have allowed it to happen. As a result, they silently suffer because they are too ashamed to ask anyone for help. They might turn to drugs or alcohol for solace, worsening the toll that the relationship is taking.
Codependency: It can be hard to break free from an imbalanced relationship dynamic where one partner consistently gives and the other takes, as in codependent relationships.
If you've been in a toxic relationship for a long time, it can be hard to see a way out the door. You may even believe that you are really the cause of the problem. Feeling this way is a common phenomenon as the perpetrator in the relationship is often an expert at gaslighting, which leaves you questioning reality. Additionally, further complications may arise if your toxic partner has a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is a personality disorder characterized by having an overblown sense of self-importance and lack of empathy.6
A 2019 study from SAGE Open suggests that aggressive outbursts by narcissistic and toxic partners were due to fear of abandonment in the relationship.7 This could cause a narcissistic individual to lash out or try to prevent their partner from leaving—for example, through manipulation by playing the victim..
Ending a bad relationship can be really complicated. Here are some things you can do to make the process easier:
Create a safety net: If you're thinking of calling it quits, make a plan for how you are going to deal with the transition. Where will you stay? What possessions will you need to bring along? Don’t do this haphazardly. This process should be well thought out. If you do not have a career or a way to support yourself, it is time to begin carving this path. Make a plan to apply for school, get training, begin a job (even a low-level or part-time job). Your financial independence is one of the main roads to freedom.
Say something: No more secrets. Find a supportive friend, family member, or professional to help you through the healing process. But, if you are being physically, verbally, or sexually abused in a relationship, you need to exit it immediately and inform the local authorities that you are going to need help.
It is important to express your feelings to the person you are in a toxic relationship with, whether it's a friend, co-worker, family member, or significant other. This conversation often becomes heated and overtaken by emotion. If the other person has a short temper or is very emotional, it may be best to write out your feelings. If the person is emotionally mature, a proper in-person conversation may be best, but it always helps to have your feelings and thoughts written out beforehand.
Expressing what you have to say in a note, email, or even text message can give the other person time to think about what you're saying and respond. Remember that you cannot control how the other person responds, but you can control how you approach the expression of your feelings. Maybe the toxic partner will become defensive or angry and make the choice to leave the relationship, or maybe he or she will try to make amends. Regardless of their response, expressing your feelings is an important step to mending or leaving the relationship.
Seek professional help: Leaving and recovering from a toxic relationship will take effort and time. People in toxic relationships need help from friends, family, and professionals to commit to change. There is no AA or NA for this. Changing is a process and not simply a decision. People often return to a toxic relationship, sometimes because it is familiar and therefore comfortable. They know no other persona except their shattered self. Keep in mind that you may need to seek help multiple times or for an extensive period of time, and that is okay. People in toxic relationships need rehabilitation for all the types of trauma they have been through, a process that takes time.
Reach out to support groups or counselors who are experienced in relationship issues. There are many things to talk about in therapy. A therapist can be a great impartial resource to guide you and hold you accountable for creating and meeting your goals. Advekit online therapy is a great resource to quickly get matched with a therapist experienced in helping patients leave toxic relationships. An experienced family law attorney is also necessary if you're leaving a marriage.
Cut off communication: Toxic people are manipulative and can use emotional blackmail to lure you back in. When you make the decision to leave your abusive partner, stop any form of communication with them unless you have children and need to co-parent. In this case, only communicate about the children. If you need to file a restraining order, do so.
Heal with positivity: Being part of a toxic relationship is extremely detrimental to your self-esteem and mental health. It may take some time before you are ready to be part of another relationship. Don’t rush this. Take time for yourself. To help yourself recover, make time for hobbies. Start working on a pet project or your own business. Take that trip you've always wanted to go on.
If you have made a decision, whether to leave or to mend an unhealthy relationship, it is important to surround yourself with positivity and practice self-care. Spend time with people who make you feel good, treat yourself to your favorite meal, go to church, spend time outside, or do whatever brings you joy. Going through a tough time in an unhealthy relationship can cause incalculable stress: It's important to try to replace those negative emotions with positivity.
Stick with your decision: Often after leaving someone, you begin to miss the person. That is normal. It's easy for our brain to remember the good times and forget the bad parts of a relationship. It can be tempting to want the person to be back in your life, but remember that you came to this decision after a long, thoughtful process. Stick to your decision and remember that it was made to better you and your life.
It may be helpful to have your supportive friend, family member, or professional keep you accountable. When you feel the urge to allow the toxic person to come back into your life, reach out to your support system, or take out the list you wrote that describes why you felt harmed in the first place. Stay strong and stick to your decision.
Ending a toxic relationship can be difficult and time consuming. But it can also be invigorating and freeing. It can open up your life to you again. Be sure to take the time and energy to do it properly. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the relationship a long time. You always have a way out and a right to take that path. You deserve to be happy, however, and rid of the harm and negativity that it's causing you.
Leaving an unhealthy and toxic relationship is a tremendously difficult and brave step to take, but you can do it. If you want to find happiness and comfort in your life again, you have to make the leap. There are good people out there. Don't let this experience sabotage your pursuit of joy. If you're having trouble coping or need help creating boundaries, be sure to reach out to a mental health professional or seek online therapy with Advekit.