Online, our relationship was great. We had a lot in common. We couldn’t get enough of each other’s “texting company.” It may seem crazy to you, but it seemed like a good idea at the time: I invited a person I’d never met to fly halfway across the world — not only to meet me in person, but also to stay in my apartment for the two weeks she was visiting. I hoped the relationship would turn into something rich and real, distance be damned. Bad decision.
Just two days into her stay, the red flags started going up. She manipulated me, created a hostile atmosphere in my home, initiated never-ending drama, made ridiculous demands of me, criticized me often, talked poorly about me behind my back, forbade me from talking to friends about our relationship. Can you say toxic? I can, and thankfully, I got this person out of my life. But it wasn’t easy.
How To Tell If You’re In A Toxic Relationship
While there are plenty of signs you may be in a toxic relationship, it’s not always clear when you’re deep in the dynamic itself. Often times, a toxic partnership starts out well enough, but then slowly (and subtly) starts to erode your sense of self. One of the first warning signs of a potential toxic relationship is that the other person is consistently violating your boundaries.
“When someone has their boundaries continually challenged and crossed, especially when they have made it very clear that’s not comfortable for them…that would be a huge red flag because to me that indicates the other partner doesn’t have a regard for that person’s boundaries,” indicates Texas-based therapist Margery Boucher.
From there, the list of symptoms of a toxic relationship can range from stonewalling (“where someone just makes themselves completely emotionally unavailable,” in Boucher’s words) to emotional manipulation to physical abuse.
In fact, one of the most prominent warning signs of a toxic relationship is feeling manipulated. Be on the lookout for phrases that disavow the validity of your feelings such as, “You’re being overly emotional.” Other times, the person may deny that they ever said or did something (“I didn’t say that”) or tell you that you’ve done something you didn’t. All of these statements and behaviors are often referred to as “gaslighting,” and aim to bring control to a toxic partner and diminish your sense of self within the relationship.
How To Get Out of a Toxic Relationship
If you find yourself in a toxic relationship and have made the courageous decision that you need to get out of it, the first step is to find healthy support. Remember: you don’t have to do this alone.
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“Reaching out for support is huge,” says Boucher. Family and friends are great resources, in addition to 12-step groups such as Co-Dependents Anonymous or Al-Anon.
In addition to finding positive friends and family or groups who can support you, consider reaching out for professional help. A therapist not only can help you identify a toxic relationship in the first place, but can also help guide you safely out of the relationship. In the process, you can work to build up your self-esteem, identify and establish the personal boundaries you want to set going forward, and cultivate healthier patterns for intimacy in the future. Best of all, a therapist is always on your side.
Once you have support in place, then it’s time to talk to your partner and let them know the relationship is over. Express your feelings to your partner in a non-judgmental way, using “I” statements (“I feel this way when…”), rather than declarations of blame (“You always do this…”). Be strong in your conviction, while also be prepared that you may feel pulled back into the relationship by the way your partner responds.
“Often after leaving someone, you begin to miss the person. That is normal,” writes physician Kristen Fuller for Psychology Today. “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.”
Needless to say, reach out immediately to get help and protection if your partner remains abusive. Your safety is the number one priority.
What To Expect When You Leave the Relationship
While from the outside, the decision to let go of a toxic relationship may seem obviously positive, in reality, the feelings will be much more complicated and conflicted. Know that’s OK and normal, just like the tendency to gravitate back toward the relationship.
“It’s going to be a very complex mix of emotion because there is going to be relief that they are out of it, but there’s also going to be a great deal of sadness,” Boucher explains.
Continue to reach out to your support network so they can build you up and help you hold fast to the decision to leave the toxic relationship. Our support network can remind us that bigger and better things are on the horizon.
“It might be horribly painful in the moment and very, very difficult to go through, but ultimately, most people, if they’re able to, they can get out on the other side and be much happier,” encourages Boucher. “It’s very scary going through it, but it is possible to find help and find freedom from a negative relationship.”
What To Do After You Leave the Relationship
Once we’re in one toxic relationship, they can become a pattern for future partnerships. In working with your support team, including friends, family, professional support groups, or psychologists, it’s time to break that pattern.
“People are drawn to the same types of people, and so they’ll just continue to repeat that pattern until they start really working on and helping themselves,” says Boucher. “If they do get help for themselves, then the benefit would be that they could go on and have healthy relationships that are going to be fulfilling and happy.”
Take the time you need for yourself and engage in lots of self-care, whether that’s taking a long-awaited vacation, a bubble bath every weekend, or simply getting back into some of your favorite hobbies.
Finally, know that letting go of a toxic relationship is not only a courageous step to take, it’s one that benefits your own well-being so you can find something healthier and more fulfilling in the future.
If you’re worried that your relationship may have turned toxic, consider online couple’s counseling with a licensed therapist — a convenient, inexpensive way to get back on track and move forward.
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