A toxic relationship isn’t always evident when you’re in the middle of it. But if you feel like your relationship is taking more from you than it’s giving to you, if you feel like it is emotionally draining or damaging rather than emotionally supportive and nurturing, or if you suffer from emotional or physical mistreatment, it’s time to think about getting out safely.
The problem many people have with toxic relationships is they sometimes feel like they’re in one, but other times they don’t. And this makes them hesitate and stick around longer than they should. If you think it might be time to end a relationship, then do yourself a favour and get some clarity around what you want. If you aren’t clear about what you want, it will be difficult for you to act the way you need to.
Writing is probably the best way to be clear and honest with yourself. Get your feelings and your reasons down in black and white. Take a few minutes every day and write down your feelings about your relationship, both positive and negative. Be honest – no one’s ever going to see what you write except you. Make lists of the positive and negative aspects of your relationship. Destroy the lists after you’re done, particularly if you feel your partner might see them and get angry. Don’t just tear a list into bits and put them in the bin, either. Shred the paper and soak it in water, or burn it if you want to be sure. This list is really just for you.
After a week or so of doing this every day, you’ll notice that certain patterns appear. Some particular feelings of yours, both negative and positive, will become clearer. You’ll be better able to express how you feel, both positively and negatively about your relationship. Think of these lists a bit like a business ledger, with plus and minus columns. If the minus column is much longer than the plus, it might be a good idea to think about leaving.
Once you’ve decided to get out, then get out. Act with decision. Don’t get bogged down in the details, or in trivia. Don’t try to figure out your future right then on the fly, because it will overwhelm you. Stick to the immediate future – you’re breaking up with this toxic person. You’ll figure the future out later.
There’s an old martial arts story about a student and a master who are together in the dojo. A mosquito lands on the student and he slaps it. The mosquito drops to the ground. “No!” says the master, bending down to gently pick the crumpled creature off the mat. Holding it carefully on his open palm, the master strokes the mosquito’s wings and blows on it until, amazingly, it returns to life. Just as the student is feeling really guilty for injuring a tiny living creature, the master crushes the mosquito completely between his hands, leaving just a dark stain on his palm. “If you do something, do it completely,” he tells the startled student.
This is how you need to act when getting out of your toxic relationship. Don’t do it halfway. Once you’ve decided to go, let nothing stand in your way. Leaving may be frightening, infuriating, frustrating, deeply sad or all of the above, but commit to doing it and follow through on your decision.
If you live together and you need to stay somewhere else, arrange that in advance. Ask a friend or family member you trust to let you stay with them for a little while, and keep where you are going a secret. If you feel you’re in actual physical danger, then get out right away and go to a safe, secret place.
Make your break up and your departure quick and clean. Have everything you need packed and ready to go. Don’t get bogged down in endless conversation. Don’t try to explain to the other person why you are breaking up with them or leaving the relationship. A long, emotionally intense dialogue will keep you entangled in this toxic relationship even longer. Minimize your talking and maximize your action.
Be firm and clear about what you want, but don’t be mean or nasty. You need to be like a politician on the campaign trail – stay on message. “I’m leaving our relationship” is clear and straightforward. “I feel like maybe we should break up” is muddled and invites further entanglement. What do you mean by maybe? Avoid that. No matter how hard it hurts, be clear and direct about what you want and what you’re doing.
Make it a clean break, too, by blocking your ex’s calls and text messages. Do not contact them at all for a long period of time – at least a month and probably more. You need to give both of you time to calm down and step back from the emotional brink. During this month (or more) of silence, you will be able to focus on building yourself up again after the toxic damage of your relationship. This will be a good time to take a class, join a club, go on holiday, or do other things to remind yourself that you’re a good person and can be happy again, whether you’re single or in a relationship.
Start rebuilding your life and your friendships right away. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll “never find anybody” or that you should “settle” for someone who doesn’t bring out the best in you.
First be clear and honest with yourself – are you in a toxic relationship? Then, if you are, be clear and honest with your partner – I’m leaving.
It won’t be painless, and it won’t be easy, but it will be as clean and quick as you can make it.
If you’re having serious trouble with either sort of honesty – with yourself or with your partner – don’t be afraid to get professional help. A few sessions with a trained, impartial therapist will help you get clear with yourself about how you really feel about your relationship. And a therapist or other professional counselor can help you write down what you need to say when it is time to break up. Sometimes that is the only way to stay on message, as politicians well know, which is why they sometimes read from a prepared statement. If that’s what you have to do, too, then do it.
Above all, do what’s best for you. Don’t ever tell yourself you need to settle for someone who is toxic. You deserve a loving partner who lifts you up and brings out your best. And you can’t ever meet that person if you stay in a toxic relationship.