We’ve read about them, we’ve watched them on TV and some of us have been in them: toxic relationships are addictive, destructive and incredibly painful. What’s worse is that, once we’re in them, it can seem impossible to break away.
Whether it’s because we’re reliant on our partner emotionally, we’re too scared to leave or our self-esteem has been chipped away at over years, it can often seem easier to stay in an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship for the rest of our lives than to end it and make a clean break.
But how do we even contemplate leaving a dysfunctional relationship – and how do we heal ourselves if we finally find the strength to leave?
Stylist consulted psychologists, relationship counsellors and psychotherapists to find out the eight key steps needed to move on, once and for all.
1. Realise that you deserve healthy love
Part of the problem with leaving toxic relationships is believing that we can change the impossible and turn the dysfunctional “love” into a healthy relationship.
If we don’t believe we are deserving of a caring, thoughtful, attentive partner, we often attract partners who don’t believe it either.
“Do you think you don’t deserve healthy love because of your weight, your age, your career or any other perceived inadequacies you have manifested?” asks psychologist, relationships expert and author Marianne Vicelich. “Start loving yourself – flaws and all. A partner should be so lucky to be with you. The more you believe you deserve healthy love the more you will identify with the “red flags” or “warning bells” and attract a functional relationship.”
“Surround yourself with friends and family that are in healthy and loving relationships. This will remind you that ‘good love’ is out there so you can raise the bar of what you accept in a relationship.
“A relationship should not be a source of drama and excitement: seek your thrills elsewhere. Drama leads to conflict, instability and erratic behaviour which does not lead to happiness or contentment in any relationship.
“If you are afraid of being alone, you could put up with behaviour by your partner that would never be deemed acceptable by a friend or colleague,” Vicelich adds. “Being alone is far better than having your dignity and self-respect compromised. Solitude is a great time for self-refection, career advancement or spending time with people that value you.”
Often, the hardest aspect of a toxic relationship is breaking out of it in the first place – and so much of this can be embedded in our family history, with our decision to stay influenced by our past.
“Sometimes it’s better to end something and try to start something new than imprison yourself in hoping for the impossible,” says Vicelich. “Did you grow up in a family where aggression and erratic, dysfunctional behaviour was the norm? If so, you are experiencing what Freud called Repetition Compulsion. Your past is sneaking into your present.
“You accept bad behaviour as the norm because you identify with the familiarity of this unacceptable behaviour. It is important to understand that you are not your past history, you are not how others have at one time treated you. It is time to set clear healthy boundaries on the level of respect, compassion and kindness you deserve.
“Don’t be afraid to walk away from a relationship that is destructive to your self-esteem and that is no longer serving you. Remind yourself that you are moving forward, away from this self-hurting tendency and towards a better, brighter future.”
2. Accept that the relationship was toxic
It’s tempting to look back on past relationships, toxic or not, with rose-tinted glasses, overlooking the complex reasons the relationship had to end. But according to Dr Bijal Chheda-Varma, a psychologist at London’s Nightingale Hospital, we can only truly cope with the loss of the relationship by fully accepting and understanding all that was wrong with it.
“Leaving any relationship, toxic or not, creates a grief response similar to a bereavement,” she says. “The individual has to go through the stages of accepting that the relationship was toxic and that leaving was the best option. Once that happens, the individual has to go through emotions such as hurt, anger, loss and sadness.
“Coping in a healthy way also requires making re-adjustments to his or her life at all levels: psychological adjustments, physical adjustments and environmental adjustments. A toxic relationship leaves people with debris, but once these adjustments happen, the coping becomes easier.”
3. Remember who you are
You were a person before you were in a toxic relationship, but it can often be hard to remember who you were before the toxicity began to chip away at your sense of self-esteem. According to therapist Samantha Carbon, healing is all about remembering your values and realising that you do deserve a healthy relationship.
"Often, people in dysfunctional relationships start to lose themselves, forget themselves and their happiness is often no longer a priority," she says. "This can be hard to recognise when one has invested so much time and effort in a relationship. A level of honesty is needed to realise and admit when a relationship has run its course as it's often difficult to conceptualise life without your partner.
"You almost have to detox yourself from the beliefs and values that you created together and remind yourself of the importance of the self," she adds. "Self-compassion is key to ensuring you can survive the backlash of leaving this type of relationship. This process is about individuals getting to know themselves and their worth and recognising that what they had was not healthy for their wellbeing."
4. Take practical steps to help you cope
When strong emotions are involved, what you decide one day can take a back seat the next day. You can leave your partner and then find yourself giving him/her a second chance hours later. That’s why therapist Ivana Franekova recommends taking practical steps to stop your emotions getting the better of you.
“Log your feelings on daily basis so that you have a solid evidence of how your partner makes you feel,” she says. “We often confuse feelings with facts; we tend to make excuses for our loved ones (‘but he was so tired that day, perhaps that’s why he drank too much and lashed out’).”
“Having it written down provides undisputed evidence of how you felt, what was said, what your partner did to hurt you and so on. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Keep it going for a week or two; at the end of that time, take an honest look at your thoughts, actions and feelings.
“Does this person appreciate you? Does he or she deserve you? Does he or she treat you the way you deserve to be treated? Making that final decision to leave is tough, but you must put yourself first and be honest with yourself.
“Once you have decided to end it, choose a safe place to break up with your partner. Toxic relationships often involve intensity, both emotional and physical, so choose a place where your partner would be embarrassed to get out of control.”
5. Don’t wait for an apology or closure
One of the most painful things that come with ending a toxic relationship is the lack of closure - but is the person who caused you so much pain really going to apologise and admit their wrongdoings? Vicelich doesn’t think so.
“When ending a toxic relationship, many people are looking for closure or an apology for the pain or heartache,” she says.
“That apology almost never comes, and people end up feeling worse about things than they did when the conversation started. We cannot control anyone but ourselves, not matter how much we may want to.
“We only have control of ourselves, and our own desire for growth and change. No matter how much we want someone to change, know that they need to adjust their behaviour, and only they can make the decision to make any alterations in their lives.
“It hurts us to see people be self-destructive, but they must see that what they are doing is not working, and that they need to look for alternatives. We could wait around, but that time may never come. This is where the concept that we need to find the closure in ourselves comes in.
“We need to know that we did not deserve the poor treatment, and that the best thing we can do for ourselves is to move on and genuinely know in our hearts that we deserve better.”
6. Embrace forgiveness
If we’ve spent months or even years with someone who chips away at our sense of self-esteem, and we’ve finally taken the bold step of ending the relationship, forgiveness can seem an impossible task. But Vicelich says the act of forgiveness is a powerful one that can give us strength at difficult times.
“A lot of us think that we have to wait until feelings of hurt and anger are resolved before we can forgive someone,” she says. “However, this is not always so. Forgiveness is actually a deliberate and intentional act. It is a decision that restores vitality, possibility, and integrity to your life.
“Realise that you are only resentful to the extent that you have given away your personal power. Ultimately, to forgive someone means to cancel the debt you feel they owe you. It is a surrender and release of the hurt that has passed between you.
“The antidote to resentment is acceptance,” she adds. “When it comes to creating more love in our lives, we stand ready, like samurai warriors, to release all that is not love from our hearts.”
Worse, if we don’t manage to find the strength to forgive those who have hurt us, the past pain can end up affecting our present and future relationships.
“What you do not heal in your past will show up in your present relationships and in the life you live now,” Vicelich says. “It doesn’t matter how often you change your cast or your location, the story will be the same until you forgive.
“Without forgiveness, the past can turn up at any moment, and you will repeat the history. However, forgiveness can change your past and the present by helping you give it a different purpose. The purpose of your life is not to carry a grievance.”
7. Fill the void and surround yourself with positivity
It sounds like a cliche, but surrounding yourself with positivity can have an all-encompassing effect on your outlook.
“It’s important when moving forward to fill your life with soul enriching activities and alternative sources of happiness,” says Vicelich. “Complete your life by focusing on the things that make you happy – family, friends, work and hobbies.
“This is a time to focus on your strengths and embrace the new life you are about to embark on. Self-love and self-care is a priority during this healing time. Surround yourself with people who will have a bright, positive presence in your life. People that support, care and encourage what is best for you.
“Stay busy with those that you can trust and confide in. If you are experiencing a lot of frustration, sadness, confusion and anger, then this is a safe outlet for you.”
8. Remember it won't always be easy
Just as breaking out of a toxic relationship is difficult, surviving once you’re in a new, single world is hard too – and you should prepare for the challenges leaving will bring.
“You will have to learn how to be happy again, just as you learnt how to cope in the toxic relationship,” says psychologist Salma Shah. “Look for joy and happiness in the small things. Before you go to sleep each night ask yourself what three things made you happy today, even if it’s a walk in the park or a coffee with a friend. Do more of these things.
“In toxic relationships, your personality can get squashed to the point that you may have not been allowed to speak your mind, or grow, or develop. Stepping out again into the big wide world can feel overwhelming to the point that you don’t even know who you are anymore. You may have started to wear a mask just to survive – and you may not even be aware of the mask you have been wearing.”
“Don’t feel pressure to rush into anything – go at your own pace,” she adds. “Be kind to yourself but don’t become a victim of what happened to you. Instead, look for what you learnt about yourself, but try to do this from a neutral place where you can take the emotion out of it. Ask yourself ‘What good will come out of this?’ Maybe it has made you a kinder, more empathetic person or a tougher cookie who is now a lot surer of herself.
“Your self-esteem has probably taken a battering and you will be vulnerable before becoming strong again, so surround yourself with people you trust. There will be lots of good days and some bad days – but that’s OK.”
If you, or a friend, would like some advice about toxic relationship, please contact Women’s Aid. Women’s Aid works hard to raise awareness of all forms of abuse and offer expert support to those who are experiencing it and their friends and family. If you are worried that your relationship, or that of a friend or family member, is controlling or unsafe, visit womensaid.org.uk or call the Freephone 24/7 National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247. In the U.S., call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.