We hear a lot of talk of “toxic relationships.” But what is a toxic relationship and how do you get out of one? A toxic relationship is ultimately one that leaves you feeling unsupported, demeaned, or attacked. It threatens your emotional, psychological or even physical well-being. Toxic relationships can exist in any context from friendships to lovers.
A toxic relationship can include verbal abuse, inconsistent behavior and/or an emotional roller coaster that eventually becomes an emotional and neurological addiction. These emotional highs and lows release neuropeptides in the brain, causing your body to create a physiological addiction to the passions and anxieties that come from the toxic relationship.
So even when intellectually you know you’re done with the relationship, it’s like a chemical addiction — you have to literally go through withdrawal from the person. During these withdrawals, your body and your brain start telling you to be in touch with that person. You start wanting to call that person or wondering about that person, and you have to really push against it.
Here are some ways to keep yourself on track with letting go of a bad relationship and moving forward:
Ask yourself hard questions. If you keep going back to a toxic relationship, you need to look at the ‘why’ behind why you were attracted to the relationship in the first place. What is the wound behind your connection? Is it that you don’t feel worthy of good love? Is it that it’s been so toxic for so long that you’ve almost started believing that you can’t do any better? Maybe you’d rather be with the devil you know than the devil you don’t? Whatever the reason, identify it so you can begin to do the work on healing it because these things start to do a number on your self-esteem.
Learn to love yourself. After a toxic relationship (and certainly while you are in one), it is hard to hold onto your own worth and value. You begin to “drink the Kool Aid” the toxic partner is feeding you leaving you feeling worthless and a little paralyzed. Your first order of business is to start to fall in love with yourself again, or maybe for the first time. Get blissfully single. Stay single for at least a year, and spend that time learning to reconnect to your worth. It’s only then that you are going to attract someone into your life that is at the level of love and acceptance and open to learning as you are.
Get help from your friends. It takes tremendous effort to let go of a toxic relationship and it can feel like you are going cold turkey off a drug. This is what’s required when you’re trying to break an emotionally addictive, toxic cycle. At first, it feels like an emotional withdrawal, and a lot of loneliness and sadness will go with that. So surround yourself with a really good support system: friends, fun activities, maybe a little chocolate, and prepare yourself for some feelings of withdrawal.
Hold on to what you really want in love. Yes, we definitely need chemistry. And chances are that’s what landed you in the toxic relationship in the first place. But you need and deserve so much more in love. Use this painful experience to get clear on what you really want; someone who is honest, authentic, emotionally intelligent, loyal, open minded (and open to feedback). That’s just my starting list but you fill in the rest. It’s only when you get clear on what you want and deserve in love that you can begin to let go of the past and manifest a different future.
Every loss has a lesson. Every relationship, even the toxic ones, are here to teach you something. It may take some time and distance to see the lessons clearly (thus why it’s so important to stay single for a while after any break up, much less a toxic relationship break up). The goal is to think about what you’ve learned from this relationship; about your own wounds that led you to settle for so little; the boundaries you need to learn to set and hold more effectively for yourself; the ways you gave your power away or made yourself small. Awareness like this will lead the way for healing the parts of yourself that led you into (and kept you in) the toxic relationship and will keep you from entering another. This kind of self awareness work also helps you get very clear on what you really want, and even require, in a relationship moving forward.
Over time, as you continue to work on your own healing, you’ll also notice the chemical addiction to this relationship lessens. As this happens, you will feel lighter and think less about the pain and more about what makes you happy and fulfilled. To begin learning more about how to do that, you can read my book Quantum Love, and read my blog about releasing blame and discovering self-love, and my blog about how leaning into pain can help us feel it and release it.
Most importantly: Listen to my latest podcast “The Language of Love,” during which I interview The Bachelor’s Nick Viall, where he shares how he learned how to let go of his own toxic relationships.