Weaponizing guilt. Invalidating feelings. Denying truths so obvious that you feel crazy. These are just a few signs that your partner isn’t the hero you once thought they were, and if you recognize them, it’s time to escape. But how to end a toxic relationship? For some, finding a way out can be an emotional minefield or even downright dangerous.
What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship is characterized by dysfunctional behaviors that meddle with your health and well-being. According to licensed therapist Stephanie Wijkstrom, characteristics of toxic relationships include invalidation, guilt, gaslighting, name calling and using anger and forgiveness to control outcomes or a partner’s behavior.
Though those tactics may seem easy to recognize, it isn’t always obvious when you’re in a toxic relationship.
“For the past three and a half years, I was the caretaker for my disabled stepmom. She is a highly toxic person and was an emotional bully to me when I was growing up,” said trauma recovery coach Tracey Osbourne.
“It is very common for [a victim to be unaware of] the total impact of the degree of their suffering and the inappropriateness of the behavior until they are far away from the toxic love and even in a new relationship that is not dysfunctional,” Wijkstrom said.
Why is leaving a toxic relationship so hard?
In Osbourne’s case, loyalty to family made severing the relationship with her stepmother impossible. And she was hopeful that the bad experiences she suffered as a child could be kept in the past.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. And this led to a downward spiral that resulted in ongoing verbal abuse toward Osbourne’s daughter and other forms of manipulation.
“I should have removed her from my home years ago, but I felt I owed it to my deceased father to look after her,” Osbourne said.
Feeling guilt or obligation is the most dangerous attribute of toxic relationships.
“The most toxic aspect is you allowing this to be happening to you,” said relationship expert Katherine Bihlmeier. “Realizing this can also be very empowering. If the person changes their emotional patterns, the relationship can change, too—either by the partner changing their behavior or by the person leaving the toxic relationship.”
How to try and leave a toxic relationship safely
The good news, according to Wijkstrom, is that “each relationship is a wonderful teacher for what patterns and behaviors to avoid in the future.”
Leaving when the abusive partner is not at home is a wise course of action if you are afraid an in-person confrontation could lead to physical violence.
In that case, you may want to enlist the help of a trusted friend or family member, and it’s a good idea to discreetly consult domestic violence assistance resources for more advice and guidance. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is one resource, and your city or county may have local programs in place as well.
However, not all toxic partners will escalate to that level. If you don’t fear for your physical safety, consider the following when you’re ready to leave your relationship:
Confronting them in person. “Use very clear communication explaining your decision,” Wijkstrom said.
Avoiding future contact. Avoid on-again, off-again contact for as long as it takes for your “new reality to settle in,” Wijkstrom said.“People who lack boundaries are unlikely to change behavior because the relationship is over.”
Spending time with positive influencers. People who “validate your concerns” are likely to be supportive, Wijkstrom said.
Avoiding places and people you used to see together. “You have to retrain your brain to focus on yourself—self-improvement, facing fears of being alone, regaining self-worth,” said Catharine Blake, a certified relationship coach and child and family psychotherapist in Boston.
What to do after getting out of a toxic relationship
Taking time to reflect on the toxic relationship while avoiding triggers is essential to developing a healthy perspective and identifying what you really want in a partner and relationship.
“In order to break free, you literally have to detox off of this emotional rollercoaster,” Blake said. “Do not frequent restaurants that you went to, songs you listened to, and please avoid all social media until you are clean.”
Ending a toxic relationship is difficult but well worth it. As for Osbourne, she finally found peace after three-and-a-half-years of struggle.
“The day she left, the tension in my home was gone,” she said. “My kids are happier. I am happier. I feel free again.”