Bad relationships can take a huge toll on our self-esteem. They can leave us feeling lost or make us feel that we are not worthy of love. Wondering how to move on from a bad relationship is something a lot of people do, but many never figure it out.
Jess, 29, is no stranger to the concept. Her last relationship lasted two years before she accepted the fact that it was bad—and not getting any better.
“My relationship with Paul was a whirlwind at first. We met on Tinder, of course, and hit it off right away. We had so much in common and got along so well at first… but looking back, our relationship turned from good to bad in the first few months,” she said.
“He started lying about where he was going for no reason. He would hang out with other girls and post photos on Instagram rather than telling me where he was. He would disrespect my friends and my parents, but I honestly thought being in any relationship was better than not being in one at all.”
Why are bad relationships so hard to leave in the first place?
One of the reasons it can be daunting to leave a bad relationship is because people think there’s nowhere else to go—they might as well stick it out rather than be alone, said Jacob Kountz, associate marriage and family therapist.
Furthermore, it’s often hard to envision anything better than what’s right in front of our faces. It can be difficult to picture an ideal relationship when you’ve been buried beneath the malevolence of a bad one.
It almost seems easier to cross your fingers and hope things will get better by giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, which can keep anyone locked in a bad relationship.
“People get stagnant and are afraid of change,” added Courtney Quinlan, founder and CEO of Midwest Matchmaking. “There are also people who are scared they won’t do any better if they end this relationship and are scared they will end up alone.”
Finally, some people are too nice and don’t want to hurt the other person. Rather than looking out for what is best for themselves, they put the other person’s needs first.
How bad relationships affect us, even when they’re over
“Think of bad relationships as a wound that healed incorrectly,” suggested Kountz. “As soon as you’ve moved on to a better doctor, he or she may notice that your hidden wound is pretty infected. Even though you might be miles away from the person who gave you ongoing atrocities, the memories live on.”
Depending on your level of resilience, coping strategies and support circle, this could determine how intensely you’ll be affected moving forward.
Lingering effects may look like ongoing nightmares of experiences such as red flags you see in other people that remind you of the bad relationship—even though you’re not necessarily in danger anymore.
“The mind and its functions are powerful tools that attempt to overcorrect and protect us in moments where it is not warranted, but we feel it is still,” said Kountz. “This overcorrection can push people away from us, keeping us isolated and lonely, and at the same time we think it’s healthy for our mentality.”
Intimate time with ourselves is a good thing, but once you find yourself doing this isolated self-care for months, and even years, then your level of trust with the general public seems to dissolve. It’s not so obvious to some people at what point this process begins, but the longer it’s practiced, the harder it can be to move on.
How to get over a bad relationship
While no two relationships are the same, there are best practices that experts suggest may help you recover.
Remember why you left
“It takes an awful lot of layers for someone to call it quits,” said Kountz. “Don’t be too vague with the details on the reasons why things didn’t work out the way they did. Really take a good look at what pieces didn’t necessarily add up because if you look hard enough, you’re bound to find plenty that was against you.”
This is good to know so you can identify what it is you no longer will tolerate in future relationships.
Figure out what was missing
There are plenty of reasons why people separate, but take a moment and look back to see what you think could have kept you together.
“These are things that you want that go past the bare minimum of your average courtship,” explained Kountz. “Perhaps, you wanted someone who attempts to go above and beyond in the communication department. Or someone who exhibited true chivalry with many of their actions.”
It’s helpful to identify what was missing that perhaps you’ve never experienced in the first place and really focus on how it could better your relationship down the line.
Maybe you’ve repeatedly been duped into bad relationships. If this is the case, one of the hardest but sovereign moments people can take advantage of is self-reflectance.
Kountz suggests taking a pause on figuring out what’s wrong with others and taking a good look at yourself. This does sound harsh, but much could be unveiled during this process.
“Was there something you wish you could improve on? Is there an area where you can admit fault and grow from it?” said Kountz. “Maybe this doesn’t need to be the case anymore and you can actively do something about it. Who knows; maybe this could change your luck with bad relationships.”
Be open, but cautious
“A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is when someone is ready to date again, focus on keeping your eyes wide open,” said Kountz. “In other words, people are capable of both good and bad deeds, and you’ve unfortunately been the butt of many of those bad ones. It’s helpful to be cautious of the next person you attempt to align yourself up with.”
There is such a thing as rational optimism. Be open, but be smart.
When will you know you’ve moved on?
“Memories tend to stick around for the long haul, but there is a silver lining,” said Kountz. “More often than not, one will know they’re ready to move on when the negatively charged emotional memories aren’t significantly impacting your present anymore.”
You’ll notice that these memories aren’t impacting your relationships with other people anymore. You find yourself isolating less and taking on more calculated risk by developing friendships—probably with your eyes more wide open—but you’re still open to the process. You’ve gotten past the past, so to speak, and have judiciously decided that living in the present is more important for the sake of your mental health and livelihood.
“I think the easiest way to move on is to meet someone else,” added Quinlan. “This is why I don’t recommend taking a substantial amount of time healing. Once you allow yourself to get back out there and see there are so many other fish in the sea, you will move on.”
Moving on from a bad relationship is always worth it
The best way to move on from a bad relationship is to take some time to heal and work on finding happiness within yourself.
“Once you have learned to love yourself, get back out there and start dating,” said Quinlan.
“Don’t dwell and heal for too long—because if you don’t use it, you will lose it. I have seen people get so comfortable being alone that they end up alone for years. When they finally decide to put themselves back out there, they are significantly out of practice, and dating becomes much scarier and more difficult.”
As for Jess, she took time to be alone before finally finding a healthy, happy relationship with someone new.
“After breaking up with Paul, I was devastated and isolated myself for weeks. But that gave me time to reflect and realize that I wasn’t happy with myself. Once I became comfortable with my own company, I was able to open up and start dating without feeling like I needed to jump into just any relationship.”