Toxic relationships might be entertaining to watch on reality TV — but on a personal level, they’re not something you want to be involved in.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a toxic relationship or watched one play out on TV, you know how exhausting, embarrassing, infuriating and abusive they can get. Unhealthy intimate relationships can do everything from ruin your day to ruin (or even take) your life.
While many of us have had a toxic friend or partner we’ve tried to help, the reality is toxic relationships are only ever helpful to someone’s growth once that relationship is over.
Until things end, a lack of trust or the presence of abusive behaviors will color this romantic relationship. So as much as it may pain you to admit it, your current relationship may have reached its expiration date.
It’s time to let someone else make that toxic person their problem. Sure, they might grow from the experience. And maybe you will too. But you can — and must — do that separately.
We’re going to walk you through how to end these dangerous and often overly dependent relationships safely, without doing any further harm to yourself or this person you care(d) about.
But before we walk you through the IRL unfollow process, here are some important reasons not to back out of the decision to part ways.
A toxic relationship is an unhealthy relationship characterized by bad behaviors and emotional abuse — it’s poison to your mental health.
Imagine for a moment a big Venn diagram on a whiteboard. One circle is labeled “healthy relationship,” and the other “toxic intimate relationship.” In between is, literally, no overlap.
A healthy relationship is a place where you can feel comfortable being yourself, give and receive honest criticism and advice, and generally feel more confident and motivated by the support you receive from your partner.
When you disagree, it’s done respectfully. And when tough love or honesty is necessarily painful, they’re not delivered with the intention of causing hurt — they’re there to help the other person grow.
If we were to fill in the healthy portion of the Venn diagram, we’d start by adding traits of a healthy relationship, including:
Comfortable with conflict
On the toxic circle side, however, we’d be listing opposite traits — and several more negative behavior patterns to boot. The central theme? An unhealthy relationship.
There are some obvious traits that mark a toxic relationship, and abuse is perhaps the most common sign of these abusive relationships.
But there are a number of more subtle traits of an abusive partner or a relationship that’s become (or has always been) toxic.
A toxic relationship is marked by:
In short, toxic relationships are characterized by emotionally unhealthy traits and feelings and sometimes verbal abuse.
Relationships and mental health are connected — we probably don’t need to tell you that. Unhealthy relationships are ultimately harmful relationships. Sometimes, the harm is “only” emotional, but as jealousy, blame and control become more intense, things can get physical too.
A person struggling with the effects of a toxic relationship or physical abuse from their partner may feel blamed or accusatory, isolated, jealous, controlled, fatigued or hopeless.
You’re probably wondering what the remedy is here — can you save the toxic relationship and reclaim it as a healthy one?
The hardest lesson to learn about relationship toxicity is that in order for a relationship to heal, the toxic person has to change — not the person feeling mistreated.
You have to fix yourself in relationships. You can’t fix another person — that’s their responsibility.
The only way a toxic relationship becomes a healthy one is if you’re willing to bring it to an end and tell them you’ll no longer stand for their toxic behavior. In turn, they’d need to respond by actively seeking to change — for real — in order to rebuild.
That’s it. And from what we can tell, it’s not often the case that the other person is willing or capable of change.
Either way, that’s on them. And more often than not, the relationship has to end.
Your feelings have to be treated with respect, and you’re the only person who deserves anything when a toxic relationship ends.
How you end a toxic relationship is ultimately up to you. You can decide whether this person deserves to know why you’re parting, or whether their manipulative or dangerous behavior means a confrontation might result in guilt or domestic violence.
But the parting ways component of ending the relationship is only the most intense. There are far more important parts of successfully ending a toxic relationship that take practice, self-reflection and introspection. While they won’t throttle up your adrenaline, they’ll help you greatly.
Past behaviors of toxic individuals and past feelings need to be acknowledged.
Perhaps your toxic partner made you feel exhausted, drained or constantly disappointed. Maybe they weren’t always like that. In any case, coming to terms with the past is key to accepting the reality that this relationship is no longer viable.
This also means acknowledging the good. We all get something from a relationship — even a toxic one. You may have felt validation, a comfort level you didn’t experience with previous partners or value in the world of this person — even if they didn’t respect your boundaries.
This might be a good time to consider things like grief therapy, which can help people work through ending a relationship.
We can all quickly fall into patterns of nostalgic reflection when confronted with loss, even when the loss is a toxic one. To move on from the relationship, you have to focus on the positives.
Maybe the free time will let you explore hobbies the other person looked down on or try new things they were judgemental toward.
This “exploration” response can also be extended to people. Toxic relationships can alienate you from others, so as you transition out of one, look to reconnect with those who were shut out before.
Just remember to be smart with this — leaving a toxic partner for another toxic partner isn’t growth so much as it’s a pattern.
Like an episode of South Park, you may need to wrap the chaos and terror up neatly with some reflection on what you learned from the experience before putting it behind you.
This can have many components, from looking for patterns in past relationships that led to this one (with an eye toward prevention in the future) to simply learning to sit with the emotions and let them go.
The truth is that a toxic relationship is often finished once it ends — and that’s a good thing. It means you can put your energy into personal growth or your next relationship to ensure it’s healthier.
But before you let something new in, you have to make sure you’ve said goodbye to those old toxic behaviors so the new ones can thrive.
Navigating these steps while ending a toxic relationship can be difficult. It can also come with anxieties over the choice you’re making.
This is a time when you might want to consider the benefits of therapy. After all, the end of a committed relationship is a big change, even if it’s a good one.
Relationships will often come and go throughout our lives. Sometimes, the partners we think we’ll live happily ever after with aren’t who we thought they were when the relationship started. People can change, sometimes for the worse.
Here’s the cold hard truth: your current or past toxic partner may be behaving exactly the way they intend to — and they may need help. None of that is in your control.
What is in your control is how you deal with the hurt, the boundary violations and the behaviors that are toxic. Ending a toxic relationship is only part of the process of dealing with those sources of pain.
The other part is getting support from a mental health professional. You deserve someone’s professional, empathetic ear to listen to, validate and help you work through your feelings about what’s transpired.
Talking to someone about a toxic relationship isn’t just how you heal from the experience — it’s how you prevent yourself from toxicity in the future. That’s where our mental health resources come in. They can give you the tools and knowledge to begin healing.
If you’re ready to talk to someone, consider starting with our mental health providers. The Hers online therapy platform is a great place to connect quickly and conveniently from your own home and get the conversation started.
End your toxic relationship today, but don’t wait until tomorrow to start healing.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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