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Three Steps for Getting Out of a Toxic Relationship

Stopping the madness and breaking free from toxic love.

Are you in a toxic relationship? My last post describes what a toxic relationship looks like. Briefly, I wrote about criticism and contempt, avoidance, and negative energy as the key signs of toxic relationships.

You did not get into your relationship to be treated poorly, ignored, or abandoned. Being abused or denigrated, subjected to reckless spending, deprived of a sex life, or forced to put up with problematic, immature behavior is not healthy. If this is occurring in your relationship, your partner needs to make changes. Individual and couple's counseling may be needed. And if your partner will not cooperate with counseling, you need to face the fact that he or she will probably never change, and then decide either to try living with him or her the best you can, or to move on to a new, hopefully more satisfying relationship. I am all for trying to save relationships, but in the face of repeated hurts and insensitivity, it may be best to move on.

If you want out of a toxic relationship, follow these three steps:

1. Have a mantra. Jean, a 40-year-old client of mine, tried to leave a relationship with a man who was highly manipulative and emotionally abusive. Each time she attempted to leave, he showed remorse and lured her back with charming and seductive displays. This was maddening for Jean, who felt demoralized after each time she was not able to extricate herself from this coercive, destructive cycle.

To help Jean begin to break free, we came up with a phrase, a mantra of sorts that she repeatedly told herself: "He may be good for someone else, but he is a wrecking ball for me." Jean paired this mantra with a visualization of a big crane swinging a wrecking ball every time she thought of him or saw him.

2. Stop all possible contact. If you really want out, then contact with your about-to-be ex needs to be very tightly managed. Strive for no contact. Most highly toxic partners have softer sides and this can hold strong allure. If you are feeling vulnerable, you will likely be at risk to go back to your toxic ex if you reengage contact with him or her. In Jean's situation, we discussed how she could minimize contact with her ex given her difficult added challenge of him being a work colleague. This involved having her be courteous and say nothing more at business meetings. We also came up with the "not breaking stride rule" when she was saying "hi" to him in the hallways.

3. Keep knowing your value. Feel good about who you are, how you have grown, and what you offer in your personal and professional relationships. Jean realized that knowing her value meant putting her emotional health first. Have compassion for yourself if you want to go back into your toxic relationship. It's normal to miss your ex. Stay mindful, however, that missing times that felt good does not mean that he or she was, or is, good for you. If you have trouble remembering your own value, then think about what you would say to a family member or close friend who wanted to return to a toxic relationship. Thinking about how you may value or advise someone else can help you treasure yourself and to move on.

More from Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D.
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