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3 Empowering Words to Break Free From a Toxic Relationship

Moving from desperation and self-preservation to an emotionally healthier life.

Key points

  • Being in a toxic relationship conditions someone to the negativity that comes with it.
  • Toxic partners may be rigid, manipulative, controlling, and avoidant of meaningful, positive connection.
  • Knowing one's value can help one feel empowered to move on.

If you are one of the "walking wounded" out there suffering in a toxic relationship, you may feel it is emotionally empty and non-fulfilling. If you're not sure, these signs may help you clarify your thoughts on whether you're in such a relationship and how you can make the changes you need to find a more satisfying day-to-day existence.

3 Signs You Are in a Toxic Relationship

1. Rigid Resentments. In healthy relationships, we experience occasional misunderstandings and hurts and we work through them. If you can’t communicate about resentments and manage them, then this is often a sign of a toxic relationship.

One behavior pattern typical in toxic relationships is a partner bringing up old resentments, holding on to grudges, and this leading (them and you) to distractions, distance, and disconnection. These 3 "Ds" (getting Distracted, feeling Distance, and becoming emotionally Disconnected) are what I describe in my book, Why Can't You Read My Mind?, as the "Three D Effect." Rigid resentments become racing negative emotions that keep accelerating as partners speed down the toxic thoughts expressway. Sadly, this leads to relationships frequently crashing and burning.

2. Criticism and Contempt. According to psychologist and author John Gottman, criticism and contempt are highly destructive in loving relationships. Signs of criticism and contempt may appear as your partner distastefully making fun of you. One female client of mine would tell her husband he was sexually inadequate in response to him criticizing her excessive spending habits. Quite a toxic mess, for sure. Contempt can also appear as one partner criticizing another in public. To experience the one you love, or once loved, ripping you with incessant fault-finding barrages is highly demoralizing and emotionally unhealthy.

3. Hopeless and Hurtful Avoidance. Does your partner string you along with hot and cold messages and behaviors, leading you to feel confused about where you really stand in their life? Do silent treatment-fueled arctic winds whip off their shoulder and knock you over, leaving you breathless and hopeless? Do they deprive you of physical affection but then complain that you are too needy? Do you feel that every time you try to clear the air, they disappear into it? Do they refuse to go to counseling? Avoidance is a very passive-aggressive form of relationship toxicity and it often gets progressively worse over time.

Three Words to Get You Out of a Toxic Relationship

"Know my value."

The most important conversations you have are with yourself. From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, how you think and feel about yourself is crucial for your self-esteem. Saying, "Know my value" will protect you from further hurts, and embolden you to stand up for yourself.

Knowing your value means feeling good about who you are, how you have grown, and what you offer in your loving relationship. One of my recent clients, Kim, realized that knowing her value meant putting her emotional health first. Her clingy, controlling boyfriend, Trey, didn't like that too much. Result: Kim found her own long-lost self-compassion and self-esteem and moved on to be with a healthier partner.

Words of Your Own Wisdom

If you have the urge to weaponize this post by sending it to your soon-to-be-ex partner, I really do understand how your hurt feelings would lead you to want do so. Yet, I encourage for your own sense of strength, grace, and self-dignity, that you take the higher road by making a healthier choice. If you opt to leave your relationship, having the message come directly from you through your own calm, constructive words will feel healthiest.

It is normal to miss an ex, even if the relationship was not a healthy one. There are usually some positive aspects of any relationship. Stay mindful, however, that missing times that felt good does not mean that person 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 move on to a healthier situation.

References

Bernstein, J. (2020), The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens: 150 Powerful Mindfulness, CBT & Positive Psychology Activities to Manage Emotions, PESI Publishing, EuClaire, WA.

Bernstein, J. (2003). Why Can't You Read My Mind? Overcoming the 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship Paperback, Perseus Books, New York, NY

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, second edition: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child's Difficult Behavior Paperback, Hachette Publications, New York, NY.

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