5 Steps for Navigating (or Leaving) a Toxic Relationship

Self-care and positivity are vital as you move forward.

Posted Oct 17, 2016

Contributed by Kristen Fuller, M.D., Sovereign Health

Source: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Toxic relationships can consume a vast amount of our mental and emotional space and cause immeasurable pain. My previous post focused on how to recognize signs of a toxic relationship—the first step to seeking help and bettering your relationships. But what happens after you recognize the signs and realize you are knee-deep in a toxic relationship?

1. Seek help.

People in toxic relationships need help from friends, family, and professionals to commit to change. There is no AA or NA for this addiction. Changing is a process and not simply a decision. People often return to addictive relationships, sometimes because it is familiar and therefore comfortable. They know no other persona except their shattered self. This is why women’s shelters are often surrounded by fences and walls—they're there to enable residents to feel safe and start to heal.

People in toxic relationships need rehabilitation, a process that takes time. Find a supportive friend, family member, or professional to help you through the healing process. (But if you are being physically, verbally, or sexually abused in a relationship, you need to exit it immediately and seek help.)

2. Express your feelings.

It is important to express your feelings to the person you are in a toxic relationship with, whether it's a friend, co-worker, family member, or significant other. This conversation often becomes heated and overtaken by emotion. If the other person has a short temper or is very emotional, it may be best to write out your feelings. (If the person is emotionally mature, a proper in-person conversation may be best, but it always helps to have your feelings and thoughts written out beforehand.)

As always, it is important to state how that person makes you feel without pointing a finger or directing blame. To begin the conversation on a neutral footing, avoid phrases like, “You make me feel…” Instead, start with something that expresses your own emotions. For example, “I feel very sad or angry when I hear you say…"

Expressing what you have to say in a note, email, or even text message can give the other person time to think about what you're saying and respond. Remember that you cannot control how the other person responds, but you can control how you approach the expression of your feelings. Maybe the toxic partner will become defensive or angry and make the choice to leave the relationship, or maybe he or she will try to make amends. Regardless of their response, expressing your feelings is an important step to mending or leaving the relationship.

3. Make a decision.

After you have expressed your feelings, decide whether the relationship is worth fighting for or if you might be better off without this person. Think about how the person responded when you expressed your feelings: Was he defensive? Did she blame you? Did they make excuses, or ignore you? These are telltale signs that you should leave the relationship and better yourself.

If the person accepted your words and apologized, or agreed that there is a major problem and to seek help, maybe the relationship is worth fighting for. This person may benefit from going to therapy or taking steps to gain self-awareness and insight into his or her toxic behavior. It is important not to allow the person to repeat their toxic behaviors.

4. Surround yourself with positivity.

If you have made a decision, whether to leave or to mend a relationship, it is important to surround yourself with positivity and practice self-care. Spend time with people who make you feel good, treat yourself to your favorite meal, go to church, spend time outside, or do whatever brings you joy. Going through a tough time in a relationship can cause incalculable stress: It's important to try to replace those negative emotions with positivity.

5. Stick with your decision.

Often after leaving someone, you begin to miss the person. That is normal. It is easy for our brain to remember the good times and forget the bad parts of a relationship. It can be tempting to want the person to be back in your life, but remember that you came to this decision after a long, thoughtful process. Stick to your decision and remember that it was made to better you and your life.

It may be helpful to have your supportive friend, family member, or professional keep you accountable. When you feel the urge to allow the toxic person to come back into your life, reach out to your support system or take out the list you wrote that describes why you felt harmed in the first place. Stay strong and stick to your decision.

“I am leaving you for me. Whether I am incomplete or you are incomplete is irrelevant. Relationships can only be built with two wholes. I am leaving you to continue to explore myself: the steep, winding paths in my soul, the red, pulsing chambers of my heart. I hope you will do the same. Thank you for all the light and laughter that we have shared. I wish you a profound encounter with yourself.” — Peter Schaller