By Sarah Caton
Do you know what toxic love looks like? These kinds of relationships usually start out amazing—love bombing, over-the-top gifts and dates accompanied by declarations of absolute, unconditional love.
It’s so tempting to go along for that fairytale ride—the belly-butterflies, the lure of suddenly having what seems like your dream come true.
Later, you get sucker-punched when you realize the reality of the lie you’ve been sold. But by then you might feel like it’s extremely difficult to leave, which is all just part of the plan.
What I have found is if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Not to be cynical, but I’ve been caught up in a toxic relationship one time too many and have finally learned how to spot them from a mile away.
This is for anyone who feels stuck in a bad situation. You might know deep down you’re in an abusive relationship and there are subtle signs you’ve been ignoring. Likely you have been wanting, maybe even trying to leave, but feel uncertain about how to go about it.
Here are ten strategies that I’ve discovered (the hard way) for how to leave toxic relationships behind forever. Although it may sound like I’m talking about romantic relationships, this also applies to other situations such as family members, friendships, and work partners.
1 – Leave
First and most importantly, I must say this: if you are being abused, leave.
Please, please don’t rationalize or feel guilty about their well being when you go. Focus on you. Don’t fight back, argue, or bargain for better. Just leave.
Even if it feels like you have no options, there are shelters for abuse victims, or you can seek out the authorities if that is necessary. Ask for help from a close friend or family member who you trust if that’s an option for you.
If you have more time, secretly save money away little bits at a time until you have enough to get away. No matter what works for you, make a safe plan and follow through with it.
2 – Prepare for the Worst
Be prepared for pushback, threats and manipulative arguments. Also be prepared for them to be suddenly charming and accommodating. They might apologize, making promises where you’d get everything you ever hoped for or they might turn on you and accuse you of doing the unthinkable.
None of it is sincere.
Don’t react if you can help it, just be ready for anything and everything. And block, block, block wherever you can.
This is the hardest part. You’ll grieve the good memories and the future you once believed in but was actually never possible.
3 – Trust Yourself
This becomes infinitely harder since by now you’ve now been torn down in so many ways and it’s going to be challenging to trust yourself.
Gaslighting is when someone makes you feel uncertain about reality and start to question yourself. The effects of this in the long term can feel like brain fog or mental confusion but those symptoms will start to improve as soon as you get away from the toxic person.
Even so, trust your inner knowing, your intuition. It’s on your side!
4 – Don’t Go Back
If you’re feeling like the abusive person really might suddenly be able to change their behaviour and stop using and/or abusing you, please understand that toxic people don’t change very fast or very easily. If they do change, it will be slowly, over a long period of time. And they’ll do it because they commit to making a change for themselves, not because you agreed to their terms.
Please trust your first gut instinct telling you to go. And no matter how pleasant the “good times” were or how much they beg and plead and make promises to change, try not to get sucked back in.
By forgiving and going back for more you are essentially telling them their abuse was acceptable, and abuse is never okay. No one deserves that.
Not to mention, toxic people always come back around to repeat their toxic behaviors. Typically the abuse worsens over time.
But if you do end up going back, don’t be mad at yourself. It happens. Just make another plan to leave and end it for good this time.
5 – Start to Recognize Toxic Patterns
These kinds of relationships typically start out fast and furious. If it’s a romantic partner, they are convinced you are soulmates and destined to be together. They’ll make promises in which all your hopes and wishes are fulfilled.
Sadly, none of it is possible as they have deluded themselves. They’re only taking on a role, putting on a mask. They cannot fulfill their promises.
Soon the devaluation cycle starts. You’ll be elevated onto a platform, told how great you are and how special you are and then you’ll be torn down and destroyed.
Then they’ll pretend it never happened and build you back up, only to tear you down once more. This will repeat until the idealize-devalue-discard cycle finally results in a permanent discard, but be wary of “hoovering”. That’s the word for when narcissists try to put you back into the cycle again after discarding you.
Don’t fall for it, it’s a trap.
In a family relationship you might not experience or remember that initial stage of love bombing, only the endless cycles of building you up and tearing you down. Offering up (conditional) love only to push you to the edges when you are no longer convenient or compliant.
Ask yourself if that person is capable of recognizing their toxic behaviour and treating you with the love and respect you deserve. If the answer is no, it’s okay to let them go.
No or low contact is always a choice you can make, no matter how much guilt you receive from others. Shrug that guilt off, you only get one life and you might as well spend it with people who build you up rather than tear you down.
6 – Avoid Getting Stuck in the 3-Stage Abuse Cycle
Stage 1- Tension-building. There is no overt abuse happening but you feel like you are walking on eggshells, unsure of what this person might do next. You are afraid to let down your guard. You are cautiously optimistic that things might get better while also trying to ignore little red flags that keep popping up.
Stage 2-Overt abuse. An incident of some kind happens. It might be a blow-up argument or fight that leaves you feeling threatened and frightened. And it might also turn into actual physical abuse that leaves you with bruises and scars. Neither are good situations to be in. If someone makes you afraid for your safety, it’s time to make a plan to leave.
Stage 3-Honeymoon Phase. Apologies are given, promises are made—to get help, to get therapy, to become a better person. And they really do try, for a second, to make it all seem true. You feel hopeful, elated.
Before long you find that stage 3 blends seamlessly back into Stage 1 and around and around you go. It seems like there’s no way to escape.
7 – Claim your Power
But there is an escape. No matter how much control over you it might seem like someone has, only you have the ultimate power over yourself.
Someone may have all the control over your finances and your living situation—or it might seem like they do. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Know your power. At some point, you got into this toxic relationship and therefore you have the power to get out of it as well.
Nothing is impossible.
Stand in your right to be who you are and to make your own decisions.
8 – Make Yourself Immune to Toxic People
Some people are more likely to get caught up in toxic relationships than others. For example, if your parents were toxic and showed conditional love or held you to unrealistic expectations, you are more likely to end up in toxic romantic relationships as an adult—at least until you heal and learn to avoid that kind of person altogether.
Empathetic people, those of us who are kind, generous, understanding and quick to forgive, are often targets. We are the ones that toxic people will latch onto knowing they can get away with incomprehensibly bad behavior and we’ll still love and forgive them in the end.
Are you someone who struggles to hold firm boundaries? Are you a people-pleaser? You might be the perfect victim.
When we finally recognize these patterns and can see red flags coming from a mile away, only then we can avoid getting on their awful ride in the first place.
9 – Educate Yourself
You’re going to need to put in some time learning everything you can about narcissism and cluster B disorders. This covers the vast majority of “toxic people” you will encounter.
Watch YouTube channels (hey, free therapy!) and seek out support groups on the subject whether online or in person. Talk to people who have been through it before. Look up and understand terms like Gaslighting, Hoovering, Love-Bombing, Projection and Flying Monkeys.
Do whatever it takes to educate yourself and find a community, to develop your own healthy network of people who actually love you for who you are and support you in your goals and dreams.
It will take some time. Be patient, and in the meantime, learn to enjoy your own company.
10 – Fall In Love With Yourself
One step you can take to reclaiming your joy is learning how to love and trust yourself. This is a slow process but you can do it—one experience, one moment, one day at a time.
Find a good activity or hobby, meet up with friends, take yourself out on dates and special outings. Live your happiest, most fulfilling life and if love, family and friends are meant to be in your future, you will find them along the way. You will find your people when you’re doing what you’re meant to do.
You CAN Do It!
Based on my experience these are my top strategies and recommendations for leaving a toxic relationship and never going back.
You can do it.
You can reclaim your power and find peace, love and joy within yourself.
Don’t lose another day to someone else’s drama, trauma and chaos when you could be living your best life instead.