I often work with clients who want to end a destructive, unhealthy relationship and are struggling with the willpower to say goodbye. These relationships can have an addictive quality and clients experience painful withdrawal symptoms as they attempt to leave. While the early stages of the process can be challenging, all of my clients have dramatically improved their lives after leaving toxic relationships.
Here are some actions, thoughts, and questions that can help as you try to let go and move forward.
How to Get Through Those First Difficult Weeks
Bring People Around You
If you have caring friends and family, now is the time to reach out to them. Schedule as many lunches, dinners, and visits as you can. Let them help you stay busy and feel connected. You’ll be surprised how many of them enjoy being helpful if you take the courageous step to admit you are having a rough time.
If you don’t currently have a good social support network you can build one more quickly by joining a 12-step group such as Co-dependents Anonymous (CODA); Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA); or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). All of these groups also meet online for 24-hour access.
Avoid Contact with Your Ex
Ideally you should stop all contact with your ex, for now. This means blocking him from your phone, defriending him on Facebook and other social media, avoiding activities where he is likely to attend, and instructing your friends not to tell you stories about seeing him.
This is hard to do. Most people can’t do it all at once. So try for as much separation as you can for now and then each week or month add another layer.
When you are in crisis, leaving quiet time for lots of reflection isn’t always a good idea. Your job is to just get through the crisis. Reflection, while an important part of healing, can be saved for later when you feel more stable. Some useful distractions are watching favorite movies, reading, exercise, shopping, taking classes and joining clubs, working, sleeping, and hanging out with friends.
Learning and Healing from the Experience
Once you are further along on the grief cycle you can start to piece together why you were drawn into an unhealthy relationship experience. At some level you made a choice to attach to a person who was unkind to you or not fully available. Understanding why you chose this person this will help you build better relationships for the rest of your life.
Rather than indicting yourself for making a poor choice, try to maintain a spirit of curiosity as you explore this. Here are some questions that may be helpful to consider:
• Looking back on the history of the relationship, where was the first indication that this might not be a healthy man for you? Knowing those early indicators will help you develop your antennae so that next time they will become warning signs.
• It is likely that at some point he became critical or mean to you and yet you continued to stay in the relationship. What belief systems do you hold that allow you to spend time with people who don’t consistently treat you with respect?
• Did you believe you could change your partner? This is a common myth. Each of us is responsible for changing ourselves. This is a great mantra for healthy relationships.
• When entering into the relationship, what parts of yourself did you abandon? Did you stop doing things you enjoy?
• What friends did you drop while in the relationship? Did you ignore their concerns about your partner? If your friends don’t like your partner that can be a good sign that he is not treating you with kindness.
Ultimately the most fruitful exploration can come from examining what we learned about relationships from the very first persons we ever fell in love with. For most of us this is our mothers and fathers. They taught us a lot about how to love and be loved well—or not so well. Grieving what didn’t go so well is an important part of the long term healing process.
Without deeply exploring these questions—either with a therapist or on your own–it is more likely that your next relationship will have the same painful dynamics. The good news is that the rewards of successful exploration are huge: satisfying relationships are one of the most important components of a meaningful life.