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How to Heal and Recover From Toxic Relationship Damage

Janis has extensive experience as a licensed professional counselor in assisting clients recover from the pain of unhealthy relationships.

A woman breathes in the fresh air of the ocean as she celebrates letting go of a toxic relationship.

A woman breathes in the fresh air of the ocean as she celebrates letting go of a toxic relationship.

Toxic Relationships: How to Heal From Long Term Damage

So often, a woman will stay in a toxic relationship far beyond a time frame that is considered healthy. Her friends and family see her descending into a state of inertia, as if she has become a prisoner of her situation and of her own apathy. The unfortunate reality is, in a lot of cases, that women in toxic relationships that have become abusive, are literally in a prison out of which they see no escape.

The state of feeling paralyzed as a victim in a toxic or abusive relationship is not just a women's issue. Men can feel trapped in the same type of scenario, in the role of victim. Staying too long in an unhealthy love relationship, whether male or female, can render long term consequences for the mind, body and spirit.

The negative impacts of holding onto "toxic love" in a relationship extends far beyond one's gender, sexual preference, marital status, or type of commitment. All types of relationships may become subject to the sting of abuse or toxicity, where the dynamics between two people become unhealthy. Unfortunately, the consequences of staying in these types of relationships for too long are seen when it's almost too late. Much damage to the person's psyche has already been done by the time they make the decision to get out, be it physical, emotional, or verbal damage.

This article will identify that period of realization which focuses on the moment of "knowing" it's time to leave. Fears that keep persons paralyzed will be explored, long term damages of staying will be identified which accompany the decision to save one's self. A poem is also offered to creatively express the moment of inner strength that catapults the bound person to freedom. A four-step plan for healing and recovery is presented at the end of the article.

Reasons Why People Stay in Toxic Relationships

It's easy to question and pass judgment on those who remain in bad relationships for extended periods of time. When there is little, if any, experience with or knowledge about this type of relationship, it won't make any sense to the on-looker as to why people stay.

But there are valid reasons why people choose to stay or are forced to stay because they feel they have no other choice.

It is important to have an understanding of the complicated dynamics of the toxic relationship before making generalizations about how people should handle their toxic situations. It is also important for the victim to not be made to feel guilty about the reasons he or she has stayed. Some of the most common reasons people stay include:

  • Fear - The reality of fear is a very real issue for men and women who find themselves entwined in relationships that have become physically and verbally abusive. As a result of receiving threats or being assaulted, they actually fear for their safety. Or, in many cases, where violence is absent, they have a basic fear of making it on their own and fear independence.
  • Emotional Dependency - It may be hard to believe that otherwise accomplished individuals can feel a strong need to have someone there with them to make decisions, provide emotional support, and to be a companion. The thought of being alone produces more anxiety for them than does the unhealthy environment they share with the toxic partner.
  • Financial Dependency - Economics play a huge role in what binds and keeps two people together in an unhealthy household. Lack of financial resources makes it almost impossible for an abused person to leave a toxic situation.
  • Family Stability for the Children/Pets - Many unhappy partners will make untenable sacrifices to maintain a stable environment to avoid creating undue interruption in the lives of family members. More than ever, decisions about resolving toxic relationships revolve around what will happen to the family pet.
  • Societal and Religious Expectations - Keeping personal business secret, maintaining the facade that "all is well," and keeping the promise of the vow are strong holds on many partners who choose to stay in bad relationships. They cannot bear the shame and guilt which is felt by disappointing family, friends, and God. People stay in order to live up to the expectations of staying together, for better or for worse. Even if the couple isn't married, the rule is that it's better to be coupled than to be single.
  • Love - Although it may be labeled as "toxic love," some people stay in unhealthy relationships because they truly do love their partners. They are committed to the relationship, actually have had good times together, and are invested in a future with what they view as a partnership.

Toxic Love: The Moment of "Knowing" It's Time to Save Yourself

More often than not, persons who decide to get out of toxic relationships have been thinking about it for a very long time. During this period, they may also come to find themselves living out roles in which they don't recognize themselves anymore. These roles most often take on the label of "codependent," "abused partner," or "victim."

Prior to making the decision to walk away, they have gone back and forth about the pros and cons of staying versus leaving. But in those extended bouts of indecisiveness, they more than likely have already lost a lot. The following list includes some of what the codependent, victimized, or abused person in a toxic relationship has already compromised by staying in it for too long.

  • A Clear Identity
  • Confidence and Self-Awareness
  • Ability to Assert Opinion and Point of View
  • Good Level of Self-Esteem and Healthy Self-Image
  • Financial Savvy and Independence
  • Ability to Make Decisions
  • Physical and Mental Health
  • Self-Worth
  • Dignity

The reality check comes at the eleventh hour when the damaged person becomes keenly aware of her losses in the moment of "knowing." The loss of such traits noted above affect a person's ability to interact with others. It affects one's ability to be productive and perform without anxiety. Having no self-worth hinders a person's ability to be successful and accomplish goals with confidence. It is no longer possible to operate on "empty" as one's self-worth and value continue to plummet.

At the moment of epiphany, damaged persons begin to feel a need to reclaim the self and stand erect, on their own two feet, without having to lean on OR hold up anyone else. They begin to see that survival is dependent upon one's ability to breathe alone. The poem "Breathe Again" expresses the resilience of the survivor who makes the decision to leave and save the self.

A Poem For Healing From Toxic Love

"Breathe Again"

Losing air and shape

Descending slowly to where?

I tried so hard in desperation to stay afloat

For what? Where is my incentive,

As I hold on to un-reciprocated love?

I wanted so much to save us, to save you

But now I give in to saving myself.

I couldn't bounce without the air of your breath

I lived for only you, in love and loyalty

And I willingly forgot about me

Now I remember.

Like a newborn gasping for air

I must relearn how to breathe again on my own

JLE 2007

4 Steps Toward Healing and Recovery

Now that you've read the poem, it's time to take some steps toward reclaiming yourself and restoring the dignity, confidence, and sense of self-worth that belong to you. Read the following points of advice to begin your recovery and healing from the damage rendered by your toxic relationship.

1. Create a support network - It is vitally important to have a support system to help you step mentally outside of your toxic situation and see it for what it is from a new angle. When you're too close in proximity, you may not see the damage to which you've become either accustomed or numb. A support network could include a support group, good friends, or family members you can trust.

Your support network can also include resources such as self-help books you can have available at all times to continually work your program of recovery.

A popular self-help book called Dark Souls: Healing and Recovering from Toxic Relationships, by Sarah Strudwick, provides a look at traits and dynamics between you and your partner. It offers the reader a clearer understanding of the relationship and the damages that result.

2. Re-establish your identity - Re-introduce yourself to all that makes up who you are as an individual. What are your likes and dislikes, your favorite things, your interests, and your accomplishments? Realize that your purpose and identity cannot revolve around another person only. You must maintain a part of your own identity in a relationship.

3. Make decisions for yourself to boost confidence - Increase your knowledge about things you avoided doing because you were too timid; set goals to tackle and complete small tasks, followed by bigger tasks to create a feeling of accomplishing something on your own.

4. Cleanse your mind, body, and spirit of toxicity - Engage in some type of movement or spiritual activity for cleansing and renewal after you have left the toxic environment/relationship. Follow through with cutting contact with the toxic person. Examples of activities include yoga, tai chi, aerobic exercise, meditation, journaling, detoxification, talk therapy, or religious practices within a supportive faith community.

You are now on your way to moving toward true independence, freedom, and love of self. Take your time as you exhale . . . and learn to breathe again.

[Janis Leslie Evans, M.Ed., N.C.C., L.P.C., is a licensed professional counselor in private practice, specializing in relationship conflicts, unresolved trauma, grief and loss in Washington, DC]

"Toxic Love Endures Forever"

How to Know if You're in a Toxic Relationship

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: I just got out of a very toxic relationship that lasted three years and I finally left about a month ago I feel lost and depressed. Any advice?

Answer: First of all kudos to you for getting out. You are now allowed to feel what you've been suppressing because it wasn't safe to feel in an emotionally toxic environment. Expect to be overwhelmed by symptoms of depression. It may more accurately be emotional exhaustion and grief. I recommend you see a good therapist to help you put all of those feelings into words, as you release 3 years worth of pain. Your goal is to find yourself again.

Question: I got out of a toxic relationship 10 months ago, but ever since I've been feeling depressed, I really can't get over my ex because I still miss them, any advice?

Answer: Even though the relationship was toxic, it's normal to miss the good things about your ex. That's what made it toxic; the duality of the positives and negatives. It may take longer than expected to transition from a relationship that wasn't good for you. The compassionate side of you cared about him as a human being who had good qualities. Embrace the good experiences as blessings and learn from the complexities of being human. It's okay to miss him.

Question: I'm a young mother of 5 children. I am in what people call a "situation-ship" where I don't want to be with him and he really doesn't want to be with me. We argue every other day and have been in physical fights before. I'm just drained. The only reason I give a little life to the relationship is because of my kids and my fear, I guess, of being alone. But I continuously let him back in. I just want him to leave me alone. It's too many battles at once. What should I do?

Answer: This is a very complicated situation, especially with 5 children. You can either choose to work on getting support and counseling for yourself or you can ask him to join you for couples and family counseling. There will be a lot of healing that will need to take place individually so you will have the emotional strength and support to make the best decision for you and your children.

Question: For background information, I have been in abusive and toxic relationships most of my life. I have been sexually, physically, and mentally abused in each of them. I'm finally in a healthy relationship, but my past relationships continue to haunt me, causing me to fear his anger among other things. How can I fix my problems with my old relationships reoccurring in my present one?

Answer: If you haven't tried counseling, this would be a good time. It will take patience with yourself and the support of a good therapist to break through the conditioning you received from the abuses you endured. There's an expectation that you will be hurt again which is a normal trauma response. You can unlearn the victim response by focusing on your strengths and resilience. You also have to change your beliefs about what you deserve and expect from a healthy relationship. Give your self time to heal.

Question: My sister told my daughter that it was ok for her not to like me. Why would she say that?

Answer: It's hard to say with little background information. But it sounds like there is a relationship issue between you and your sister.

© 2015 Janis Leslie Evans