In my dating history (herstory?), I've been in my share of lousy relationships — ones that were never really going to work out for various mundane reasons. They tended to fizzle out fairly quickly, and each of us would go on our way, no harm, no foul. But there was one relationship that was very different. One truly toxic relationship that, at the time, seemed inescapable and wreaked havoc on my life and self-esteem. The truth is, even though I knew things were spiraling at the time, I didn't know what to do if you're in a toxic relationship to protect myself and end the demoralizing, seemingly inevitable cycle of breakups and makeups.
While I was still trapped on the toxic merry-go-round, I never thought I would be able to get off, but fortunately, this story does have a happy ending. I found my moment, and I took a leap of faith — and I never looked back. It wasn't easy, and it took a lot of time, support of friends, and even a therapist, but I did finally break the cycle and escape for good. After taking some time to heal, I eventually started dating again — smarter and more carefully — and you know what? Things got much better.
My story is not uncommon (or even close to the worst one out there), but I know how countless women trapped in the same circle of toxicity feel. It's scary and exhausting, but also strangely addictive and hard to break away from a toxic partner. Because sometimes, toxicity masks itself as "passion." Here's the thing: Passion feels good and makes you feel better, but toxicity does not. "Some people don’t recognize the immediate signs, but you should feel the unhealthiness of the relationship if your energy is changing, and you feel depleted instead of refreshed," says Alexis Nicole White, author and relationship expert.
If that rings true for you, then the first step is to admit the relationship is toxic, and the next step is to act on that knowledge. Here's what the experts say you should do.
Get Out As Quickly As You're Able To
If you are in a toxic relationship, NYC relationship expert and love coach Susan Winter has some pretty straightforward advice: “Get out as soon as possible. Cut all ties as soon as you can. The only way to handle a toxic relationship is to leave.”
While that’s easy to say, breaking things off with a toxic partner can be complicated. But if a relationship has become poisonous and harmful, it’s time to do whatever it takes to protect yourself — even when the temptation to stay is powerful. “Leaving takes resolve and effort. The addictive quality of a toxic relationship keeps both partners in a sick dance together,” says Winter. “The patterns of abuse easily become a habit, as do the highs and lows.”
Getting out quickly can be even harder when you still love the toxic partner. We’ve all been taught by movies and and songs that love can conquer all, but in the case of a toxic relationship, that’s not just untrue, but also potentially dangerous. “Love is not enough to sustain a long-term relationship,” says Alessandra Conti, celebrity matchmaker and relationship expert at Matchmakers In The City. “Every relationship takes work; but when a relationship crosses the line into physical abuse, verbal abuse, mental manipulation, or if you are in fear in any way for your safety or the safety of your friends and family, it is time to call it quits.”
But Only Do So Safely
Once you’ve decided to exit the relationship, it’s essential to do so safely. While not every toxic relationship is with a dangerous partner, it is always in your best interest to prioritize self-protection. Conti says the process should begin by speaking with a therapist. “While your best girlfriend is a great person to vent to when your SO is being annoying, if things ever escalate to any kind of physical or verbal harassment or abuse, it is necessary to seek out a therapist within your healthcare plan,” she says. “Your therapist will be able to give you support and tools that you will need to cut ties and hold you accountable.”
However, not everyone has the option to speak to a professional. In that case, reach out to those in your support system who have your best interests at heart and aren’t afraid to hold you accountable if you begin sliding back into old patterns. “‘No contact’ is an absolute necessity when dealing with a toxic relationship,” says Winter. “A hallmark of the toxic relationship is that it lures you back into wanting the partner who hurt you so badly. It’s the road that is well-known, as it’s been well-traveled. Therefore, you must consciously choose a new pathway of action and thinking.”
If you do feel like leaving your partner is dangerous, there are also resources available that can help you get out, such as The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which can offer 24/7 support, advice, and additional resources. “Abusers do not take well to losing their victims. Seeking the help of organizations that aid victims of emotional and physical abuse will provide you with the toolset you need to safely leave your abusive mate,” says Winter. “If your safety demands a rushed exit, then certainly do so. Avoid being alone whenever possible, and stay with people you trust that are committed to your wellbeing.”
Break The Pattern And Take Time To Heal
Once you’ve ended the relationship, it’s time to start doing the work of healing and moving on. The first step, according to Conti, is to cut all ties immediately. “Block them on Facebook, unfollow them on Instagram, delete their number, change your locks, change your passwords, and give yourself a clean break,” she says.
Conti also suggests giving yourself a short period of time to mourn the relationship, or, as she calls it, “mope then cope.” “Once you have given yourself four days of moping, it is time to cope,” she says. “Sign up for community service, join a new yoga class, and go to brunch with your girlfriends … and plan your schedule out so that you are busy meeting new people and remembering how much fun life can be without your ex.”
For the inevitable moments of weakness, when the temptation to go back or reach out to your ex starts getting stronger, Winter suggests getting a few accountability partners to help prevent you from repeating your past pattern. “These are people who know your story and know your default. They can help protect you from yourself," she says. "Ask them to be your eyes and ears when you are unwilling to see what is in front of you and hear what is being said. They will hold you accountable for your actions and remind you if you are headed into dangerous territory.”
Ultimately, it’s all about finally giving yourself the room to move on, because, according to White, “the only way to heal from these types of relationships is to give yourself both the space and time that you need to reevaluate the relationship in a healthy way to prevent repeating the same cycles.” And while it may be hard at first, it will get better, I promise. You are worthy of a loving and healthy relationship.
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