Relationships are hard. Pretty controversial take to start off this post. Having a healthy relationship is hard, maintaining multiple relationships with a partner, friends, family, and have a healthy work/life balance? Crazy hard, and the reality is, somewhere in all the complex relationships we maintain in our life, we’re bound to have an unhealthy one. Maybe it’s unresolved issues in our family or origin, or drama with a roommate, stress with a romantic partner, or an unhealthy work environment. At some point in our lives, we realize we need to walk away from an unhealthy relationship, and then life is awesome, right? Right!?!
Unfortunately, simply removing an unhealthy relationship from our life doesn’t make us magically healthier. That addition by subtraction doesn’t translate well for mental and emotional well-being. Healing after leaving an unhealthy relationship takes time, and often includes work that needs to be done to allow healing to occur. Healing is a process. We are well aware of this fact when it comes to physical health. If we have a broken bone, no one expects it to heal over a weekend. Yet, when it comes to mental and emotional health, we might break-up on a Friday, cry and be sad over the weekend, and return to work thinking everything should be normal on Monday. However, that comparison to physical health is apt, and while we recover from a broken bone we need rest to heal, and we also will have rehab and work to recover fully before getting to a point where we are actually healthier than before the break. Same for leaving unhealthy relationships. We need to rest and recover before doing active work to build our health back up.
The big difference between going through the break-up process and healing from a toxic relationship is the intensity of the unhealthy dynamics often lead to a more drawn out healing process. The process can be messier, or steps may need to be repeated, so healing may not be as obvious. A common starting place when healing from a toxic relationship is a sense of having done something wrong by leaving. Even in the face of mental, physical, or emotional abuse, people who get out of these situations often face their own sense of guilt at leaving, even when it is clear that leaving was the correct, healthy choice. Toxic relationships often grow from a power imbalance, which can be between spouses/partners (one person makes more money, one has a health issue, etc), boss-employee, or parent-child relationships. The power imbalance creates a storm of disrespect, contempt, broken boundaries, and gas-lighting that leads the person who leaves to doubt their own ability to make healthy decisions, and they first need to admit that leaving was the healthiest option (and often the only option). Societally we have this sense that any relationship that doesn’t work is a “failure,” but the reality is that humans are so variable that it is far more likely we will come across people we don’t fit well with than find people we gel with naturally. Relationships are about working through that and cultivating a healthy interplay in differences and cohesiveness, but a toxic partner is not interested in growing a healthy relationship, only in maintaining that power differential. This often includes a cycle of apologies or promises to be better, so these power dynamics are not always apparent as the toxic person may then play the victim when someone leaves. The healing process thus begins with acknowledging that the relationship was toxic, and that no amount of work on the relationship would have made it work because the toxic person was acting towards their own goals, not towards making the relationship better.
Following some of these uneasy acknowledgements, the healing process moves into learning how to trust your own brain again. That trust has likely been eroded by a bad-faith actor calling your behaviors or emotions into question continually. Often I see people withdraw in this process, which intuitively makes sense, but typically is not helpful. Relying on a core group of healthy people helps the brain heal, and having people who know and can support your processing is incredibly validating for the brain’s ability to heal. Close friends and family, the healthiest and closest “inner circle” people in your life are helpful here, not just random followers on social media. Reading books, listening to podcasts, and other media is also helpful for your brain, always with the idea that media written for a mass audience will only fit some of your personal experience, so always read/listen critically to take what is helpful and leave the rest behind. This part of the process is also where a therapist can be helpful, as having a professional to can help you understand some of the processes and patterns of healthy versus unhealthy relationships can help from repeating the same patterns in future relationships.
As I stated to start the post, relationships are hard, and even when it makes sense to leave an unhealthy relationship, healing from that unhealthy pattern takes time and support. Healing is a process, and one that you don’t have to go through alone.