My client sits on the couch across from me with a pained expression. She and her partner just had another fight where his anger scared and belittled her. When this situation happened not long ago, she promised herself she would leave if it ever happened again. But she confesses today that when she started packing her bag, she was overwhelmed by emotion, doubt, confusion, and shame. She lost her nerve and, again, stayed in her toxic relationship.
My client’s story is sadly familiar, and I deeply understand her dilemma when she gets close to leaving. I’m able to offer her comfort, validation, and gentle challenging. “Let’s explore this more. You must not have had everything you needed to take that scary next step.” As therapists, we see this toxic relationship cycle repeated many times with our clients. There is often a long period between identifying that you’re in a toxic relationship and being able to name, process, and wrestle with all the emotions needed to leave the relationship.
Why are toxic relationships so hard to leave?
Jane Clayborne, director of community relations at James House shelter for victims of domestic violence, shares that, “On average, it takes a woman seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship for good.”
Often, individuals struggle to leave toxic and emotionally abusive relationships due to financial limitations or familial ties like sharing children. In addition to these barriers, and often even more constraining, are the deeply rooted and complex emotional issues connected to toxic relationships. Fear, manipulation, low self-esteem, shame, and emotional abuse cycles keep people feeling trapped in toxic relationships.
This article is designed to help support individuals in emotionally toxic relationships, not individuals who are experiencing physical violence from their intimate partner. If you are experiencing domestic abuse, physical abuse, or violence of any kind from your intimate partner, help is available.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
- Text START to 88788
- Chat https://www.thehotline.org/
What are the signs of a toxic relationship?
Being able to identify the signs of a toxic relationship is vital to being able to define more clearly where you can set your relationship boundaries and reclaim your power in either moving toward repair and reconciliation or leaving the relationship.
These are broad signs of a toxic relationship and may look different from relationship to relationship. As you evaluate your own relationship, pay attention to how these signs may show up — the consistency, intensity, and consequences to you and your mental health.
- Violence, abuse, or harassment
- Persistent unhappiness in the relationship
- Negative shifts in your mental health, i.e., increased anxiety, depression, self-doubt
- Adverse changes in your other relationships, i.e., giving up or stepping back from family or friend relationships, even fearing meeting new people or avoiding social outings
- Manipulation, gaslighting, belittling, and guilting
- Possessiveness, control, and volatility
- Active addictions, lying, hiding, and betrayal
- Cycles of toxicity and promises of change that never actualize or never sustain
Toxic relationships can trigger long-held negative core beliefs or patterns of codependency that you’ve carried with you since you were young. Long-term toxic relationships can often lead to depression, low self-worth, and disempowerment. To get out of a toxic relationship, you must pause and get curious about how you first got into this position. Until you understand the complex reasons you’re so stuck, you’ll have difficulty understanding what you need to get unstuck.
5 reasons why you’re stuck in a toxic relationship
If you want to leave your toxic relationship but feel stuck, here are five things that may be happening for you.
1. Unprocessed fear
Fear can be a powerful barrier to just about anything. Unprocessed fear is incredibly challenging if you have yet to explore what you’re afraid of. You may have noticed your body feels overwhelmed or panicky — an unmistakable urge to avoid doing the thing you’re afraid of doing. Yet, if you don’t spend the time to understand your fear, you can’t understand what you’ll need to soothe your fear and ultimately do the hard thing.
Ask yourself, what is the most terrifying part of leaving your relationship? Is it the fear of being alone? Of the unknown? Is it fear surrounding finding a new relationship? Of the conversation involved with leaving and hurting your partner? Once you narrow it down, you can identify which resources you’ll need more of to ease your fear and move forward with your goal.
2. Patterns of manipulation
Toxic relationships often involve manipulation, gaslighting, control, guilt-tripping, or love-bombing. These patterns create confusion, leaving the manipulated partner unsure of how to feel or what to do next. This kind of climate has multiple consequences. Naturally, with a cycle of love-bombing and a new honeymoon period after every fight, it will be hard to decide whether the toxic relationship is worth leaving.
A cycle of gaslighting and guilt-tripping may also give you false hope and a false sense of control. This cycle is especially difficult if you feel hopeless and powerless. You may think that if you just make the changes your partner is asking for, you may be able to have a healthier relationship after all.
When your partner uses emotional manipulation and plays on your insecurities, they can significantly damage your self-esteem. Their manipulation can make you feel like you won’t be able to find a new partner to love you — that it is better to stay in an unhealthy relationship than to be alone. It’s essential to identify toxic, manipulative patterns in the moment. When you recognize and name the manipulation, you can detach from your partner’s power over you and make different choices in moving forward.
3. Low self-esteem
A toxic relationship can isolate you from other meaningful relationships and communities. Because of this isolation, your romantic partner often becomes your only mirror for how you see and think about yourself. And if your partner is treating you poorly, it is natural to believe you deserve this poor treatment. This self-fulfilling prophecy could be especially apparent if you began the relationship with an unstable self-image.
Low self-esteem may also present as limiting beliefs like, “I can’t stand up for myself — I don’t know how” or “If I were more ______, they wouldn’t feel this way or treat me this way.” Once these beliefs are triggered and take root, it’s easier to look for more and more evidence for why they’re true and not look for all of the reasons they’re not true.
Give yourself the compassion and support you deserve by looking for and confirming the reasons you are capable, worthy, smart, and strong. Spend time reflecting on the things about yourself that you’re most proud of. Invest your time in things and people that strengthen your confidence and admirable qualities.
4. Toxic shame and its impact on your nervous system
Brené Brown defines toxic shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Shame develops a narrative that you are unworthy of love and belonging. This narrative can convince you that your toxic relationship is your best chance of being happy, even though you want out. Shame is not just intensely painful, but it also triggers the fight-flight-freeze response and can shut down your nervous system. The shame can also ramp up your nervous system, making you want to fight back. This fight may materialize in unproductive cycles of toxicity instead of finding solutions or working on an exit strategy.
Because shame can impact your body, start to notice when its sensations are present. Focus on restoring calm to your nervous system to remind yourself there is more to the narrative. While imperfect, you are worthy of genuine care, kindness, support, and healthy love.
5. Toxic relationship cycle
Toxic relationships are not bad all the time. Some parts of the cycle are positive, caring, and fun, mimicking a “honeymoon” period. During the honeymoon period, your partner may be remorseful, loving, and attentive to your needs. Your toxic relationship may also have “neutral” periods, where things aren’t great, but you find yourself in a familiar and safe routine.
Often, individuals will tell themselves that they will leave their relationship when things get toxic again or their partner has another episode. Some feel unjustified leaving their relationship when things are “good,” despite having little to no hope that the relationship is in a sustainably healthy place. The problem with this strategy is that you can’t predict how your nervous system or partner will react during the next toxic cycle.
You may be filled with shame and shut down again, leaving you with no motivation or energy to leave. Or, your nervous system may help you communicate your anger and stand up for yourself in a healthy way. Yet, your partner may trigger the next part of the cycle where they act remorsefully and promise to change. The next part of the cycle creates an emotional response that can deplete your desire and motivation to leave again. The toxic cycle is vicious and easy to get stuck within.
How to get out of a toxic relationship
If you want to break out, you have to do something to empower yourself and take control instead of allowing the cycle to control you.
A toxic relationship can overwhelm your body with feelings of fear, shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. To deal with these often overwhelming emotions, first focus on restoring your calm. Take some time to find a quiet and relaxing space where you can clear your mind and reflect on what you really want. Establish daily routines that prioritize rest, connection, and self-care. Try to surround yourself with supportive people and invest in resources that will help you if you decide to leave your current relationship.
If you’re stuck in a toxic relationship, therapy can help. Our therapists can help you identify and address the issues in your toxic relationship. We have availability for in-person therapy sessions at our Charlotte, NC office or virtually for residents of NC and SC.