Understanding your part in your toxic relationship allows you to change how you act and show up in future relationships.
I woke up in my daughter’s bed in my children’s bedroom. The room was dark, but it’d been early afternoon when I’d crawled into it sobbing. My children were with their father at the house we all used to share together, and I was alone in this tiny house I’d rented 20 minutes away.
I missed my children so desperately. I missed the life I’d had with their father, though I couldn’t say I missed him as a person. I missed the dreams I’d had for our relationship: of raising children with the one I’d had them with, of retiring to a mountain cabin with a burbling creek outside.
I had dragged myself out of the most toxic relationship I’d ever been in, but I didn’t understand why I seemed to be so much more emotional, upset, and…crazier now than I’d been while in that relationship.
Why do I feel so miserable? I asked myself again and again. I chose to leave!
That thought wracked me. I’d been in that relationship for nearly a decade. I’d regularly felt anxious, depressed, embarrassed, and ashamed, and I’d never felt so small and inconsequential. That relationship had clearly been like drinking poison for my spirit. But why hadn’t leaving it been the cure?
Because, as I would learn later, there’d been damage I was responsible for recovering from, and I needed to replace some of the toxic habits I learned with healthier ones.
Today, I’m a relationship coach who has helped hundreds of people recover from toxic relationships. I’ve guided individuals through the exact same process I’m about to guide you through.
What Is a Toxic Relationship? In her book Toxic People, Dr. Lillian Glass defines a toxic relationship as a “relationship [in which people] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”
Every relationship has its peaks and valleys, but a toxic relationship will be composed of primarily negative moments. You’ll regularly feel drained in the relationship, and you may even experience emotional, verbal, mental, or physical abuse. These kinds of relationships can be damaging to any of the participants, and the effects can be felt for a long time.
The Warning Signs of a Toxic Relationship Most toxic relationships will involve some kind of abuse (whether verbal, emotional, mental, psychological, or physical) or persistent disrespect. But often the signs are more subtle. They also may start out subtle and escalate over time.
If you are recently out of a relationship and are unsure whether it was toxic, here are some signs to consider:
You were constantly comparing your relationship to other couples.
You regularly felt a whole slew of negative emotions: unhappy, anxious, sad, angry.
You changed for the worse over the course of the relationship.
You lost your sense of who you were.
Your friends and family members voiced their concerns about your relationship.
There is any form of violence or abuse.
Here are some other common signs of a toxic relationship (actions true of one or both partners):
Sarcasm, criticism, and hostile as normal parts of communication
Long-lasting grudges or resentments
One or both of you making decisions without considering the other
One or both of you not voicing your needs or ignoring the needs of the other
Little to no self-care
Constantly feeling like you’re walking on eggshells
If you can identify with any of the above descriptions, then this article is for you.
The Step: Owning Your Part
When we’re in pain after a break-up, it’s easy to place all of the blame on our ex: “If they hadn’t done _____, then I wouldn’t be here!” “They were a narcissist/addict/cheater, etc.”
Unfortunately, we can’t grow and improve if we don’t look at our part in our relationships. We can’t change our ex, butwe do have enough power to change ourselves.
If you’re wondering what I mean by “your” part, consider that if you were in a toxic relationship for any length of time, it’s likely you put up with unacceptable behavior, didn’t set or enforce boundaries, compromised your morals or values, made your partner your sole source of happiness, neglected your own needs, etc. These are all negatives that you could change in how you act and show up in future relationships.
I know it sucks to hear this, but our former partner isn’t to blame for the choices we made while in relationship with them.
The first step in changing a behavior is becoming aware of it. For example, if you didn’t know you had diabetes, you wouldn’t know how important it is for you to manage your diet and weight and monitor your blood sugar levels.
The same is true for the health of our relationships. We have to be aware of an issue before we can assess potential solutions.
An easy self-awareness process is in sitting down with some pen and paper, the notes app on your phone, or a blank word-processing document and answering some questions. Below are some questions that I have included to help you explore YOUR part in your previous toxic relationship.
Take your time answering them. It’s perfectly acceptable to not do them all at once, to take breaks, to answer them out of order, or to come back to them later and add more. While I’m not going to give you a page limit requirement, you canwrite too little, but you can never write too much. Hopefully, too, these questions will help spark you to further self-exploration.
Let me warn you that these questions aren’t fun.
These questions will likely make you feel a mix of anger, sadness, anxiety, and shame. Reacting to these questions with those feelings is perfectly normal. It’s also normal to answer these questions and just feel numb. Many of us leave toxic relationships feeling only like shells of our former selves and so incredibly angry at ourselves for the fact that we stayed as long as we did.
Regardless of how you feel, I encourage you to sit with whatever your feelings are and just let them be. Feelings are never good or bad. They simply are. It’s okay to feel mad, and it’s okay to feel numb. But the only way we can hope to heal ourselves is in feeling our feelings, whatever they are.
Here are the questions:
What red flags was I aware of early on that I ignored, excused, justified, rationalized, denied, etc.?
In what ways was I dishonest in that relationship? (Not sharing how you really felt, not bringing up things because you were trying to avoid conflict, etc.)
What were negative things my friends, family, co-workers said about my ex that I ignored, excused, justified, rationalized, denied, etc.?
When was I first aware that something wasn't right about my relationship? What excuses, justifications, or rationalizations did I use to remain in the relationship anyway?
What were boundaries I should have set or did set and then didn't enforce
In what ways did I try to make my partner change?
In what ways did I not accept the reality of my partner/our relationship?
What are things I did in that relationship that I'm not proud of and would like not to repeat in the future?
What are things I will never settle for again in a relationship?
What negative patterns in this relationship are similar to negative patterns in my other relationships? (Could be with romantic partners, family members, friends, etc.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that just being aware of your part in your previous relationship doesn’t help get you to the solution (aka healing) part.
The point of doing this step is in knowing what you need to work on. Self-awareness opens the door to allow you to do that.
You may find after answering the above questions that there’s quite a lot for you to work on.
When I started addressing my own toxic relationship history, it seemed like walking down a long hallway with a lot of closed doors. Every time I opened a new door, I was discovering another issue I needed to work on. I learned I had codependency. I learned that my relationship with my ex closely resembled my fraught relationship with my own mother. I realized I’d never been in any relationship even remotely healthy, and that healing 32 years’ worth of issues wasn’t going to be done in a week or even a month.
I felt overwhelmed and distraught at first because there seemed to be SO much to work on. You may feel that way too.
If you’re at the base of Mt. Everest about to climb it, it can seem pretty overwhelming too, but when you see your journey to the top as just one step and then another step and then another step…it’s much more manageable.
Once you have your list of things, pick one thing you’d like to work on first. Then research books, articles, blog posts, podcasts, or other educational resources to read about it. Meet with a therapist, counselor, or coach. Ask safe people in your life for support.
For myself, I benefitted the most from getting some accountability. At different times in my recovery process, I worked with a trauma therapist and a relationship coach. These people helped guide, support, and hold me accountable.
While I doubt you signed up to be in a toxic relationship, the responsibility falls to you to recover from it and not get into another one in the future. Understanding your part is the first step in your healing process, and one that will hopefully start a brand new chapter in your life.
Pre-order your copy of Reclaim & Recover: Heal from Toxic Relationships with a 7-Step Guided Journal now!