Our relationships play a profound role in shaping us as people. In them, we can find our most ardent supporters who challenge us to become the best versions of ourselves and to exceed even our wildest dreams. These people help us to flourish and become the loving and whole human beings that God made us to be, and they are truly a blessing in our lives.

It’s also true that relationships aren’t always positive or nurturing. Some relationships are challenging; undermining our self-esteem, sense of competence, and self, diminishing us as persons, and bringing out the worst in us. Such relationships also shape us, and they affect how we view ourselves and our world, negatively impacting our relationships with others, our work or school situation, and much else besides.

Not only is it helpful for us to be able to identify the second kind of relationship, but to know when and how to leave such relationships.

Identifying a toxic relationship

Sometimes we can find ourselves in a terrible situation, and while the people around us know what’s going on, we might be oblivious to what’s going on. Of course, it’s also possible to know that your relationship is toxic but to remain in it because it is familiar or because there seem to be few options and alternatives. It may not seem safe to leave, either.

A toxic relationship is marked by a few signs, and these include:

  • Physical violence, such as being assaulted with hands, feet, or an object. This also includes sexual abuse.
  • Verbal, financial, and emotional abuse, including being insulted, threatened, shouted at, undermined, gaslit, manipulated, being taken advantage of.
  • Controlling behavior, including the other person refusing you access to the car keys, always wanting to know where you are, tracking your movements, wanting access to your bank and other accounts, isolating you from friends and other loved ones.
  • Codependent behavior, where there are weak boundaries between the people in the relationship, leading to the needs and identity of one of the parties being ignored and unhealthily dependent on the other.
  • Concern about the relationship by friends and loved ones who’ve been supportive of you in the past.
  • Decline in your mental, physical, and emotional health as a result of the relationship.
  • Going against your conscience, values, and deepest held beliefs because of the relationship and what the other person asks of you.

If you’ve picked up signs such as these in your relationship, whether it is with your parent, child, caregiver, spouse, friend, or colleague, then it’s quite possible that the relationship is a toxic one that needs to be challenged and placed on a healthy trajectory.

What can be done to fix a toxic relationship?

When you find yourself in a toxic relationship, there are a few things that can be done to remedy the situation, but it depends on the nature of the relationship and the way in which the relationship is toxic.

The first thing is to identify the reality of how toxic the relationship is, and to see the unhealthy patterns of relating to one another for what they are. When you recognize these patterns and identify how you may be feeding into them, you can begin to address your individual and collective roles toward the dysfunction in the relationship.

To fix a toxic relationship, it takes all people in the relationship to work on the issue together. So, in the situation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship, for example, the mother has to recognize that when she constantly criticizes her daughter (whether it’s how she looks or her career choices), it undermines her daughter.

The daughter must also recognize that even if that way of relating to each other is ‘normal’ for them, it is still toxic and shouldn’t be a part of their relationship. When they arrive at this point, they can begin working toward less criticism and more constructive conversation.

In many cases, therapy will be needed to help the people in the relationship recognize the patterns in their behavior and why they are unhealthy for them both. Therapy will also help them understand the origin of those patterns, providing them with skills to begin to learn new ways of relating to each other and healthier ways to get their needs met that promote both of their well-being.

The presence of a third party can help in situations where there are safety concerns, and in some cases, it may be more productive and safer to have individual counseling rather than joint counseling for the people involved.

If the other person is unwilling to listen and address the unhealthy patterns in the relationship, that leads to the decision of whether to exit the relationship, either temporarily or permanently.

When and how to leave

Relationships come in different forms. There is a difference between a romantic relationship and a relationship between siblings. There is a difference between a parent-child relationship and that between colleagues. All this to say some relationships are easier to leave than others, whether because of circumstances or the ties that bind you.

A toxic relationship in the workspace is easily dealt with by moving away from the situation by finding work elsewhere, but a toxic marriage or toxic mother-daughter relationship has additional layers of complication. How one “leaves” a mother-daughter relationship will look different from how one leaves a company, or how one leaves a marriage.

A toxic marriage may be complicated by the presence of children in the relationship. Leaving the marriage through separation or divorce may mean that you still have periodic contact with your partner for the children’s sake.

With the help of a trusted professional such as a counselor, you can work through whether you need to exit the situation entirely and permanently, or if what is needed is a temporary separation from the situation and the other person to work through the issues.

In some situations, it is best to exit the situation permanently because a temporary separation hasn’t helped or is unlikely to do so because the other person is entrenched in their behaviors and is unwilling to alter how they approach the relationship and you.

If you decide to exit the situation permanently, there are several steps that you can take to ensure that you create a healthy space for you to deal with issues, and these may include:

Losing/blocking their number and blocking them on social media

In abusive situations, contact with the abuser can undermine the progress and health of the survivor, as well as possibly undermine their resolve to remain apart from their abuser. Abusers can be persuasive and manipulative, and in some cases having no contact whatsoever may be the wise choice so as not to relapse and fall back into an unhealthy situation.

Getting accountability

Whether from a trusted friend, sponsor, or another individual, you need accountability and to have someone in your life who encourages and challenges you to implement the changes necessary to remain apart from the toxic relationship or the unhealthy behaviors prevalent in that relationship.

Creating a solid exit plan

This is especially important in situations of domestic abuse, where one’s life or the lives of their children are under threat. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, you shouldn’t wait to have a well-laid-out exit plan – call 911 immediately or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

In situations with less immediacy, you can create a safety plan by taking steps such as

  • Having a prepared excuse to leave if you feel threatened.
  • Having some money set aside that you alone can access.
  • Making sure you can’t be found if you decide to leave (disable location services on your devices).
  • Having a safe place to go in an emergency.
  • Arranging a code word to alert your family or friends that their help is needed.
  • Having a go/escape bag ready with some cash, important documents such as birth certificates, social security and bank cards, keys, toiletries, and a change of clothes that can be easily accessed.
  • Keeping a list of emergency contacts, including local shelters, trusted family or friends, and the domestic abuse hotline.

Whether your situation is life-threatening or a toxic relationship that is undermining your general well-being, and whether you choose to leave temporarily or permanently, you must get help in the form of counseling to overcome the trauma of a toxic relationship and unpack the effects and roots of the relationship and the patterns in it. You can contact our office to be matched with a professional who can help.

If you are having suicidal thoughts on account of a toxic relationship, don’t hesitate to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor.

“Gas Mask and Flowers”, Courtesy of Dmitry Ratushny, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love”, Courtesy of Jon Tyson, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bright Flowers”, Courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Birds at Sunset”, Courtesy of Reetaish kumawat, Unsplash.com, CC0 License


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