Ending a toxic relationship may not be easy or quick. But it will be worth it when you open up your life again.
The question of how to end a toxic relationship has many answers, but they all boil down to one: You do it very carefully.
Most often, you’ll need to do a lot of soul-searching, planning, talking it out, and then walking the tightrope to a new life.
You may be trying to figure out how to break up a toxic romantic relationship. But toxic relationships aren’t limited to romance. A toxic person may be a:
- family member
- partner of a friend or relative
- business partner
- student at your school
So, step carefully. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Take the time to do it right.
Also, it has to be said: Know your options if you anticipate even the smallest possibility of retaliatory abuse or violence. You can always get help. Always. Know your local emergency contacts, or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Here, we take you through 10 steps to ending a toxic relationship. There may be more or fewer steps for you; every situation is unique. You are unique. Here’s your chance to become that one again.
The first step toward solving any problem is to look it straight in the face. This is especially true for ending toxic relationships.
To admit you’re in a toxic relationship may seem like a small step. But actually, it’s huge.
You’re stepping across a canyon, from denial to acceptance.
You can do this.
Science has got your back. Much research shows the damaging health effects of continuing a toxic relationship. For example, a 2021 study found that feelings of being harassed, bullied, or ostracized in a toxic workplace can lead to:
Writing about your emotions may be the last thing you feel like doing. You might feel too edgy to focus. And besides, you could be worried writing it down might make you feel worse.
Psychologists have a name for writing down your feelings: expressive writing. And they agree you might get more anxious, scared, or upset right after writing.
But fast-forward a few weeks, and research says you’ll probably notice both mental and physical benefits. A 2018 research review reported more than a dozen beneficial health outcomes from expressive writing, including:
Your toxic relationship may even have its perks.
So, get out your journal and write them down. Do any of these sound familiar?
- We share finances. I couldn’t afford to live alone.
- She’s family. At least she babysits from time to time.
- Sure, my boss is toxic. But at least I know what to expect.
- I’m in my 60s and everything is familiar. How could I start life over?
Whatever your reasons and your perks, write them down. See whether the perks are really worth the price.
Hint: They’re probably not. Seeing this in black and white on paper can bring clarity.
There will be holes that open up in your life after the perks are gone. Now is the time to plan how to fill them up.
Say one of the perks of your toxic relationship is having a home. You might start looking for new living arrangements, even if it means bunking up with a friend or family member for a short time.
If shared finances are the perk, now could be the time to become open to a second job, or short-term gig. If companionship, or even love, is a perk, remind yourself that there are other fish in the sea.
Most importantly, start doing the things you love that your relationship kept you from doing.
Gary Lewandowski, a professor of psychology at Monmouth University and author of the book “You’re Stronger Than You Think,” did an experiment in which he asked people right after a breakup to do what he called “soul discovery activities.”
These are activities that people love to do but felt they couldn’t do inside a toxic relationship. They’re mostly simple things like going out dancing or going to the beach.
In Lewandowski’s experiment, people returned after 2 weeks like new people, filled with hope and rejuvenation.
Refresh your cache by taking a look at which friends or family members can support you (and you, them!). Even one person is enough. They will give you courage and an idea of what life can be outside a toxic relationship. You can also consider reaching out to a therapist, or finding a support group.
These are people who will stay by you after you end the relationship. You’ll need them for emotional support, help getting a job, or ideas of a new place to live.
Research shows that the quality of your relationships can affect your immune system, as well as your mood, motivation, and coping skills. Having social support can even lower your risk of developing health conditions such as:
- heart disease
In addition to everyone in your support network, there’s one other person you desperately need on your side: you!
You are the one who knows you best and has been with you the longest.
Try writing down all the advice, love, and compassion you have, seal it up in an envelope, and send it to yourself.
If you can’t find enough self-love to do that just yet, that’s OK. Try writing the letter from a pseudonym friend who is the most compassionate person you can dream up.
This idea and many others comes from Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
She’s the author of the book “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.” In her book, she offers exercises — such as letter-writing — and action plans for getting through a debilitating struggle, like ending a toxic relationship.
There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself a reward for taking a positive step forward.
Say you’ve managed to send that soon-to-be former friend a polite no to their text message requesting your time. Reward yourself by doing something you truly enjoy. Maybe it’s reading a book by yourself, or getting your go-to favorite drink.
This tactic can be overused, of course, and turn into distraction or escapism. You don’t want to do that. But doing something that’s hard and then rewarding yourself can help your motivation.
If rewards have worked down through the ages, it can certainly work for you!
When you end a toxic relationship, you may feel guilty for many reasons. Maybe you feel guilty that you:
- stayed too long in the relationship
- hurt the other person
- think the relationship might have harmed your children
- lower the risk of heart attack
- reduce blood pressure
- improve cholesterol levels
- reduce levels of anxiety, depression, and stress
Affirmations can be powerful tools of change. If you want to feel strong, for example, try saying “I am strong” to yourself. Of course, you’ll need to take practical steps too!
The brain actually changes with regular self-affirmation practice. According to a 2016 study, MRI images suggest that certain neural pathways become more active in people who practice self-affirmation.
Most relationship experts say one of the best things you can do after a breakup of any kind is to give yourself time to heal. This is especially true after a toxic relationship.
Take all the time you need after you close that chapter to breathe and savor life again. Focus on what matters in your life.
In “Ready to Heal: Women Facing Love, Sex, and Relationship Addiction,” author Kelly McDaniel encourages folks who’ve just broken off a toxic relationship to lay low and resist the urge to pack your day with too many activities.
“The energy it takes to endure withdrawal [to an addictive or toxic relationship] is equivalent to working a full-time job. Truthfully, this may be the hardest work you’ve ever done. In addition to support from people who understand your undertaking, you must keep the rest of your life simple. You need rest and solitude.”
Ending a toxic relationship can be difficult and time consuming. But it can also be invigorating and freeing. It can open up your life to you again.
Be sure to take the time and energy to do it properly. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the relationship a long time. You always have a way out and a right to take that path.
These 10 steps can help get you on the right track. The support network you build around yourself will help you do the rest.
Stay safe. Know your options if you anticipate even the smallest possibility of retaliatory abuse or violence. You can always get help. Always. Know your local emergency contacts, or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
No matter what step of ending a toxic relationship you’re at, congratulate yourself for coming this far. Remind yourself that you deserve a healthy relationship.
And if you’re still trying to find the strength to take the first step, listen to the words of relationship adviser Gary Lewandowski in his TED Talk:
“Sure, your relationship might leave you with a few cracks, but those cracks, those imperfections, those are sources of strength and beauty, because breakups don’t have to leave you broken, because you’re stronger than you know.”
— Gary Lewandowski