It seems like there’s a heightened awareness of and focus on toxic relationships. The internet is flooded with articles and quizzes to help you discern whether your relationship or loved one is toxic. Once you figure that part out you can go on to discover how to disentangle yourself. Countless more articles and memes warn you of the struggles of disengaging. From the head games to the possible physical danger. Being in a relationship with a toxic person is exhausting at best and getting out of that relationship is no less complicated.
Here’s the thing though. You very likely noticed that this isn’t the first toxic relationship you’ve been in. You have probably had several. It’s probable that all of your adult relationships have been very unhealthy. Some people seem to be drawn to toxic people and relationships like a moth to the flame. You may be one of them. You might feel stuck in a toxic relationship cycle. But why? And, more importantly, what can you do about it? How can you go forward to have amazing fulfilling relationships in the future?
The Cycle Begins
Where did it start?
What was your first unhealthy relationship? Make sure that you closely examine your family of origin. Often times, even in very functional loving families, there is a relationship model that isn’t quite right. This is a good indication as to where to start digging. This doesn’t mean that you have to shatter all of your wonderful childhood memories or eliminate people from your life. It is very likely that somewhere in your immediate family something went awry. It could be something that appears to be very minimal or even something you may have misinterpreted as a child. If you are repeatedly finding yourself in toxic relationships there is something there.
What did you learn?
As children we learn to fit in. All humans are completely dependent on family so we need to comply to survive. We learn what‘s expected of us and how to function in our families. In doing that we develop coping skills and behavior patterns based on what we’ve experienced. What you have learned in these early relationships carries forward into your adult relationships. You may have learned to be pleasing or passive. Or learned to be hypervigilant and prepared. We all learn all sorts of relationship “skills” from these early examples. Not only that but we completely normalize any dysfunction we observe or experience. And, we don’t even notice that there is anything awry.
How is this reinforced?
You are very likely to start dating in your late teens and early adult years. Because of rapid brain development at this time no one is very stable. Usually, every relationship you see is unhealthy in some way or another. Even that super cute couple is likely to be showing signs of controlling or limiting behaviors. During this stage every possible relationship dynamic looks somewhat normal and is treated as such. Whatever habits and coping mechanisms you learned as a child are reinforced here. Even if there is a lot of resulting drama and heartache in your relationship it doesn’t stand out. You simply become one of the multitude when you regularly call your friend in tears.
Now… here’s where it gets tricky! Some people out grow this. Some consciously notice what is happening and they seek assistance and make concerted effort to make better choices. This requires time alone for personal growth and self-evaluation. That is typically very scary and overwhelming for a person stuck in this cycle but it is necessary.
Others seem to repeat this same dramatic scene over and over again, well into adulthood. It appears they are doomed to be in one bad relationship after another. Why is this?
Fueling the cycle
So, you’ve realized that you’re in a toxic relationship. And this isn’t the first time, you’ve been in many toxic relationships. Guess what? It’s very likely that in all of that normalizing and bad habit development you’ve become co-dependent. Or you may even struggle with more significant dependence issues. What does that mean? It means that you might have unhealthy relationship patterns. Figuring this out is key to breaking the cycle.
Ask yourself these questions
- Do you have low self-esteem?
- Do you struggle with emotional intimacy? (Is it difficult for you to share your true needs and feelings with your partners?)
- Do you struggle to maintain boundaries?
- Do you fear abandonment and rejection so greatly that you will stay in unhealthy or even abusive relationships and be compliant?
- Are you a people pleaser? Does it make you feel anxious to say “no” to anyone?
- Do you feel the need to completely control situations and relationships?
- Do you obsess over other people’s opinions and relationships?
- If a loved one has an opinion opposite yours do you feel defensive or feel like you must change your opinion?
- Do you care for others at your own expense?
- Do you experience intense feelings of guilt, shame or anxiety?
- Have you been in denial that you have any responsibility for the struggles in the relationship? Or do you find it necessary to believe that the relationship is 100% perfect 100% of the time?
Well, you wouldn’t be a healthy, well-adjusted human if you didn’t say you could identify with at least a couple of these some of the time. If you agree with several, especially if you have a history of toxic relationships, it’s likely that you are struggling with co-dependence. Your struggles are fueling the cycle. Leading you to one toxic relationship after another! If you continue on your current path you are very likely to continue to have unhealthy relationships!
If you struggle with co-dependence you won’t see “red flags”. Even now that you know, they will remain invisible to you. When you first start dating someone you are likely to idealize them and the relationship. You might think “finally the one” or “this time things will be different”. The truth is that this is what you need to believe because you are suffering from the above issues. In your co-dependent state you will attract toxic people and have toxic relationships. You don’t mind worshiping your partner or being clung to in the beginning. You don’t hold boundaries that may be inconvenient for them. And you are willing to sacrifice your identity and dreams for the relationship. But as the relationship grows the demands and controlling behaviors become overwhelming. You struggle to meet these demands or you feel resentful & unhappy.
Breaking the cycle
What you need to do immediately is work on yourself. You need to find something you are interested in or feel passionately about and pursue it WITHOUT your partner. Take up a hobby. Practice some self-care. Start a journal. You don’t have to move mountains but you do need to move toward independence. This doesn’t mean you need to leave your partner. And I don’t suggest making a sudden life altering decision unless you feel you’re in danger or the relationship is abusive (in that case leave ASAP).***
Consider seeking professional help. It is very likely that you have entrenched habits and beliefs that you can’t find the roots of. You might need some help to dig these things out of your life so that you can respond better. You may also need help to see the unhealthy patterns in the relationship. Developing boundaries is key. A professional life coach or therapist can often guide you in the right direction. They may be able to help you salvage the relationship. Or, if not, they can support you through the process of ending it.
If you have left a relationship with a toxic person take some time to recover. It is likely that you are reeling from the challenges of the relationship. Anyone showing kindness and prioritizing you is likely to catch your attention. This isn’t a good time to get into another relationship. There is a very high likelihood that the new love interest will also turn out to be toxic. Even if they aren’t you are in no condition to show up in a really healthy way in a relationship. You need time to heal. Time to be independent. And, time to connect with yourself.
While you’re taking that time be sure to take a look at your other relationships. Evaluate whether you have healthy boundaries with friends and other family members. Pay especially close attention to your relationship with your children if you have them. You may also want to consider counseling for your children since they have likely normalized your toxic relationships.
You might need to eliminate other relationships in your life. Because, as you grow out of co-dependence you might find that you’ve outgrown relationships too. I know that this is scary and can feel very lonely. Just know that you will find your people. And, your relationships will be healthier and more fulfilling on the other side of this hurdle.
Get back out there! With your new self-esteem and boundaries go and meet some new people. Enjoy some social events, check out some activities on meet up or just go exploring. Go out and meet people. When you do take it nice and slow. Use the bullseye approach.
The Bullseye Approach
New people you meet start on the outermost ring. As you get to know and trust them they move inward. The more compatible and trustworthy they are the closer they move to the center (you). So, only a select few should be in the center with you and that position should be earned. Some people won’t even be interested in getting there and that’s just fine too. Your life will be greatly enriched by having people occupy all the rings of your target!
Start a new cycle
Now that you’ve figured out why you ended up in toxic relationships in the first place you can prevent it from happening in the future. You can break the toxic relationship cycle! You simply need to take the time to build yourself up and practice healthy relationship skills. Hopefully you’ll never need another “Are You in a Toxic Relationship” quiz. If you find that you do though, don’t dwell there. Just go back to the beginning of this post and go through the steps again. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll catch on. And it will be well worth the work when you start a new cycle. You will find yourself surrounded by healthy enriching relationships before you know it!
Please share your relationship success in the comments below to inspire us all! Also share this article to help others who are in the toxic relationship cycle!
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