The term “toxic relationship” implies so much. It suggests that everyone in it knows it is toxic. It implies a hard break and steady, powerful recognition.
The notion of abandoning a toxic partner makes me think of juice cleanses and dying my hair.
Toxic relationships are what we bring to bars and wine nights with our girlfriends, where we can talk about them and find relief that they are sitting snugly in the past.
Toxic partners are ghosts. Right?
I was in a toxic relationship for three years, and when I left, it didn’t look like any of this. At least, not in the beginning.
It looked like dirty dishes left in the sink, a pounding heart, and a three-line note.
It looked like a small suitcase crammed with belongings and a train ride and fear. It looked like a lot of other things, too, things I couldn’t quite articulate until years after departing.
These are a few of the things I wish someone had told me to expect. I’m telling you now so that you can pass it on—whether you have your eyes on your exit or not.
1. Leaving isn’t easy.
It’s far easier to talk about a toxic relationship than to leave one.
It is even easier to stay in one. Whether you’ve broached the idea of closing the door to toxicity or have yet to consider it, the actual stage exit isn’t a slip-n-slide.
In many cases, it’s a wall. Mine was. Every time I searched for a door handle, I came across the inevitable: love.
It’s easy to love a toxic partner. It’s easy to think that you can fix toxicity, erase it, digest it like a healthy couple’s problem.
With my toxic partner, I feared who I would become without him. I was more terrified of him outside of the relationship than in it.
The sobering truth is that many men and women in toxic relationships are simply unable to leave—for fear, for that complex love that binds us to what hurts us, for money and children and many many more things.
There is no fault if you do not leave. If you do leave, you may feel as if you haven’t even left yet.
2. The toxicity doesn’t leave immediately.
Saying no to toxicity or abuse is not a clean break. It’s a knife through brick.
The toxicity may follow you. It followed me in the form of thought patterns my ex had grafted into my brain: beliefs that I was crazy, emotionally stable, altered, unworthy.
It followed me in the form of fear. I took this toxicity with me into every subsequent hook-up, encounter, and relationship, and it would always rear its head. I tried to explain it, but found that I couldn’t.
Even when I set literal fire to photos, letters, notes, and memories from my relationship—a veritable treasure trove of toxic love—the smoke didn’t carry it all away.
What finally chases those threads of darkness away? Love. Not from another person, but from your own relentless heart.
3. You want.
You may hunger for your ex. You may hunger for him or her for years after leaving. This is because toxic partners often teach us to be insatiable with their own addictive behaviors.
Toxic people can be strangely alluring, whether due to charm or that bad boy streak or a brooding, mysterious face.
They can be fantastic lovers, romantic partners, and deep listeners. They may have admirable qualities and a ferocious passion.
You will want to go back. You will want to crawl into their bed and taste their lips. You may feel as if no one else will ever understand you the way your partner understood you.
And you may feel shame for having this desire.
My love, it is okay to want. I think that as humans we lust after the dark things as much as we lust after the light. Wanting lets us know that the past is valid, and the future even more so.
4. Sometimes the choice doesn’t come from you.
It is hard to identify toxicity when you are knee-deep in it. I was blind to it, even as I welcomed it and brushed it aside.
Leaving a toxic relationship, then, may not be fully your decision. Friends and family members may say something. They may urge you to get out. They may make the decision for you, and you may let them.
Even as you are getting ready to leave, you may feel that everyone else is overreacting. Or you may sense the truth in their words but wish you could express the same.
The choice can come from anywhere. The important thing is that it is made.
5. It takes a while to figure out “normal.”
Toxic partners weave a web of language and familiarity. Inside of a toxic relationship, what is toxic is “normal.”
I adapted to the way I argued with my toxic ex—the arguments that went round and round, landing always on me, resulting frequently in violence. I assumed that this was “normal.” I assumed that arguments were always dangerous and unproductive.
I assumed a lot of other things, too.
Outside of this relationship, I felt much like I was learning how to use a sparkler for the first time. I felt fear at the quick flame, wonder at the way the fire created words in the night, and curiosity at the fact that these were not new inventions.
Many times, I burned my hands.
It takes time to recalibrate. It often takes other people to help you redefine normal, in the form of partners, teachers, and friends.
The wrong people will continue to shift your perspective of normal in the opposite direction; the right people will let you define it.
6. That relationship may not be the last.
I wish I could tell you that you won’t have any more toxic relationships. I wish I could find you all of the non-toxic humans in the world and send them to your doorstep.
It is far more common for men and women to leave toxic relationships behind and walk straight into another one. This is especially true for people who don’t take the time to recalibrate, readjust, open their eyes to the sun after a toxic encounter.
I’m not saying that everyone develops Stockholm Syndrome in a toxic affair.
But I will say that it’s possible to learn to love toxicity and to hunger for it. What is “healthy” may, therefore, feel unexciting or vanilla, while “unhealthy” becomes addictive.
You may feel as if you are running to the exit all the time. This is okay. Running is movement, and movement is learning. Someday you’ll run to the door that opens to a love that honors and cherishes you.
7. It can be dangerous.
Toxic relationships are often abusive. I have a lot to say about abusive relationships because I was in one for many years. If you are currently dating an abusive partner (or think you are), I have some words for you.
Emotional abuse may not result in violence, but it can. Toxic partners may have access to weapons. They may react dangerously when you voice your desire to leave. They may explode or pursue you.
They may not do any of these things.
What I’m saying, is that there is always a possibility. Be careful. Seek help if you can.
What did I do? I got the police on my side. I covered my tracks. I chose safety, and I remained safe.
8. It may be the most powerful thing you do.
I will always say that darkness can change your life. It changed mine.
When you leave a toxic relationship behind, you make a decision that is primarily for you.
You take a stand for healthy, abundant, vital love. You also give yourself a glimmer of what you deserve—something beyond this, something that recognizes your exquisite potential and beauty.
There will be pain. You will wish you could skip the pain, get past the healing, move on. But in this pain, there is more power than you could ever foresee.
I didn’t see my own power until about two years after I had left. I realized I was limitless. I realized I could love, better and deeper, and be loved in return. I realized no one could stop me or ensnare me again. Not on my watch.
9. Others may not understand.
It is hard to describe toxicity, the way it clings to your skin. People who haven’t been in toxic relationships don’t understand the significance and weight of your leaving.
This makes sense. But it is also isolating. It may make you want to tell your story over and over again, to people who will listen, like I am doing now. It may make you want to shout and scream.
So. Shout and scream. Someone will listen. (I am.)
10. The air tastes so good.
Really. When you open that window and crawl through, away from toxicity, the air is unbelievably sweet. You turn your cheek to the sun and inhale. You feel your own limbs, powerful and true.
The air will never taste so good again. Breathe deep—this is worth it.