Gather round for a cautionary tale of toxic affairs.
Love Canal in upstate New York’s Niagara Falls was supposed to be a dream neighborhood. Except a dumping ground of toxic waste festered underneath. It lay buried for more than 20 years, while numerous warning signs went ignored. In the late 1970s, the poison bubbled to the surface. The place was evacuated, yet the consequences were tragic.
Let this be an allegory; if you have a toxic person in your life, whether they be a partner, relative, friend or associate, chances are you’ve let the situation simmer for years. The thing is, you know it’s not them that’s toxic; it’s their behavior.
They’re wounded, and they deal with it through manipulation and control. You’ve found Band-Aid solutions. You’ve forgiven them for hurting you. You’ve looked the other way. But now, you’ve decided it’s time to evacuate.
So how do you dredge the mess and say goodbye?
“There is not usually a way to end a toxic relationship in a completely graceful way,” says Bernadette Galea, a registered psychologist who has a special interest in relationships, self-esteem, and spiritual deliberation.
“By definition, a toxic relationship is one where at least one party is dependent on the other in a serious way and because of this, at least one person is likely to not cope emotionally with the ‘end,’” she says.
Darlene Lancer, a therapist who writes about toxic relationships for Psychology Today, agrees that amicable separation is unlikely. “You may need to grieve and let go of that and resolve not to expect that,” she says.
Dr. Mark Banschick, a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce,says “there’s a Leave-er and a Leave-ee in most break-ups. The Leave-er has been grieving the relationship for sometime. The Leave-ee, the one being left, bears the brunt and it’s going to hurt.”
Here’s how to get out of a toxic relationship or friendship in the least painful way possible.
“Firstly, I would advise a person to write down all of the reasons they may want to leave,” says Galea. “Toxic people have a way of convincing you to stay when you are very ready to leave them so a list can remind you the reasons you know you need to go.”
“Counterintuitively, the closer the person has been to you, the more likely it is that you’ve tolerated the toxic aspects of his or her behavior for a considerable length of time,” Peg Streep, a writer who analyzed toxic mother-daughter relationships in her book Daughter Detox, says. “Many of us tend to normalize or deny the effects of a close other’s behaviors, in part because we’re still getting something of value from the connection.”
Believe it or not, it’s acceptable to broach the issue over text, email, or in person. But here’s something you probably don’t want to hear: Expect the worst.
“You should always expect the worst when you have the final conversation,” says Galea, who has worked with scores of clients to sort through relationship issues in her practice in Brisbane, Australia, and over Skype. “It could be good to do a role play with a trusted friend or therapist who can say all of the likely things that may be said by the other person. This way you can practice keeping your cool and grounding yourself as you leave.”
“Avoid name-calling and insults. It can help ‘the end’ to be much more graceful or it at least helps you to remain graceful.”
Ending a toxic relationship can sometimes take an even greater emotional toll than grieving a death, says Galea.
“This is because leaving a toxic relationship is a ‘choice’ and when we leave people by choice we can experience huge amounts of confusion which leads to guilt,” Galea says. Guilt is actually born from confusion. It comes about when we hold two different conflicting views on how we should act and what is right.”
Steers says that “paradoxically, many people will experience both relief and mourning at once … The more central the relationship has been to our definition of self, the more ambivalent we’ll feel, and the more likely it is that we’ll try again.”
So how can you get something positive out of this experience?
See it as an opportunity. “Examine your own history and personality to uncover why you were attracted to a toxic person and stayed in it,” Lancer says. “You can grow from this so that you don’t repeat the same pattern.”
No doubt you will worry about the person you are leaving. But Galea says that “ultimately, staying in a toxic relationship never benefits either party. If you stay, you condemn the other person to a life of toxicity as well as yourself.”
Is there ever a way to reconnect with a person whom you have previously cut ties? As you’d expect, it’s difficult to generalize.
“In most cases it’s not advisable to check in with people you have cut ties with,” says Galea. “There can be no hard and fast rule, though, as sometimes there is room for reconciliation and forgiveness after some time has passed.”
Dr. Banschick says it is possible but advises you set clear limits. “One can offer contact in the future, but make the nature of the contact clear,” he says. “‘I need a clean break and plan not to respond to text messages. I do not mean to be cruel. I just need time away. Down the road I may circle back if you are open to talking.’”
The key is to “ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish by checking in again. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Once again, know your core values.”