Toxic relationships are deeply painful--and incredibly confusing. Finally breaking free is like waking up from a bad dream, and yet the effects can linger in unexpected ways. Finding a sense of self, of normalcy and sanity again can be surprisingly difficult. But the reasons make sense, and you deserve time and space to figure it out.
First of all, it isn't just romantic relationships that get toxic and abusive. Any kind of relationship system can be. This includes friendships, workplaces, families, even faith communities.
When we live in a toxified version of any of these arenas, we become accustomed to a warped economy of affection, appetite, and expectation. We may accept it without realizing it, because in its contorted context it makes a perverse kind of sense.
Even once we recognize the wrongness of a bad relationship's toxic aspects and choose to walk away, it has still become second nature to us in a way. A big part of us has become used to how things were, and what we had to do to survive.
If I've been in a toxic relationship system for a long time, even once I'm free I might find myself:
Feeling the same anxiety, shame, or depression the relationship gave me.
Feeling weirdly disoriented or even triggered around healthy people.
Projecting my abuser's qualities on other people.
Drawn to the coping mechanisms that the toxic relationship allowed, which have become unhelpful.
Breaking out of a toxic relationship system takes huge amounts of courage and energy. And it takes a long time to trust the in the reality that the rules really are different out here.
Getting to Know You Again
One of the most insidious effects of toxic relationships is how we lose a sense of ourselves outside of them. They require us to see ourselves as the one who takes the blame, isn't allowed to have boundaries, etc.
It can be hard to accept ourselves as anything else, even when we've parted with the person or system that made us look into that distorted mirror. Building self-esteem and rediscovering our intrinsic value and gifts can be hard, scary work.
Every toxic relationship system offers its own twisted kind of protection, affirmation, and sense of belonging. They strive to make us dependent. It's important to realize this--and to count the cost exacted by the false promises--because this is the part that tempts us to gravitate back into the relationship, or to another one like it.
It's time to begin the journey of asking who you are--without that relationship. This journey is sometimes frightening, because we've been convinced not to believe that the answer is good.
So it makes sense that this journey is so much work. It makes sense that engaging in better, healthier, life-giving relationships feels kind of weird.
And it makes sense that we need help along the way.
Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC is a nationally board-certified counselor in Loveland, CO.
Photo by Arthur Osipyan.