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From the moment we are born, we have an innate drive to be in relationship to others.  No man is an island and being in relationship with others enables our needs to be met.

Hollywood has a lot to answer for.  They make finding someone to love seems so easy when in reality, relationships can be complicated.

Healthy romantic relationships are built upon trust, open and honest communication, and respect.  It involves two individuals who show and allow:

  • Empathy
  • Affection and interest
  • Compromise
  • Flexibility
  • Room for each person to grow

Much of my work with clients involves helping people explore and understand their relationships.  People often have a sense that something isn’t right without fully understanding why.

Sometimes there are patterns to our relationships.  If someone grew up in a family where their parents have a toxic, unhealthy relationship, this could form a blueprint of how they relate to others and expect to be treated.  They would have difficulty even understanding or recognising a healthy relationship. Unknowingly they will go out into the world seeking out the types of relationships which are best avoided.

What is a toxic relationship?

The cues that indicate a relationship is toxic can be subtle.  Not every toxic relationship is overtly violent, abusive, or damaging.  There are however some key indicators:

  • You feel sad or angry much of the time
  • The relationship no longer brings you joy, and/or you feel bad about yourself
  • You emotional wellbeing is starting to suffer, leading to feelings of depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems such as eating disorders.

The role of self-esteem

Self-esteem plays a huge role in our relationships.  If you have good self-esteem, you have an inherent sense you are worthy and will ensure your needs are met.  This means you are more likely to value yourself and seek others who do the same.

Yet someone with low self-esteem may take their feelings of “unworthiness” into their relationships, feeling undeserving of love and attention.  Within their frame of reference, it would seem normal for them to be in a relationship with someone who did not make them happy.

Low self-esteem can be a contributory factor to staying in a bad relationship.  The person may say things to rationalise why they are being treated badly e.g. “I’m a difficult person to live with” or “That was my fault”.   Furthermore, the impact of the relationship itself can continue to eat away at levels of self-esteem.

Walking away

Extracting yourself from a toxic relationship is by no means easy.  Walking away can bring anger, guilt, and feelings of grief for the person or relationship you had desperately wanted.  Yet it is absolutely necessary, and it is always worth it.

As you recover and move on, there is a tendency to look back and wonder how you ever allowed yourself to get into a relationship of this kind.  Thoughts can circulate in your head:

  • “How could I be so stupid?”
  • “Why did I not see the warning signs”
  • “Why did I allow someone to treat me like that?”

Of course, these thoughts come with benefit of hindsight.  There may well be some value in looking at the relationship to gain better understanding and insight to prevent making the same mistake again.  This is where counselling can help.  Yet there is a point where this is no longer a productive exercise, and it can cause real distress and suffering.  It can also eat away at your self-esteem which has already taken a battering.

Moving on involves treating yourself with kindness and self-compassion.  This can be really hard to do but you need to give yourself some leeway.

In my experience relationships don’t start from a toxic, destructive place.  There may well have been some red flags in those early days, but it can be easy to overlook these because you are infatuated, in the honeymoon period, or giving your partner the benefit of doubt.

Here are my takeaway comments:

  1. Don’t ruminate – Getting wrapped up in the “what if’s” has the power to consume you. What has happened is in the past.  Instead focus your energy on the present and the future.
  2. Be kind – We can often find compassion for others yet find it difficult to apply it ourselves. In these situations, it can be helpful to think about what you would say to a friend.  You would probably show understanding, compassion, and care; showing this to yourself is no different.
  3. Forgive your mistakes – Our mistakes give us the greatest opportunity to learn. Just as you might warn a young child to be careful, often the only way they will learn is to make the mistake for themselves.