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You’ve probably heard the warning signs you’re in an unhealthy relationship: the constantly walking on eggshells to avoid a huge fight, the on-again-off-again breakup cycle only to end up in the same place—unhappy.
A toxic relationship leaves its victims feeling worse about themselves each time it escalates or repeats itself. Rather than serving as an honest, uplifting support system, an unhealthy relationship tears you down, discourages productive communication, and can even lead to social isolation or emotional abuse. All of this seems obvious—especially to outsiders. But when the signs are right in front of you, it can feel like the most difficult thing in the world to recognize; it’s hard to break up with and let go of the person closest to you.
Knowing that you should leave a toxic relationship is one thing, but taking the right steps to do so is a bigger challenge. To help, the Daily Dot spoke with an expert about recognizing the signs of a toxic relationship and how to make a clean and healthy break.
How to get out of a toxic relationship
1) Reflect on how you got there
When you’re trying to get out of a toxic situation, one of the first steps you need to take is to examine what got you into the relationship in the first place—and why you stayed. Once you step back and think about what attracts you to this person and this dynamic, you might have a better understanding of what makes it unhealthy.
“What I see in a lot of toxic relationships are people who try to leave and have gone back continuously,” said Matthew Lundquist, a couples and family therapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York. “It can be too tempting to go back if you don’t examine how they got in the relationship.”
Plus, identifying the signs of toxic behavior in your relationship will benefit you in the long run. If you learn which behaviors are problematic, you’ll reduce the risk of falling into another toxic situation before you’re in too deep. It’s important to note that physical or emotional abuse and sexual assault should not be tolerated at all. If you’re in a dangerous situation, seek help and know that there are resources available to assist you.
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2) Fall back on your inner circle
The saying “family is forever” is probably one of the purest mantras out there—but go ahead and throw close friends into the mix because they also have your back. And when you’re going through a tough time—and nothing is tougher than breaking an unhealthy cycle—lean on the people closest to you for advice, solace, or even shelter if necessary.
It’s easy to develop a “blind spot” toward certain toxic words or actions your partner demonstrates, and your inner circle will be there to give you the extra push you need. Even if you’ve put forth the perfect relationship on Instagram, opening up to the ones you trust most about the issues behind is important—and they probably won’t be surprised things aren’t so flawless. They’ll be blunt with you, and maybe even point out signs you’ve been reluctant to recognize.
“It’s really important to do what we call ‘socialize the relationship,'” Lundquist said. “Talk with friends and family, people you’re close to and trust about how the relationship is going.”
According to Lundquist, the casual banter or complaining many of us find ourselves sharing over drinks with friends is known as “reality testing,” and it’s something everyone should do once and a while. Bounce your thoughts off of your friends. For example, “Hey, David said this to me yesterday and it really struck a chord, what do you think?” Check to see if they notice any red flags you may have missed.
In some cases, a toxic partner could drive you to isolate yourself from those around you so that you can’t be closer to them. If you feel your partner is turning you against your friends or encouraging isolation, know that you’re never too far removed to reach back out to those you might have broken ties with. Be sure to alert someone about your partners’ controlling behaviors. When it comes down to it, your happiness and safety will matter the most to those who care for you.
3) Talk to a professional
If talking to your friends and family about your relationship isn’t an option, seeing a therapist or a third-party professional for help is always a good idea. Building a support system and getting a perspective on the relationship from an outsider will help you remember why you need to leave; they may also hold you accountable to taking action.
Staying in a toxic relationship is not only bad for your mental health—it can negatively affect your physical health. A 2014 study found that people in an unhealthy relationship suffered from disturbed sleep, stress, and even an increased risk of heart problems. Even after a toxic relationship ends, negative and stressful aspects won’t vanish immediately. Just as you recover from a physical wound, you can expect the same for healing after a high-stress relationship.
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4) Make it a clean break
It’s important to assertively and firmly break up with your partner. Make it clear that you do not want to have any contact with them. Don’t be afraid of making strict boundaries. Barriers will most likely eliminate the possibility they will try to reach out to you, or worse, harass you.
Ditch any lingering concerns about hurting your partners’ feelings. You’re the most important person in your life. According to Lundquist, a “soft breakup” could foster a sense of false hope, dragging things out and ultimately making a stressful situation even worse.
“In cases where people end a relationship with a toxic or unsafe individual, we would be concerned that the individual would harass them, say hurtful things, or try to do hurtful things,” Lundquist said. “The cleaner the break we make, the better the chance that won’t happen.”
It may sound easy while reading this, but some situations are more complicated than a few bad arguments. If you believe your safety is at risk due to a toxic relationship, or you are being harassed, call the police or a crisis hotline like the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
This year, it’s all about living your best and most safe life.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Kristen Hubby is a tech and lifestyle reporter. Her writing focuses on sex, pop culture, streaming entertainment, and social media, with an emphasis on major platforms like Snapchat, YouTube, and Spotify. Her work has also appeared in Austin Monthly and the Austin American-Statesman, where she covered local news and the dining scene in Austin, Texas.