Please note that this piece is editorial and is not written by a mental health professional. Do not take any advice from Popularly Positive Media in lieu of your doctor.
A toxic relationship can stay with you for a long time after the break up, infecting future relationships and attacking your self-esteem. The most manipulative of exes plant seeds of doubt that continue to grow long after they’ve left, making sure you feel their control even when they are not physically there. I’ve been there. I’m recovering. I think I am most of the way there but there are still times when I can feel that toxicity flare up and begin to poison my world again.
Therapy is the best way to start to repair the damage of a toxic relationship. Unfortunately, that is just not a reality for everyone, and even if it is, it’s always useful to have some back up plans in your toolkit in between sessions. So what helps?
Ditch ideas of “good” and “bad“
One of the first steps to recovering from any negative experience with someone is to stop thinking in terms of “good” and “bad” people. This is particularly important when reflecting on a relationship with someone toxic.
One of the most common responses to people talking about abusers in their communities is “but they wouldn’t do that – they are so nice!” The issue here is people who want to do bad things and not get caught have to have a public persona that is ‘good.’
Being able to say “they did this and that was wrong and I was not at fault” not only lifts that emotional burden from you, but helps create clear boundaries for future relationships by helping you recognise problematic behaviour in a way you just can’t when you are still working on the assumption that you were to blame.Heather Robinson
No one enters into a relationship with a moustache-twirling villain – often it takes a long time for a person’s true colors to show through. And even then, there’s a good chance you will be the only one having to deal with them at their worst.
This means at the end of a toxic relationship, you are often left with two piles of contradictory memories and feelings; there will be wonderful early dates mixed in with vicious fights, thoughtful presents contrasting with gas-lighting and tears. This duality can be really difficult to hold in your head, especially when as a society we love a good old binary. But that can be really harmful to your recovery. What does it say about you if you dated a bad person? Or maybe they are a good person who was only bad around you – did you “drive them” to be like that?
I have used this dichotomy to torture myself over and over again. The truth? Years ago, I dated someone who could be amazingly kind, funny and supportive when he wanted to be – but more often than not, he chose not to be. He spent a lot of time getting to know me in a way no one else had, but then used that knowledge to manipulate me. It was probably the first major relationship for either of us, and we both made mistakes, but he would never own up for his. I absolutely fell into the trap of thinking some of his god awful behaviour was even a compliment – he didn’t “have to pretend to be perfect around me” and I squashed down the knowledge that I was being used as an emotional punching bag, instead of thinking how great it was that he could be “open” with me. Where do you even begin to split that nonsense into clear “good” and “bad” boxes? (Answers via postcard, please!)
Understanding that people, even awful exes, are complicated messes of good and bad doesn’t absolve anyone for shitty behaviour, but it will give you some emotional breathing room to work out where things went wrong.
Forgiving yourself comes in many forms
When I have spoken to people who have been in toxic relationships, I repeatedly hear them being unkind to themselves and self-blaming for things that are definitely not their fault. Some of it definitely stems from trying to put their toxic ex into a “good person/bad person” box as mentioned before, but also a lot of it comes from a society that regularly engages in victim-blaming.
The hardest lesson I had to learn was that being with him was not a better alternative, even on the lonely days.Heather Robinson
One of the key parts of forgiving yourself is that you have to forgive yourself for the whole experience. It isn’t enough to say “I know what happened wasn’t my fault” if you still blame yourself for not leaving earlier, because it means you haven’t really made peace with yourself.
Forgiving yourself is important because it gives you the ability to look back on your relationship with a critical eye that is not just turned in on yourself. Being able to say “they did this and that was wrong and I was not at fault” not only lifts that emotional burden from you, but helps create clear boundaries for future relationships by helping you recognise problematic behaviour in a way you just can’t when you are still working on the assumption that you were to blame.
Get to know yourself again
Toxic relationships wear you down. They often try to remake you into someone reliant on them, someone who will always agree with them and whose main goal is to please them. All of this requires a constant erosion of who you are and what you need, which can be really tricky to rebuild once you are on your own.
One good way to start rebuilding your relationship with yourself is to just get out and start a new hobby, one that has no baggage or connection to your ex. This allows you to set new, manageable goals, to learn new skills that you can be proud of, and to fail in a safe space.
For example, I love to cook. I find it rhythmic, relaxing, and, if I’m making a big pot of something, just a little bit witchy. Cooking was a great way for me to learn new skills that were entirely for my own benefit – making delicious things was a way of giving myself some cosy TLC. I also fucked up a lot, burning things, mixing things that should not have been mixed together. But because it was just for me, I could laugh it off. The worst thing was that some pans needed more scrubbing. At the end of my toxic relationship I was in a place where I felt that any error, no matter how small, would be catastrophic. But it wasn’t. And I needed time to learn that and to trust myself again.
Having new ways to connect with yourself is also a great way to ward off the lonely days. During my worst relationship, I was so dependent on my ex because I couldn’t stand to be alone. He got me to a point emotionally where I was constantly disgusted with myself and his validation was the only thing that could help me cope with the seemingly unbearable situation of being me. Obviously, that was part of the point for him – if I thought that no one else would ever love me, I’d be on my own if I left and I couldn’t do that. The hardest lesson I had to learn was that being with him was not a better alternative, even on the lonely days. Having something I liked to do, that helped me concentrate on where I wanted to go, instead of where I was, helped create future alternatives. It also helped me from falling into spirals of self-doubt whenever I had too much time on my hands.
Rebuild healthy connections
One of the most common symptoms of a toxic partner is that they will attempt to isolate you from your friends and family. It is worth taking time to rebuild those connections, albeit with a bit of caution.
There will be people who are mad at you for not leaving when they told you, for not listening to their advice or actively ignoring it (sorry to, like, all of my friends when I was 19), for not being there for them. Some accusations may be legitimate, but it wasn’t your fault those things happened. People need to recognise that if they are going to move forward with you. You don’t have to win everyone back. If there are people who keep making you feel bad, leave that broken bridge to rot. It is so easy for someone leaving a bad relationship to slip back into habits of capitulation and submission. The connections you need should be lifting you out of those behaviours, not demanding you replicate them.
The other thing to bear in mind when rebuilding connections is that not everyone needs to know everything. My ex made it so that he was my sole pillar of support and I had to balance upon that. Now, I have a real network with a range of intimacies – I have friends that I keep everything light with but we know we are always there for a break from life’s stresses and I have friends whose house I can turn up to at 3am and be greeted with spare pjs and hugs. Variety is good.
Reclaim the stuff you love
My ex ruined The Killer’s Mr. Brightside for me for my first few years at uni. If you are a 20-something person living in the UK, you cannot go to a single damn party or club night without hearing it. I would find myself hiding at parties, disappearing on nights out and continuing his work by isolating myself. In the end, a friend noticed that I would disappear every time the intro started up.
The next time we were out and it played, he grabbed me by the shoulders and more or less screamed the lyrics at me in a bizarrely hilarious way. We did that the next three parties, then we danced in a circle with him holding my hand, then we danced at other ends of the room with a lot of “you doing ok?” eye contact. Now some of my favourite memories are drunkenly dancing to a song that a few years I go I couldn’t even think about without feeling like shit.
Toxic relationships infect all of your life, spreading misery like mold. When they are over, that damage doesn’t disappear – you have to work out what you want to disinfect and what needs to be binned. When you work out what you want to keep, you need to work at making sure the stuff you love has enough good memories to outweigh the baggage.
If it’s an author you loved, read their latest book that is untouched. Find a book club that is talking about the book you lent to your ex.
And be strict with yourself – you will know the difference between reclamation and wallowing. If there is a band you cannot save and listening to them just makes you think maybe that relationship wasn’t all the bad, get rid. Explore other bands with a similar sound (and ideally a super feminist vibe).
Recovering from a toxic relationship is slow work and requires a lot of self care and love. It’s a long road and there might be times when you feel like you are doubling back. If that happens, take a breath, call a close friend and switch Soulmate by Lizzo on as loud as your speakers will let you. – HR
Heather is a London based freelance consent workshop facilitator and general sex education nerd. She started teaching sex ed at uni despite being a maths undergrad. She is a committed sex positive feminist and proud Northerner. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherConsent.