A Note On Leaving Toxic Relationships
What I've learned though, is how it feels to leave a toxic relationship.
If you have a loved one who finally leaves their toxic relationship, don’t rush into telling them they’re better off. I know you’re internally rejoicing. Your friend knows you’re internally rejoicing. We all know – in the greater scheme of things – that the relationship they were a part of was a toxic and soul-sucking one. But don’t assume that your friend is as happy as you are about its demise. Don’t assume that they’re more relieved than they are upset. Don’t assume they’re more empowered than they are mournful. Don’t assume that just because you are rejoicing over the soul-sucker's exit from your friend’s life, your heartbroken friend is doing the same.
Here’s the thing about being in a toxic relationship of any kind: You know exactly what other people think of it. You know your friends are unsure about them. You know that all your family have been hoping that you’d leave them. You know that most of your friends and loved ones have been waiting – with baited breath – for this relationship to end. So when it does, people can quick to put on a show for those friends and family. They know that they’re supposed to play the part of the independent party who is too intelligent to miss such an asshole. And so, too often, they save their pain for when they’re alone.
The truth about toxic friendships is that they’re infinitely more nuanced than they appear. You saw the horrible parts of the person, but you didn't see the beautiful parts. You didn't see the long, lazy days they spent playing together as children. You didn’t see the tiny acts of love they sporadically showered them with. You didn't see the support they gave them – however volatile or inconsistent, and you didn't see the futures they had mapped out together. I shared my hopes and dreams and doubts with this girl. We were best friends once, and although it was a long time ago, cutting her out made my younger self scream out, wondering where it could have possibly gone so wrong.
You weren't the person in the relationship, so please don’t decide on their behalf that they are not hurting. They lost someone they loved. Maybe the love has been gone for awhile, but they need to mourn that, no matter how right the decision to leave them – or be left by them – was. So when your friend finally breaks free of that toxic relationship, do this: Allow them the chance to feel their pain. Don’t rush instantly into empowering them. Don’t rush into recounting each of the person's flaws. Don’t assume that they’re as elated about the relationship’s end as you are. Instead, just let them feel. Let them fall apart. Let them cry and mourn and miss the awful monster that you hated so much. Allow them to be a human being who lost someone they loved – because that is exactly what they are.
Ask your friend if they are okay, and mean it. Ask them if they’re sad and need to talk. Tell them that you’re there – all judgements reserved – and that it’s okay for them to mourn the end of that relationship, if they need to. That it doesn't make them inhuman or weak. That missing someone who was toxic is entirely, unbearably human. And that you’re there for them every step of the way.
Because here is what is likely to happen if your friend does not have the chance to grieve their ex: they will go back to them. This isn't just toxic teenage friendships I'm talking about. On average, abused women leave their abusers seven times before they finally leave for good. They go back because their resources are squandered. They go back because their feelings are invalidated. They go back because they feel unable to live up to the expectation that they’re fierce and empowered and strong – and that lack of strength convinces them, more than ever, that they’re helpless without their ex. They go back because the feelings we cannot give a voice to are the ones that eventually consume us. They’re the ones that drive us to desperate measures.
Of course there are other possible outcomes.Of course your friend may be just as strong as they appear. Of course they might really be fine. But it’s not a risk you necessarily want to take. The truth about toxic, abusive and manipulative relationships is that an abuser’s primary goal is to make their target feel weak. To tear them down, break them apart and leave them with little support. And so when your friend is coming out of such a relationship, they need all of the support they can get.
In time, they will learn to take their lives back. In time, they will stand on their own two feet. And in time, they will realize the true toxicity of the relationship that they finally managed to leave.
But in the meantime, just be there for them. Just love them. And just let them be unbearably, pathetically human, in whatever way they need to be.
Because at the end of the day, that is all any of us truly need.