6 Steps to Leave a Toxic Relationship

How to leave toxic marriage

Verywell / Jessica Olah 

A good relationship can elevate your life in ways that you never thought were possible. A bad one can leave you heartbroken, depressed, and listless. Toxic relationships are more common than you might think, and their effects can often be crippling.

These unhealthy relationships are often baffling to people on the outside. Surely, if someone makes you miserable or is physically or emotionally abusive, the obvious decision is to leave them—right? The reality is often more complicated due to many factors including finances, children, and emotions.

What Is a Toxic Relationship?

A toxic relationship is one that is harmful. While some signs of a toxic relationship are more obvious—like physical abuse, repeated infidelity, and inappropriate sexual behavior—others can be harder to detect. It may involve disrespectful, dishonest, or controlling behavior. For example, your partner cuts you down frequently. As a result, your mental health may begin to suffer.

Abuse and Domestic Violence

While a relationship does not have to involve abuse for it to be considered toxic, all abusive relationships are toxic. Abuse can manifest in different ways, including emotional, verbal, economic, sexual, and physical.

Signs of an abusive relationship can appear in physical or sexual violence, name-calling, humiliation, or threats. These types of relationships are typically characterized by possessive and controlling behaviors. If you're experiencing any type of abuse, know that you don't deserve to live that way and reach out for support immediately.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Why It's Hard to Leave

People get tied up in relationship patterns that can be hard to break out of. Some might feel trapped financially or worry about their children. In abusive relationships, victims make an average of seven attempts to end the relationship before they do, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Here are reasons why people find it difficult to get out of a toxic relationship:

  • Fear: In abusive relationships, one partner is likely to be extremely manipulative towards the other. This frequently involves making physical, emotional, or financial threats if the other person talks about leaving. As a result, the victim might be afraid to leave their partner.
  • Children: For couples who have children together, it can be very challenging to leave because of the perceived negative impact on the children. There may also be concerns about custody.
  • Love: There may be lingering feelings of love keeping someone in a relationship.
  • Finances: If one partner is financially dependent on the other, that could complicate the logistics involved in leaving.
  • Shame: A lot of people hide the nature of their relationships from their friends, family, and acquaintances. As a result, they silently suffer because they are too ashamed to ask anyone for help. They might turn to drugs or alcohol for solace, worsening the toll that the relationship is taking.
  • Codependency: It can be hard to break free from an imbalanced relationship dynamic where one partner consistently gives and the other takes, as in codependent relationships.

If you've been in a toxic relationship for a long time, it can be hard to see a way out the door. You may even believe that you are really the cause of the problem. Feeling this way is a common phenomenon as the perpetrator in the relationship is often an expert at gaslighting, which leaves you questioning reality.

Additionally, further complications may arise if your partner has a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is a personality disorder characterized by having an overblown sense of self-importance and lack of empathy.

A 2019 study from SAGE Open suggests that aggressive outbursts by narcissistic partners were due to fear of abandonment in the relationship. This could cause a narcissistic individual to lash out or try to prevent their partner from leaving—for example, through manipulation by playing the victim.

6 Steps to Leave a Toxic Relationship

Ending a bad relationship can be really complicated. Here are some things you can do to make the process easier:

  1. Build a safety net: If you're thinking of calling it quits, make a plan for how you are going to deal with the transition. Where will you stay? What possessions will you need to bring along? Don’t do this haphazardly. This process should be well thought out.
  2. Set a goal to be independent: If you do not have a career or a way to support yourself, it is time to begin carving this path. Go to school, get training, begin a job (even a low-level or part-time job). Your financial independence is one of the main roads to freedom.
  3. Let someone know: No more secrets. Confide in a family member or friend so that they can help you with the process. If you feel threatened, inform the local authorities that you are going to need help.
  4. Seek professional help: Leaving and recovering from a toxic relationship will take effort and time. Reach out to support groups or counselors who are experienced in relationship issues. A therapist can be a great impartial resource to guide you and hold you accountable for creating and meeting your goals. An experienced family law attorney is also necessary if you're leaving a marriage.
  5. Stop talking to your partner: Toxic people are very cunning and can use emotional blackmail to lure you back in. When you make the decision to leave your partner, stop any form of communication with them unless you have children and need to co-parent. In this case, only communicate about the children. If you need to file a restraining order, do so.
  6. Indulge yourself: Being part of a toxic relationship is extremely detrimental to your self-esteem and mental health. It may take some time before you are ready to be part of another relationship. Don’t rush this. Take time for yourself. To help yourself recover, make time for hobbies. Start working on a pet project or your own business. Take that trip you've always wanted to go on.

A Word From Verywell

Not only is being in a toxic relationship extremely hard, but you also might even feel trapped in it. You deserve to be happy, however, and rid of the harm and negativity that it's causing you. Leaving an unhealthy and toxic relationship is a tremendously difficult and brave step to take, but you can do it.

If you want to find happiness and comfort in your life again, you have to make the leap. There are good people out there. Don't let this experience sabotage your pursuit of joy. If you're having trouble coping or need help creating boundaries, be sure to reach out to a mental health professional.

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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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