Cutting Cords To Toxic Relationships
When to Walk Away
As an experienced Denver marriage counselor and therapist, I know first hand: Relationships take work. No one is perfect, no relationship is perfect. No boss, friend, loved one, or partner is perfect.
But how do you know when a relationship has crossed over that tipping point from imperfect to toxic? How do you know when cutting cords to toxic relationships is necessary?
Walking away is hard. Change is hard and scary. And there is a natural and healthy desire for things to work out and for everyone to be happy.
But when you’ve found that a relationship is causing you misery, you’re wondering if the bad has started to outweigh the good, and questioning, “should I burn this bridge?” here are a few questions to ask yourself:
How Did We Get Here?
This step is for getting curious about the patterns you notice in this relationship and creating a narrative from the beginning of it until now. In other words, what is the story of your relationship? What is the relationship’s dynamic, or the dance you and this person create together?
Go deeper: When you reflect back to the infancy of your relationship, do you notice red flags you didn’t necessarily see at the time? How has the relationship evolved since – and were there milestones or critical incidences that contributed to these changes? Can you see where negative energy crept in or was always there?
After spending some time here, zoom out again; what story do your reflections tell you?
What Can I Accept?
Instead of focusing on what you CAN’T control (which includes everything about the other person), focus on what you can accept. Acceptance means not trying to change, help or give advice, not judging or fighting against. It means that, even if you don’t like or agree with something, you let go emotionally. You lean into the fact that “it is what it is,” whether you like it or not.
When working with my DTC relationship clients, I like to ask them to think about (or even list on paper!) all aspects of the relationship over which they have no control. This includes the other’s perspective, reactions, and feelings, just to name a few. Be honest with yourself on this one. Can you let go of some of these?
What Can I NOT Accept?
After asking yourself “what can I truly live with?,” you may now know more about what you CANNOT abide. Daily stress? Financial instability? Walking on eggshells? Compromising your values for the sake of the relationship?
These are the pain points that will need to be addressed if you choose to continue your investment in this relationship.
Let’s look at how to address them…
What Have I Tried?
Up to now, our questions have focused on what IS NOT in your control. Let’s shift gears and look at what IS. Your perceptions, feelings, behaviors…
Have you tried being appropriately vulnerable?
Have you gotten curious about and tried to understand the other person’s needs?
Have you looked for where you and the other’s wants or needs can overlap and lead to compromise?
Have you asked for help or accessed resources and education (coaching is a great example!)?
Think about all the steps you (and possibly the other person in the relationship) have taken to create positive change.
What Am I Able And Willing To Do That I Haven’t Yet Tried?
Is there anything left? Really challenge yourself here to think outside the box and brainstorm. Is there anything you can do, that’s in your control, you haven’t yet tried?
• Information gathering?
• Learning how to have a different emotional reaction in the relationship?
• Classes or coaching?
This step can be uplifting. Even if your hope for the future of the relationship is dwindling, it can feel empowering to focus on what’s in your control, your options and choices (no matter how sparse), and what you can do to help yourself.
When we focus on what we can change (our own behaviors, tools, and resources), we feel more resilient and we open up possibilities for the relationship to improve and grow. What do you really have to lose here?
Now, of these – what are you interested in, able or willing to actually try out now? It’s okay if the answer is “none of them!” Be honest with yourself, about how you feel, and if you aren’t motivated to work on the relationship…honor these feelings. They are valid. And they must be heard in order to answer the question, “should I burn this bridge?”
What Can Change And How Much?
Now, realistically, knowing what you and the other person have done, or could yet still do, and what you can accept and what you cannot, what is the likelihood of change?
What aspects of the relationship that you know must change for your own wellbeing are actually changeable? And how much, or to what degree, is this change realistic, based on the evidence and past experience, as well as your own ability and willingness to try?
For example, it’s possible someone can become less argumentative, but they might still be that way from time to time.
It’s also important here to view change with a “dimmer switch mindset.” Basically, know that change doesn’t flip like a light switch in a moment, but occurs as a slow, gradual process and this healing process takes time. This relationship can be improving in small increments, not necessarily visible in the moment but easier to see over time.
Keep this realistic view of change in mind when you consider what you can accept if you stay in the relationship and your own ability to grow for the sake of its success. And don’t forget to make note of what the other person has really done to work on things and appreciate it.
Sometimes the devil you know feels safer than the big, scary unknown. This, and the knowledge that no relationship is perfect and they all take work, can make it hard to know when it’s time to stop giving it your all and walk away from a toxic relationship. I hope these questions help you explore with your own intuition of what is best for you.
And, remember, it’s okay to take care of yourself!
P.S. Share your thoughts with me in the comments section below!
Kathleen Stutts, M.Ed., NCC, LPC helps clients build self-esteem and create strong, meaningful relationships in a non-judgmental, productive space where you will feel safe, comfortable and understood.
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