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How to Leave a Toxic Relationship, With Dignity

How to Leave a Toxic Relationship, With Dignity

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Letting Go Of a Toxic Relationship

We’re approaching a new year, and as such, you may be thinking about changes you want to make in your life. If you’ve been stuck in a relationship with someone who is not treating you well, and who is causing you hurt, anxiety, pain and frustration, now is a wonderful time to consider leaving your toxic relationship behind… and creating a new year full of healing, health and happiness for yourself.

Toxic Relationship Warning Signs

Letting go of a toxic relationship can be one of the hardest things for anyone to do. In my work as a life coach, therapist, and couples counselor, I have had the privilege of walking with many people through the experience of first recognizing that their relationship is toxic, then ending a hurtful relationship, and then healing after the “toxic relationship experience.” Toxic relationships take a toll on you, at every level. And every step of this journey is hard. (Necessary, meaningful, and empowering… but hard). I know, I’ve been there personally too.

Letting of a toxic relationship often starts with people working to improve their relationships.  At this stage they often believe that if only their partner could make changes, then they’d finally get the love, respect, and consideration they deserve. They come in to life coaching or even drag their partner in to couples therapy, hopeful that they can make improvements. (And I will say that almost all the time when two people are both committed to a relationship and willing to make changes, relationships can be transformed).

However, if your relationship is truly toxic, it is unlikely to be healed in marriage counseling or couples therapy. Instead, you’ll continue to feel frustrated, hurt, angry… and then elated when it seems like your partner is finally hearing you and caring about your feelings… only to be crushed when they disappoint you again. [Read: “Are You Addicted To a Toxic Relationship?”]

But in many genuinely toxic relationships, the biggest “warning sign” of all is when your partner routinely shows a lack of interest or follow-through in changing anything about the relationship. Instead, you when you bring up your feelings you get yelled at, blamed, rejected, or made to feel that the problems are all your fault.

Characteristics of a Toxic Relationship

In these situations of course, attempts at couples counseling often end badly. Most of the time, since their partners are unwilling to work on things with them, people in toxic relationships wind up entering empowering life coaching or effective therapy on their own.

Only over time (and often through deep personal growth work) do they then learn how to spot the characteristics of a toxic relationship, and come to terms with the fact that the only way to improve their situation is to take their power back and move on.

But until then, people in toxic relationships often struggle. They struggle with the mixed signals they get from their partner, because sometimes they are loving. They’re told that things will improve, and maybe they do for a little while. Many people believe that if THEY work harder at the relationship, are more loving, are more generous, and more patient that their partner will eventually change. (Because often, their partner is telling them in both overt and covert ways that the relationship problems are their fault).

Over time, a genuinely toxic relationship will destroy your self-esteem, interfere with your other relationships, make it hard to focus on positive areas of your life, and consume all of your time and attention. But through self-reflection, self-love, self-compassion (and sometimes excellent therapy or life coaching) you can begin to see that you have become attached to a profoundly unhealthy partner who is never going to give you the love and respect they deserve.

Then you can work to create positive, empowering changes: Like insisting that you are treated well, and setting firm, clear boundaries with anyone who doesn’t — especially the one who’s supposed to love them the most.

Can a Toxic Relationship Be Healed?

Ending any relationship is hard, and even people who are addicted to profoundly toxic relationships can hold on hope that the relationship can improve, sometimes for years. Many people (understandably) need to know if their toxic relationships can be healed before ending them permanently.

In fact, I get many, many relationship questions on the Growing Self blog about this very subject. Of course the writers of the questions are not labeling their relationships as toxic. They are instead describing extremely frustrating, hurtful, even crazy-making relationship experiences and then asking, what should I do? (Usually phrased as, “How do I get this person I love very much to stop treating me badly?”

If a relationship is truly toxic, it is unlikely to change no matter how hard YOU work at it. Why? Because it lacks the fundamental building blocks of a healthy relationship: Empathy, commitment, personal responsibility, and true love.

Your toxic relationship will finally be changed forever, when YOU decide that you’re not going to participate in it anymore. When you commit to yourself that you are worthy of love and respect, when you recognize your toxic relationship addiction for what it is, and when you learn how to cultivate the type of healing mindset that will set you free, you can end your toxic relationship for once and for all.

Letting Go of a Toxic Relationship

Because so many people have been reaching out for relationship advice on how to deal with these types of toxic relationship situations, I decided to devote an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast to this subject. On this episode we’re going to be talking all about toxic relationships, including:

  • How to identify toxic relationships. I’ll be sharing the top 5 signs that you’re in a toxic relationship. Listen and give yourself the mini, “toxic relationship quiz” to find out if your relationship is actually toxic, or just temporarily frustrating.
  • Why toxic relationships are so addictive. Instead of beating yourself up for remaining in a bad relationship, learn why you’re biologically predisposed to developing intense attachments to others and why toxic relationships are actually MORE addictive than healthy relationships.
  • The difference between healthy vs toxic relationships. Just because your relationship feels hard and frustrating does not mean it’s toxic and irredeemable. Learn the difference between toxic and healthy relationships, and get access to some relationship resources to help you determine whether you should keep working at this, or move on.
  • How to leave a toxic relationship with your dignity intact. Too many toxic relationships end with, ironically, the person who was caring, trying, and hurting getting broken up with. If you’re in a toxic relationship, don’t continue to dangle on this string, waiting and hoping it will get better until they end it. Take your power back, and decide for yourself to be done. If you’re realizing that it’s time for you to pick up your self respect and move on from a toxic relationship, we’ll talk about how. We’ll discuss how to cultivate  self-compassion, self-respect. and the ability to stop depending on an unreliable, hurtful person to love you, and instead, learn how to love yourself.


You might be listening to this podcast at the cusp of a new year (or other major life change) and ready to leave this relationship for good. You might be just starting to explore whether or not the relationship you’re in is salvageable. You might be realizing that your relationship is toxic, but still in love and not sure how to end things. You may be caught in a toxic relationship cycle of breaking up and getting back together again. Or, you might be sitting in the pain, anger and heartbreak of just having been hurt again for the dozenth time, and looking for answers.

This podcast is for YOU.

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Ps: One of the tools I mentioned if you’re still in that “can this relationship be saved” space is my relationship quiz that can help you learn whether your relationship is fundamentally strong, or fundamentally toxic. Here’s the sign up box in case you’d like to take it. xo, LMB

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How to Leave a Toxic Relationship, With Dignity

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success

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Why You Keep Falling in Love With The Wrong Person

Why You Keep Falling in Love With The Wrong Person

Do you attract the wrong people? Do you keep having toxic relationships?

If so, you’re not alone.

You’d be surprised at how many people come to us for life coaching, breakup recovery, individual therapy, or dating coaching hoping to achieve one goal: Having a healthy relationship. (And how to stop getting involved in unhealthy ones).

They show up to therapy or life coaching because they have, over time (or after the latest heartbreaking breakup) become aware that they are engaging in “non-ideal relationship patterns,” over and over again. They keep getting involved with narcissists, or people who treat them badly. They keep choosing emotionally unavailable men, or aggressive / controlling women. Whatever the sad pattern is, they want it to stop.

Above all else, they want to work on themselves to heal, grow, and ensure that NEXT time they get involved with someone they can love and be loved in a healthy relationship with a good person. And so we dig in.

Identifying Your Blind Spots

The first stop in figuring out why you keep choosing the wrong man or wrong woman is uncovering what unconscious motivations are driving your choices. Getting outside help in understanding your toxic relationship patterns can be a wise move, because of the entirely subconscious nature of the problem.  You don’t consciously choose bad relationships — no one does. You choose what feel  in the moment, are good relationships…. and then wind up having bad experiences. (That are often mysteriously, eerily similar to the past experiences you thought you were trying to avoid).

Unhealthy relationship patterns can happen for many reasons. Sometimes it’s old, unfinished emotional business from the past. Other times, your self-esteem or feelings of self-worth can get in the way. Yet other times, the root of the problem is imbedded in way you communicate or set boundaries with others. Because you are a complex, unique, individual, your truth will not be exactly the same as everyone else’s.

Avoiding Toxic Relationships

However, there is one very common thing that most people have done at least once, and which will almost always lead to heartbreak: Falling victim to “Black Hat Love.” Learning how to spot the one fatal factor that makes you most vulnerable to getting involved in toxic relationships can help you stop the madness, and finally create the happy, healthy relationship you’re longing for.

And that’s what I’ll be teaching you about on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

Have follow up questions for me? Leave them in the comments!

xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Why You Keep Falling in Love With The Wrong Person (And How to Stop)

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success

Music Credits: “Bad Love,” by So Brown

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Are You Addicted To A Toxic Relationship?

Are You Addicted To A Toxic Relationship?

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Are You Addicted To a Toxic Relationship?

Does your relationship feel like a roller-coaster of euphoria, pain, frustration, and bliss? Do you crave connection with your beloved, only to be disappointed, rejected or hurt over and over? If so, you may be addicted to a toxic relationship. I want you to know: You are not alone, and there is a path out. I share this story in hopes that you won’t wait as long as Tom did to find your way back to True Love.

Toxic Relationship Addiction: A Case Study

A year before he died, I sat with Tom in my therapy office as he continued to obsess over Sarah. He’d left his wife and children for her several years previously. Their affair had sparked a passion deep inside him, like nothing he’d ever known. They had fun together. They laughed. Their sexual connection was intense. As destructive and crushing as the relationship had been for him, he was still addicted to the way she made him feel.

Sarah was pretty, but mercurial. She would get upset and break up with him frequently, for reasons that mystified him. Even during the good times he disapproved of her manipulative parenting, and he hated her free-spending ways. His friends disliked her. His daughters hated her. But he stayed by her side even as she was convicted of shoplifting. At least, until another fight left him alone in a restaurant after she walked out on him again. Tom’s face got red as he talked about his frustrations, but his brown eyes welled up with tears at the thought of being without her.

During the break-ups he and I weathered together, he couldn’t bear to erase her number, delete her from Facebook, or block her email. The idea of being Capital-D Done and cutting the electronic cords filled him with fear. If he cut her off completely he wouldn’t get the inevitable “Thinking of You” text that would flood him with hope of being back in to her arms for another few months of bliss.

But the actual experience of being with Sarah was much more difficult than his idealized day-dreams of her. While Tom lived for their intoxicating “peak moments,” you can only spend so much time riding a motorcycle, cresting waves of sexual ecstasy, or dancing at a concert. Sooner or later someone has to pay the tab, take out the trash, and decide what to cook the kids for dinner.

And that’s when the inevitable friction would start. Harsh sparks of judgment from a clash of values would quickly flare into anger and incinerate the good feelings that were the basis of the relationship. When things got hard Sarah would again reject Tom and refuse his calls, leaving him slumped miserably on my couch, pining for her. During these times he couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. He started smoking again.

We talked about the addictive nature of this relationship, and Tom could understand it intellectually when I said things like, “Doing cocaine is lots of fun too, but just because it feels good doesn’t mean it’s good for you.” He could see the parallels. But he was simply hooked. He felt euphoric when they were together. He felt a craving for her when they were apart. The fact that this relationship was the relational equivalent to eating ice-cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner didn’t matter. He just wanted to feel it again. And so it is with all addictions.

The Nature of Addiction

Here is the definition of an addiction:

1) [Insert name of vice here] changes your mood.

2) Engaging in __________  stimulates your reward system.

3) __________ causes negative consequences for your life.

4) Despite being aware of the negative consequences, you can’t stop.

The alcoholic drinks to change his mood: To celebrate, to console, to unwind, and to feel free and loose. The gambler pulls the handle to feel the surge of excitement, and the intermittent thrill of victory. The lover desires to be with their irreplaceable other for the joy of connection with their beloved.

All these pleasures powerfully stimulate a neurological reward center deep in your brain that floods you with feelings of euphoria. This part of your brain, evolutionarily speaking, precedes the development of parts responsible for executive functions, language and thought. It seems that we descended from animals who were built to crave pleasure.

This physiological engine of addiction drives our compulsions for “more.” It overrides pain, fear and values. It can motivate pigeons to peck for reward laden pellets until they drop from exhaustion, and shivering skeletal addicts to exchange the last remnant of their human dignity to experience it again.

Addicted to Love

In groundbreaking research, evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher (www.helenfisher.com) identified subjects who reported being in love and collected MRI data of their brains. Sure enough, she found that when people were exposed to images of their beloved their reward centers lit up with pleasure. Her research suggests that romantic love stimulates the same addictive neurological pathway as opiates and amphetamines. We crave love.

When you consider that above all else (from an evolutionary perspective) the survival of our species has required us to pair-bond, reproduce and remain committed enough to successfully raise babies together, having physiological brain structures that support “addiction” to intense feelings of love make perfect sense. Taking pleasure in proximity, and having an irrational devotion to an irreplaceable other that overrides pain, fear, and logical thought is necessary if we view the power of love in the context of survival.

Think of an exhausted man carrying a limp deer home through thigh-high snow to feed the vulnerable woman and children waiting for him. Without the bonds that connect them to each other, what else would motivate him to keep going through so much danger and pain? Without the original craving for one specific person, people wouldn’t stick together long enough to form those attachments — the deeper bond that remains after romantic love fades.

One interesting theory is that this pair-bonding process was the original function of the brain’s reward system. More modern addictive substances and diversions may actually be hijacking the ancient highway of pleasure-craving that romantic love has ridden on since the beginning of time.

While our pleasure system can be recruited for the pursuit of dark obsessions, it’s true purpose may be to drive us towards the pleasure we experience when we’re with our irreplaceable other. It’s there to drive us towards the attachment that sustains marriages, families and enduring partnerships that create an ideal society. It’s there to push us towards True Love: The most powerful, most positive, and most noble of all human experiences.

Toxic Relationships

Unless, of course, you fall in love with (“get addicted to”) the wrong person. Someone who rejects you, who is not compatible with you, or who’s personality / values / judgment you’d find off-putting were it not for the surge of endorphins you feel in their presence. Even if you know in your head that the relationship is wrong, when you’re separated from your beloved your reward center still craves closeness with them. When you’re cut off from your irreplaceable other, the obsessions start and the compulsion to connect with them can be overpowering.

Sadly, this is what happened to Tom. Of all the “love addicts” I’ve worked with, his preoccupation with Sarah was probably the most toxic. Certainly the most tragic. We circled the cycle together many times: Rejection, Obsession and Craving, Reunion, Honeymoon, Frustration, Rejection. And each time, through our work together, the threads binding him to her stretched thinner as his awareness of his unhealthy dependence grew.But for Tom, clarity about Sarah and freedom from his addiction came late.

He started loosing weight and complaining of odd pains in his stomach, and by the time he finally went to the doctor had late-stage pancreatic cancer, with a dismal chance of survival. Sarah accompanied him to one doctor’s appointment, and then bailed for good, saying that “she just couldn’t stand to see him like this.” Clearly, the thrill was gone. She abandoned him to face the procedures, the chemo, the surgery, and the recovery alone.

The Difference Between Toxic Love Addiction and True Love

Only then did Tom really understand the truth of his addiction for the hollow reality it was: The pursuit of fleeting feelings. He’d left his marriage to dance in a mirage of excitement that crumbled to dust in his hands when he reached out for real support. Like Coleridge waking from his fever-dream about a pleasure-dome, Tom finally came to his senses  only to find that he was alone in a desert without the True Love of attachment and commitment — from Sarah, at least.

And so he went home.

Because thankfully for him, the True Love of his ex-wife and children had endured the years of his obsessive intoxication. Their True Love, the un-breakable bond of a merciful family, was the nourishing, stable connection of support that was there for Tom at the end of his life.

In his final days, Tom was finally healed of his addiction. He found forgiveness and redemption when he came to understand, and appreciate, what True Love really is: The quiet, unselfish service to the wellbeing of another that endures long after the sparkles of romantic love fade.

True Love is not always fun or exciting. It’s not terribly addictive. But it is there at 3am to mop up vomit, and to shelter you when you have nowhere else to go. It’s the kind of Love that has the courage to walk beside you into death, and maybe even meet you again on the other side.

True Love is never an addiction, because it’s not actually a feeling at all — but a choice.