While we hope that a relationship we have invested so much in can be “saved“, there is no question that sometimes we must learn how to leave a toxic relationship. And there’s also no question that the idea of leaving can be fraught with considerable relationship anxiety! In this article, we will first distinguish between those relationships that can be healed and those where it is more appropriate to leave. Second, we will offer a test to help make the decision to leave when no other option is really viable.
Leave or stay?
Perhaps the most difficult task in deciding whether to leave or stay in a toxic relationship is this: to discern whether the pain and anxiety we are experiencing truly “comes from” the other person, or if it is something we were carrying with us in the first place. I am a strong believer that we must examine ourselves in any relational conflict before becoming certain the other is to blame. Can a toxic relationship cause anxiety? Without question, yes. Nevertheless, the temptation to blame the other is usually our first, and very powerful, impulse.
On the other hand, some relationships and circumstances are so unhealthy that it is unwise to stay, no matter how much we are willing to change ourselves.* So when we are clear that we are suffering from anxiety from a toxic relationship, our path becomes equally clear… It is time to leave.
What to do when the circumstances aren’t so clear? This is when our first–and highest–responsibility is, as we have said, to examine ourselves. If you are in a toxic relationship causing pain and anxiety, ask yourself “ is this pain and anxiety something I experience regularly, in this and other relationships?”. If so, there is a strong likelihood you have a hand in the relationship struggle.
But this is good news! It affords us the opportunity to make a change—in ourselves and potentially the relationship.**
In the end, the best way to deal with the anxiety of any sort, including in a relationship, is to closely examine one’s self, using the opportunity for insight and growth. Nevertheless, we must always be practical; it is important to recognize the signs of relationship anxiety…that is, anxiety generated by a toxic relationship. If the stress from the relationship is too great, it is time to leave.
What makes it difficult? The test for whether to stay or leave
Why do some of us struggle so hard to accept that a relationship is toxic? The answer is simply that we have a powerful investment in the relationship. Even if this investment is based on pure fiction, where we have built elaborate fantasies of what the relationship can be, such an investment can make it seem too difficult to leave a toxic relationship. Why does the battered spouse believe their significant other every time they apologize, only to abuse them again? It is precisely this investment we are speaking of.
So once again, we need a true willingness to examine ourselves. Is the investment you have made in your relationship (and the fantasies of what it can provide) truly giving the promised rewards that were so alluring in the first place? Does the relationship even have a realistic potential for doing so? Here is a test for answering this question:
Make a list of everything you hope the relationship can be…everything you believe it can give you. These are your reasons to stay in the relationship. Next, put a number value beside each item, from 0 to 100. This number should represent how realistic that hope is…the likelihood of achieving it…with 100 being completely likely and zero being not likely at all. After you’re finished, tally up the total of each line item and divide by the number of items on your list to get an average.
Of course, it is up to you to decide at what number you should stay and at what number you should leave. But because our resistance and inertia can be great, we want to practice that willingness (discussed above) to consider a change. If, for example, your average is below 50, it means you don’t believe there is more to gain from staying in the relationship than there is to lose. You might also decide that a higher number should be your threshold – – that life is meant to offer more than a 50% chance of fulfillment.
It can also be helpful to make a list of all of the problems and sources of suffering in the relationship. Number them from 0 to 100, with 0 being “no suffering” and 100 being “complete suffering”. Average the numbers and compare to the average on your other list. This, too, can be eye-opening, and give more fuel to your determination to leave (or stay!).
Whatever your numbers and whatever your decision, beware the very human tendency to justify your argument for staying. This is where fear creeps in to sabotage our best interests. If one is unwilling to leave a toxic relationship when all evidence points to the hopelessness of its success, we can be sure that fear is distorting their perception.
Motivation, positive thinking, our best intentions…none of these will be enough to overcome this fear. It has deep roots. In fact, it deconstructs down to what I called the “core fear“, that which is responsible for all our suffering in life. Insight into one’s core fear is the key to finding the freedom to leave a toxic relationship.*** There isn’t enough space in this article to explore that prescription further, but making the determination to examine one’s self fearlessly, is an excellent place to start!
*And, of course, the effort to try “too hard” to change oneself can also become a problem, keeping one from accepting it is time to leave.
**According to the Deconstructing Anxiety model (see www.deconstructinganxiety.com), anxiety is at the root of any negative experience. You may not feel overtly anxious in your relationship, but perhaps, for example, depressed. The same principles apply when dealing with a toxic relationship with anxiety and depression, or any other negative state.
***Again, see www.deconstructinganxiety.com for more information.