By Kristin Davin, Psy.D.
Few people make it through life without experiencing at least one toxic relationship. That’s probably because they often develop so insidiously that you’re not even aware of how bad things are until they’re, well, pretty bad. And even then, you might still find reasons to stay. Only when you’re finally ready to accept the relationship for what it is—or rather for what it’s not—is it possible to get out.
But freeing yourself from a toxic relationship is just half the battle. Now it’s time to figure out how you ended up there in the first place so you can avoid making the same mistakes. This is where the real work truly lies. Changing ingrained habits and instincts isn’t easy, but putting in the effort cannot only prevent you from being a “relationship repeater,” it can help you find the healthy partnership you so deserve.
These seven steps can help you find lasting love once and for all:
1. Raise Your Self-Awareness. This begins with simply opening your eyes to the fact that something must change. This step, ever so small, encourages you to take a new path. A new awareness also means you’re ready to make an investment—an investment in yourself.
2. Get Past Your Past. Everyone carries baggage from previous relationships as well as their family of origin (your first family). That’s normal. However, it’s critical that you learn to identify old patterns of behavior that could be negatively influencing your relationships now. For example, if you grew up in a volatile environment watching your parents argue, yell, or call each other names, you might believe that this is normal behavior and thus recreate these very same relationships as an adult. Or, if you grew up feeling like you always had to walk on eggshells around your parents (like many do in homes of addiction), you may come to think that all relationships are tenuous and unpredictable.
Even though these past relationships were unhealthy, they still feel comfortable and somehow safe. Because of that, it’s easy to fall into similar situations in your adult life over and over because that’s really all you know. However, when you finally do have a good relationship, the difference may actually make you feel unsettled. Try to see it through. Getting past your past really means giving yourself the space to feel uncomfortable with change until you find a new, happier normal.
3. Visualize Your Future. What type of relationship do you really want? Look at your past relationships and see what was missing. If you had the perfect relationship now, what would that look like? What can you do to ensure a happy union? What would your partner do? Learning how to imagine the relationship you actually deserve puts you one step closer to achieving that goal.
4. Avoid Jumping into a New Relationship Quickly. Because people crave the connection and the constancy that healthy relationships bring, those who have a history of unhealthy matches tend to jump quickly from one to the next. The best advice? Slow it down. Otherwise, the odds not seeing the relationship in its truth are pretty high.
You’ll also miss out on that critical distance you need to make sure you’re not repeating old habits. Taking things slowly in our current digital age of dating can feel particularly challenging because there’s such a high level of what I call “pseudo-intimacy”: With so many ways to communicate, people tend to interpret interactions and exchanges as more intimate than they actually are. As a result, many become sexually involved before they’re actually ready and potentially problematic issues get obscured until much later in the relationship. I see this all the time. Date. Talk. Really get to know each other.
5. Take Responsibility. We all have bad habits we wish we didn’t. Ask yourself, “What are some of my bad habits that contribute to relationship stress? What could I change that might make things better?” Although it’s easier to blame others than look in the mirror, a relationship consists of two people. It’s completely normal to sometimes feel annoyed, frustrated, or totally enraged at your partner sometimes. However, how you manage those big emotions is entirely within your control. Don’t wait for the other person to change—change yourself.
6. Listen to Your Inner Voice. How many times have you said, “I knew things were horrible. Why didn’t I trust myself and leave sooner?” That’s something we often say after the fact. Why is that? Why don’t we listen to that inner voice…our intuition? Because doing so might mean that we have made another bad choice. It means we have to start the dating process over again. And that just doesn’t feel good. We tend to justify our behaviors and ignore certain things because we just want to be in a relationship. In those impulsive and emotional moments, we don’t want to stop and examine the red flags (that say run!). Instead, we put on our rose colored glasses and off we go. Throw the glasses away and trust your gut.
7. Teach Yourself What Healthy Relationships Look Like. Aside from observing your friends (or colleagues) who have them, the secrets to happy partnerships are pretty simple:
• Open and honest communication
• Playfulness and levity
• Emotional availability by both partners (each managing their own “stuff”)
• Reciprocity. Both giving and taking.
• Healthy interdependence—not independence from nor dependence on one another
• Shared experiences and lifestyles
• Showing up every day
• Not blaming your partner for what ails you
• Being your own person
Working through the ways to change your behaviors that have landed you in unhealthy, toxic relationships takes time. But it is time well spent. Even though its can be a painful process, giving yourself the space you need to grow and find clarity will ultimately help you find the love you’ve been waiting for. You’re worth it!
Check out Kristin’s website for more relationship tips:
Kristin M. Davin, Psy.D.