Breaking up is hard to do under the best of circumstances. Getting out of an unhealthy relationship has internal dynamics that make is all the harder to end. Understanding what makes a relationship unhealthy helps the person leaving to identify the reasons they need to leave. Substance abuse, mental illness, emotional and physical abuse, and infidelity are signs that you are in a bad relationship and need to find a way out.
What Is an Unhealthy Relationship
There is not one thing that defines an unhealthy relationship. Sometimes personalities simply don’t mix and you aren’t happy; you feel like the relationship holds you down. More often than not, unhealthy relationships involve physical or emotional abuse, monetary control or social isolation (or all of them).
Why We Stay in Unhealthy Relationships
There is a myriad of reasons people stay in unhealthy relationships. Often it can be a mixture of things that lead from one bad relationship to another. Until someone understands why they get in and stay in a bad relationship, the cycle continues. As a single mom, my goal is to break the cycle of my bad choices now that I’m out of the unhealthy relationship. That being said, it isn’t easy getting out.
I knew before my son was even born that our marriage wasn’t going to last. Yet, I was desperate to find a way to make it work. I wanted my son to have a cohesive family he could rely on. And even in the face of knowing it wasn’t going to happen, my pride didn’t want to admit how bad of a decision I had made. I stayed two years longer than was emotionally healthy for myself.
Here are some reasons we stay in unhealthy relationships:
Self-Worth and Satisfaction
One of the most prevalent is your personal set of standards, meaning someone can be satisfied with an unsatisfactory relationship. This often has to do with a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. Comparing your life to others, it can be easy to say, “well I don’t deserve more than this.”
Abusive Conditioning and Fear
This feeling could also be the result of manipulation and emotional abuse. A man or woman could become convinced by an abusive partner that they aren’t deserving of someone better, that they are worthless and unlovable. Some trying to leaving an abusive relationship may fear a violent outburst from his or her partner.
Investment of Time or Money
Our personal ego can fight our own instincts to leave someone. We look at the time and money spent to build a relationship. It can be hard to determine when it is time to cut our losses and move on. This is where emotions and rational thinking don’t always mesh; our heart is telling us we aren’t happy but our mind is telling us that we should stick it out because we’ve been together for so long.
Children Are Involved
One of the hardest things to do is to leave when children are involved. There are a couple of reasons for this. The most common reason is keeping the children’s best interest at heart by not wanting them to have a split home. Other reasons are more fear-based: men may think they won’t have time with their kids while women may fear not being able to provide for the household on their own. Remember that there is an impact on kids when we stay in toxic relationships.
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The Difference Between Compromise and Sacrifice
Compromise is when two parties work together to find a middle ground; it means both are probably getting something and giving something. Sacrificing is giving up your needs and wants to give in to the other person. Continual sacrifice leads to a feeling of resentment and unfulfillment.
It’s often said that it takes two people to make a relationship work. It is also said that it takes two to make it fail. The latter statement can be a bit tricky. Two people compromising or deciding to split ways is a demonstration of two people making it work or not work. One person expecting the other to always make the sacrifice still technically involves two people but only one is really working on the relationship.
You are sacrificing if:
- you are always giving and never getting anything in return.
- nothing is ever enough to satisfy the other person.
- the goal posts move every time you agree to your side of the compromise.
Sacrifice Can Be Subtle
It was apparent that no matter what I did, it would never be enough. The food I always had cooked and loved wasn’t healthy enough by his standards. When I changed the entire menu according to his wishes, he never ate it and complained that I never cooked. One of the many ways in which I thought I was making a compromise to make things work. In my mind, it was a small change to make so our family could enjoy a meal together.
Finally separated, I was able to inventory all the things I loved that I changed or got rid of. Everything from how I cooked, favorite artwork and even relocating my dog. I also lost count of the number of times he told me he “didn’t need to compromise.” There were two in the marriage with only one trying to work things out.
Knowing When It’s Time to Leave
At some point, a person needs to know when it is time to leave. It will never feel right or feel good because you do have emotional ties to the person, the relationship and the situation. You may be afraid that making the leap will lead to something worse than where you are at. Often, people know it’s time and still stay mustering the courage and developing the plan to do so.
The moment you realize it is time to leave can be the most terrifying moment you ever face. You’re in a bad relationship, maybe physically or emotionally abusive. Changing the status quo can set a chain reaction of things. But, you have to recognize that time has come.
Here are some things to consider the time to get out of a bad relationship:
- Walking on eggshells is the new normal, even for the kids, so as to not upset your partner
- Friends no longer want to meet at your home or have couples’ nights out
- Sex life is unsatisfying or non-existent
- Fear is the predominant feeling
- Money is completely controlled by the other party
- Memories of why you are together are hard to find
- Sleeping, eating and exercise habits become unhealthy
Everyone’s list is unique. The patterns of an unhealthy relationship are different for everyone. It’s important to know that while you may feel stuck, you aren’t. You have the opportunity to make a change for the better.
Have a Plan to Leave an Unhealthy Relationship
Take the time to create a plan for leaving. Obviously, if you are in physical danger, time is not on your side. You need to get out and find a friend, family member or shelter that can help. In most other situations, simply getting up and walking out rarely puts you in a position of personal strength – personal strength is everything you need when leaving.
Start with a trusted support network. Figure out the money; save somewhere you can. Line up employment if you don’t already work. Find a place stay, whether with a friend or renting somewhere on your own. Check on how benefits work if you will need them to get you through the initial phase of break off. That’s what this is, breaking off, not breaking up. You need to cut the emotional ties and physical dependency while keeping the rest of you intact.
Take a deep breath and consider what you are doing. There will be so many triggers pulling you back to staying if even for the comfort of just not creating conflict. Get a friend to help you, support you through it. If you make plans you can’t change, it helps. Hire movers or sign the contract for a new lease.
When I knew it was time, I went out and looked for a place to live. I found a small house in a community I felt safe in. The lease was signed, deposit paid and movers hired. There were two locations I needed to deal with: our home and our ranch where most of my things had been put in storage because he didn’t like them. My plan was to have my son go to a playdate while I met the movers at the ranch to take care of that then swing by and get the essentials from the home. A friend met me the day before to help me gather my things at the ranch so we could be in and out as quickly as possible.
So much for trusted allies. He came home that night with a sudden urgency to go to the ranch on a weeknight when it was always a weekend home. When the movers and I arrived, he had unpacked things to go through them, taken what he felt was his and harassed the movers with a video camera in their face the entire time. Nothing about that day was easy but the moment I laid in my new home, with my son cuddled up next to me, I knew I had taken the first step to regain control of my life.
Recovering from an Unhealthy Relationship
It takes time to untangle the emotions after breaking away from an unhealthy relationship. People react differently. Some get out and enjoy freedom while others stay at home, suffering in silence. Extremes of either option aren’t good. Make time to spend with friends and family but don’t be afraid to sit down and feel. Figure out who you are again.
Kids will have their own struggles. It’s important that you don’t get so stuck in your own healing that you forget about the pain or confusion your children might be feeling. Yes, kids are resilient but they still experience stress when mommy and daddy split.
Shortly before I moved out, I had taken my son to the pediatrician. In the visit, I explained to the doctor that his father and I were separating and was there anything I should expect. His words were prophetic, “He’ll feel like things are out of control so he’ll hold on to what he can control. His bladder.” My son was a toddler and just starting pottie training that quickly stopped by toddler refusal when we moved out. When I followed up with the pediatrician, he laughed, “Don’t worry, it will work itself out. I promise he won’t be going to college in a diaper.”
Not Making the Same Mistakes Again
It’s easy to say, “I’m never going to let that happen to me again.” You’ve left because you saw the need, felt the negativity and broke away. Clarity is a nice thing. Then come the loneliness and the stress. Being a single mom or single dad isn’t easy; it’s nice to have someone around to talk to, to help, to keep guard of the bathroom door for an indulgent bath alone. All those feelings are natural and normal.
No one can predict how long it will take to recover or how long it should take to jump back into the dating world. Some people are better about just going out and dating casually than others. I’ve never been good at casual dating so for me, it has been a very cautious road of who I let into my life and into my son’s. The work to heal takes time and requires digging into all the icky stuff that makes us feel ashamed or embarrassed for our previous decisions. You have to do that work to rebuild your self-esteem and self-worth. Otherwise, the cycle continues.
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