12 Tips on Leaving a Toxic Relationship

About Brette Sember, JD | Divorce.com

By Brette Sember, JD Updated Mar 20, 2024


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Tips on Leaving a Toxic Relationship

It’s never too late to leave a toxic relationship for the sake of your well-being or the well-being of your children. The only thing worse than being with a toxic person for five years is being with a toxic person for five years and one week.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been enduring emotional abuse — the moment you see the red flags and toxic behaviors and recognize that the dynamic is unhealthy, it’s time to let go of your abusive partner and focus on taking care of YOU.

Leaving a toxic relationship can be more difficult than leaving a deteriorating relationship for a variety of reasons, especially if there are considerations involving your safety.

Here’s what you’ll need to do to successfully exit your toxic relationship and start the healing process.

Tips on Leaving a Toxic Relationship

1. Assess Your Safety Level First

Is your relationship toxic or abusive? There are a lot of similarities between the signs of a toxic relationship and the signs of an abusive relationship.

In a toxic romantic relationship, there are issues of codependency, mistrust, and arguing. These issues can easily escalate to levels of physical abuse, gaslighting, or intimidation.

If your unhealthy relationship has become so toxic that it’s reached the level of abuse, you’ll need to carefully plan your exit for your own safety and the safety of your children.

If at all possible, find a therapist who specializes in domestic abuse and become their client. They can often help you determine if a relationship is abusive because sometimes it’s hard to see when you are in it. In fact, often it is just a gut feeling that something is wrong, but you have been entrenched in it and don’t see the signs.

Additionally, they can guide you to approach separation and divorce in a safe manner.

You can also call, chat or text a domestic violence hotline or a local domestic violence shelter for help.

If you are in immediate danger, call 911 for help.

2. Keep a Record of What Happened

Toxic relationships often end in spite or revenge. You don’t want to find yourself on the receiving end of untruths about yourself or your situation. It may be wise to walk away civilly and politely, documenting everything as it happens.

If you can, limit your conversations with your partner to an app designed for divorce communication as they are designed to time stamp and not allow alterations in text. Otherwise email messages will leave a running record of everything you’ve discussed.

Text messages are iffier - they frequently roll off your phone after a certain period of time and are much easier to delete. If you do speak to your partner on the phone, speak in front of a trusted person who can provide emotional support.

Be careful if recording the call, however. Know your state laws! Some states do not permit recording unless BOTH parties are aware.

Learn about divorce online with Divorce.com

3. Don’t Wait for Permission to Leave

According to relationship experts, staying in your relationship longer isn’t going to fix the situation. Your partner needs professional help that you aren’t in a position to provide.

Waiting for the “right time” to leave or hoping that your narcissistic or abusive partner will change only prolongs the length of time you’re staying in a toxic situation and increases your heartache.

You need to be the one to make the move. If you recognize you are in a toxic or abusive relationship, consider the soonest opportunity you have to feasibly and safely end the relationship.

Consider this your permission gifted from many who have gone before you!

If you live with your partner, and safety is an issue, take the first opportunity you have. Even if it means sleeping on a friend’s couch or in a shelter for a few weeks until you find a new place to live, it’s better than putting your safety at risk!

Obviously if you are staying with a friend, you need to explain the situation to them.

Sometimes you can ask your local police to increase drive bys or even hire an off duty police officer to sit guard as a precaution during the leaving process, as this is frequently the most volatile time in divorce.

4. Have Someone With You When You Move Out

If you live with your partner, moving out is the biggest step you’ll take in ending your toxic relationship. It helps to have someone with you when you move out, even if you do it while your partner isn’t home.

If you have another person with you, you’ll have a witness to what happens. If your partner comes back in the middle of your move and gets upset that you’re leaving, your witness can call for help if things begin to get out of control.

It’s very important that you only take items that belong to you and that you don’t leave the home or apartment a mess when you’re on your way out.

Taking pictures of your packed boxes before you close them and taking plenty of pictures of your home the way you left it can prove that you were respectful in your exit if your partner tries to retaliate.

Include your witness in your pictures. Have them show their phone screen with the date and time in each room.

These might come in handy later in the event that your toxic spouse claims that you damaged the property or took things that didn’t belong to you while moving out.

We also recommend considering talking to a lawyer before you move out. They may recommend changing the locks and staying if you have enough evidence that your spouse has been abusive.

5. Remove Reminders From Your Life

Let the memories go. Don’t save sentimental items or keep sentimental photos on your phone. A toxic relationship isn’t something worth wistfully remembering.

For example, instead of wearing jewelry or clothing gifted to you by the other person, treat yourself to a new piece of jewelry or a new piece of clothing to replace the ones you’ve thrown away or sold. You aren’t giving up — you’re starting fresh.

6. Consider Therapy

Toxic relationships leave people with a lot to unpack, both literally and metaphorically. The metaphorical unpacking can take place with a therapist or counselor who can help you navigate the feelings you’re experiencing.

If you’re able to better recognize the signs that a relationship has become unhealthy, you’re less likely to enter a toxic relationship again.

It’s important to note that you should not be ashamed of being in a toxic relationship — it can be difficult to see the signs of a manipulative partner until you’re already in too deep. It’s almost always insidious.

This is one of the reasons therapy is so important. In addition to helping you better understand the signs of a toxic relationship, therapy can also help you heal following this period of emotional abuse.

7. Clean Up Your Social Media

You don’t need to know what your former spouse is saying or doing. They may be making social media posts pointed at you or seeking sympathy, or they could use social media as a way to reach out to you. Protecting your peace can go a long way when leaving a toxic situation.

Likewise, you deserve your own privacy. You don’t want your former spouse to know what you’re doing or where you are. In the event that you enter into another relationship soon, you also don’t want them to pry or bother the new person you’re dating.

Removing your ex from your social media followers and following lists will create healthy new boundaries for an independent life. You won’t feel tempted to look if you can’t, and they can’t look if you eliminate the option.

Additionally, consider making all social media private so YOU take back control of people with exposure to your life.

8. Take Time To Work on Yourself

When you’re in a toxic relationship, you were likely placed in unusual situations in which you didn’t always act like yourself. You might have acted out of anger or done things you weren’t proud of when the situation got out of hand.

You may have even lost friends and family over their frustration in seeing you hurt.

It’s important to acknowledge which behaviors were a reaction to your toxic partner and not bring those responses into your existing relationships and friendships.

On the other side of the same situation, you also need to recognize how you deserve to be treated. It’s not okay to allow someone to make you feel unworthy, especially if you know you’re doing your best to be a good partner.

It’s not okay to allow someone to manipulate you into acting against your own best interest.

You can discuss with a therapist if you choose to go to therapy. You can also start a journal to document your feelings and explore what it would take to make you feel happy and secure in a relationship.

Many cities also have divorce aftercare groups in which these feelings and situations can be explored.

It’s best to make sure you're in a good headspace to pursue a new relationship. You don’t want to walk from one bad situation into another, and the time you spend working on yourself will prepare you for recognizing healthier partners.

9. Hold Your Ground

Your toxic partner might promise that they will change or attempt to intimidate you into coming back into the relationship. They may go to great lengths to convince you that you should return to them — don’t give in.

Plant your heels in the ground and commit to the idea that no matter what they say or do, you won’t change your mind.

It’s okay to hope that the other person does well in life. You can want them to get help if they need help. You can hope that they learn and they won’t mistreat their next partner.

You don’t need to harbor any ill will to know that you won’t walk back into that situation.

If you need to block that person from contacting you, that’s what you should do. It’s okay to close down all avenues of conversation when you have nothing left to talk about.

10. If You’re Married, Get a Divorce as Soon as Possible

If you’re married to your toxic partner, don’t drag out the process. File for divorce as soon as you’re ready to leave. And you will know. Sometimes it is the littlest trigger after years of angst.

If you stay married to your partner and wait on a divorce, you’re only giving yourself time to second guess the situation. If ending your toxic relationship will allow you to be a happier and healthier person, you’ve already made the right choice.

Commit to the choice by starting the divorce process.

Combining your breakup and your divorce into a single process can save you a lot of time, money, and stress. If you break up and wait several months before you file the paperwork, it might feel like you’ve broken up with the same toxic partner twice.

Your partner may not be willing to give you an uncontested divorce. If that’s the case, you’ll need the help of a family law attorney to explore your options for divorce.

11. Consider a Restraining Order If You Need One

If you fear retaliation from your former spouse or if they begin threatening you, save any text or voice messages that they send.

Use photo and video evidence to support your claims, and file for a protective order against your former spouse. If it would put you in danger for your former spouse to know where you’re living, you won’t be required to include your address on the restraining order.

12. Rely on Your Healthy Support System

Everyone needs a little bit of time alone to process difficult situations, but don’t isolate yourself. Spend more time with the positive people in your life who uplift and support you.

Your family and friends may be helpful during this time, but if you feel lost without support, look for a coach, therapist, and/or support group.

Turn to friends who won’t say, “I told you so,” especially if they’re friends you’ve had since before you entered your toxic relationship. And, approach rekindling of friendships with humility - chances are, your behavior with the toxic spouse hurt them too.

But rest assured, if you approach with humility, most of your friends will take you back with open arms.

Learn about divorce online with Divorce.com

Leaving a Toxic Relationship Is Worth the Stress

Leaving a toxic relationship can be one of the most difficult things you’ll do, but remember this: This is the last difficult situation you’ll ever need to experience with that partner.

Once the breakup or divorce is complete, you’re free to pursue the things you love in life.

Keep your eye on the light at the end of the tunnel.

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