The worst relationships can sometimes be the hardest to get over (Picture: Unsplash/

Moving on from someone you once cared about is never easy, but it can be even harder when they treated you badly. 

One of the most confusing, mysterious things about it all is why some relationships are harder to let go of than others. 

Why, for instance, can it feel easier to disentangle yourself from a kind, thoughtful and loving partnership than the unhealthy one full of manipulation, lies, cheating, or any of the undeniably awful things that people can do in relationships? 

Why on earth do we find ourselves thinking of that person who, quite frankly, treated us like sh*t, weeks, months, even years later?

If this resonates with you, don’t be alarmed – you’re not the only one. 

People who haven’t been through it (lucky you) might not understand why anyone would pine after a toxic lover, yet there are a lot of psychological reasons we can struggle to detach. 

The specifics of toxic relationships are going to look different for everyone, but all of them, are going to make you feel bad. A relationship is meant to add to your life, so if one is leaving you feeling empty, misunderstood, unsupported, attacked or small then it may be a toxic one. 

Quinn Clark, a writer and researcher who specialises in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), says a toxic relationship is one which causes a significant amount of distress, due to the behaviour of a person(s) in the relationship. 

They add: ‘This distress may be caused by physical, emotional or mental abuse, manipulation, lying, cheating, demeaning, attacking, humiliation, or coercion. 

‘This leads to unhealthy behavioural patterns including codependency, a dynamic in which one person dominates and the other feels submissive, and/or a cycle of anger and fear which is “fixed” temporarily by love bombing.’

None of that sounds great. So why are these terrible relationships so tricky to get over?

We want it to go back to when it was a ‘good’ relationship 

Not all toxic relationships start out that bad – and that can make it harder to let go. 

If you have a partner who started off showering you with love, care and affection (which could well be love-bombing, but that is hard to spot at the time), and this changed at one point, this can be really upsetting. 

It can also mean we get stuck desperately wishing to get back to happy times. 

Underpinning this is the fact that we may worry that we did something wrong and somehow ‘broke the good relationship’, explains Sarah Lee, a psychotherapist specialising in childhood trauma and CPTSD.

‘We think that if we broke the relationship, we must be able to fix it, which can trigger us to try harder to get the good relationship back,’ she adds. 

Memories of the ‘good’ times keep us hooked (Picture: Getty Images)

We don’t think we deserve better  

If you don’t think you deserve healthy love, why wouldn’t you cling to what you did get, even if it didn’t fulfil you? 

We are more likely to keep trying to, or hoping we can, ‘fix’ a toxic relationship if we have low self-esteem and think that the relationship is the best we could ask for, Sarah says. 

Further, we might find it harder to let someone go if we think it’s our fault they aren’t around anymore. 

Sarah elaborates: ‘If we have any concerns that we’re not good enough, clever enough, attractive enough, this can really feed into our ideas about needing to try harder to get other people to be nice to us or treat us well.’

This very much includes that trash ex. 

In this same vein, we may cling to previous relationships – no matter how awful – because we fear being alone, so we settle. 

‘Sometimes we see having a relationship better than having no relationship at all,’ says Chris Riley, a Celebrity Psychic who often does love readings for clients.

We invested our time and energy

In business, there’s something called the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ that drives decisions. It means that people are more likely to continue with something after they’ve invested time, money or effort, even when it stops being valuable. 

The same can be applied to relationships, especially where people can spin grand stories about what they can provide. 

‘It is really hard to give up on something when you feel like you have put so much into it,’ Chris adds. ‘Very often we feel like we can’t let go of someone because we have a little bit of hope that it’s going to get better, sometimes we hold on to one or two special moments, that hold us back from walking away.’

Toxic relationships are what we are used to 

Some of us may struggle to let go of toxic relationships because they are familiar. 

‘Sometimes we become almost programmed to believe that we should settle for conflicts, drama and arguments,’ says Chris Riley.

This hasn’t come from nowhere.

Charlotte Pardy MA, a trauma-informed award-winning psychotherapist, says somewhere along the line, toxic elements have become normalised for us. 

‘Things like the belief love is conditional, that a certain level of aggression or emotional absence is normal in a relationship, that control, criticism, and competition are to be expected in relationships,’ Charlotte explains.

This normalisation could have started as early as childhood.

‘Maybe our parents were erratic; one-minute things were ok and the next minute everything was up in the air or maybe we saw them being abusive to us or other people,’ Sarah says. 

‘We might also have tried really hard to get them to notice us or care about us but if they were sick, traumatised themselves or not able to be there for us we might have decided it was because we weren’t important enough.’

People may be telling you the relationship was toxic, but if these things feel normal to you, you’re going to grieve it just like anybody would with any relationship. 

‘If you have been through trauma at a young age and perhaps had a narcissistic parent, relative or someone at a young age, we are often around so much drama and negativity we almost become that we should just accept it,’ Chris adds. 

If unhealthy relationships are ‘normal’ to you, you’re going to struggle to recognise issues (Picture: Getty Images)

Toxic relationship can be addictive 

Toxic relationships are unpredictable. One moment, everything’s sweet as honey. The next, that honey’s slipped away and you’re drowning in vinegar. 

So you try again, go back for more, hoping that you’ll taste honey this time. 

This unpredictability is exhausting, unsustainable – and incredibly addictive. 

It’s called ‘intermittent reinforcement’.

‘It’s why people play fruit machines,’ Sarah says. 

‘We never know if we will get the “nice version of them”, but we keep hoping that this time it will be different.’

We feel sorry for them

Some relationships can be toxic due to difficult problems faced by one or people involved. For instance, someone, if someone has mental health problems, money troubles, or addiction issues, the struggles with dealing with these being untreated, could mean they lash out, or are emotionally distant or volatile. 

We are all human, and when we know someone is struggling, we empathise with them – even if they aren’t treating us well. 

Walking away from someone who has these issues can leave us feeling guilty, but it is important to not feel a responsibility to stay in a relationship that is harming us, no matter what they are going through. 

‘We must remember that sometimes we can’t help everyone, and sometimes people must do something to help themselves, too,’ Chris adds.  

If said ex was a master manipulator, then they probably convinced you that you were responsible for their emotions. They exploited your empathy to keep us around. Disentangling from that is hard work emotionally. 

Trauma does complicated things to the brain 

Unpredictability may be addictive at first, but over time, the unpredictability becomes, well, predictable. This can be hard to walk away from. 

‘It all boils down to becoming a creature of habit, and seeking stability,’ Quinn explains. 

‘In essence; when you’re being traumatised, your brain will find it easier to remain with the “stability” (even in the face of escalating abuse) of an abusive partner because you may be convinced that they are your best option, and at least this way, you can prepare yourself and defend against what you know is coming.’

As someone with CPTSD, Quinn can attest to this. ‘Moving from a predictably abusive environment into the unknown is unthinkably terrifying; it’s only in hindsight that we’re able to grasp how dreadful those toxic relationships are, because we have adjusted to a new, safer normal that we didn’t know existed before,’ they explain. 

If a toxic relationship involved abuse, that puts our body in a state of constant alert. 

In the face of danger, our fight, flight, freeze or fawn instincts kick in to protect ourselves. In toxic relationship, Quinn explains, our bodies are often oversaturated with these danger signals – which, over time, exhausts us. 

‘Human beings aren’t built to feel in danger all of the time – when we do, our systems become accustomed to all of the hormones flooding our system, telling us to flee or fight back,’ Quinn says.

‘It seems contradictory, but many trauma survivors will stay in an abusive relationship because the abuse is predictable. 

‘At least with an abusive partner, a survivor may feel that they understand the extent to which they are being harmed – or will think, ‘Well, at least it’s from someone who wants me.’

It’s not easy to move on, but it’s possible (Picture: Getty Images)

We feel ashamed 

Breakups can leave us with the sense that we failed somehow. We may feel embarrassed or ashamed and not want to tell people, in case they judge us for being a failure too, Chris explains. 

This shame becomes stronger when that relationship was toxic, explains Sarah Oakley, founder of the Brave Bird Club, Podcast and Brave Bird Pants.

Reflecting on how she felt after the breakdown of an abusive relationship, she says she felt a shame facing up to those close friends that she ‘turned her back on over the years during the relationship’.

Isolating from friends is a hallmark of an abusive relationship. 

Sarah says: ‘The person you are with convinces you that they have your best interests at heart, over any of your friends.  

‘This controlling power reduces your circle of close friends, influencing your only support network and those you can rely upon. 

‘Over time confidence, spirit and resilience ebb away, leaving you feeling downtrodden. 

So when the time does eventually come to try and break out of a toxic relationship it is especially hard, finding the strength to overcome your own personal shame and facing up to those friends to admit how difficult life has been.’

How to move on from a toxic relationship

Getting over a toxic relationship is hard, but by no means impossible. 

Questioning whether you have normalised toxic behaviour is a good starting point. 

‘Think about how you learned about relationships growing up, did people fight fairly or were they mean or violent? How was this handled? Were there apologies and resolutions or silences and storming off?’ Sarah says. 

‘All this is gong to contribute to your ideas about what is normal in relationships. If you didn’t see healthy relationships where people were kind and respectful, you may need to learn how these work.’

Next: do you ignore red flags? Do you find yourself saying things like ‘they probably didn’t mean it’, ‘this time it will be different’ or do you dismiss problems because you find them attractive? 

‘You might find that you have a pattern of not speaking up or not trusting yourself,’ Sarah adds. 

Self-reflection is good, working this through with a therapist is better. Sarah also recommends the free-to-use ‘Freedom Programme’, designed for anyone who has experienced abusive relationships in any form.

Charlotte’s five tips for getting over past toxic relationships: 

  • Build your support network, it’s common for toxic partners to isolate you from friends and family
  • Understand you may be trauma-bonded and may need some mental health help
  • Notice when your ex used/uses emotions like shame, disappointment, blame etc to manipulate you into doing things and how you responded
  • Look at other relationships in your life and notice if there are any issues of control, criticism or competition in them too
  • Set up healthy boundaries on how you want to be treated in future relationships and start implementing them in any relationships that need them, including friendships and relationships with your parents
  • Think about how you can improve your relationship with yourself by working on your self-worth, self-care and realising your needs are important too

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