One of the most confusing aspects of breakups is who we end up taking the longest to get over. Why, for instance, does it feel easier to bounce back from parting ways with a genuinely kind, wonderful partner you considered a best friend than an ex who had virtually no redeeming qualities? Why are the people who proved to be mean-spirited, selfish, dishonest, manipulative – aka, so obviously bad in every way –sometimes the hardest to get over?
While it’s easy to be hard on yourself and want to speed up the healing process, there are reasons why a toxic relationship keeps you hooked for too long to begin with. Here are six signs you might be in a damaging relationship now, or why you still can’t get over one from the past:
1. The highs of the relationship feel incredible enough to mask the lows.
In order to stay with someone emotionally abusive in the first place, they’d have to be pretty gd amazing the rest of the time – especially in the beginning. “If the relationship were only exclusively abusive, and it were that way from the start, there is no doubt in my mind that no one would tolerate that sort of behavior,” says Mariana Bockarova, Ph.D., who teaches relationship psychology at the University of Toronto. “The issue is that there are so many wonderful, tender moments which make it very difficult to believe that this person who can be so loving can also be horrible at the same time.”
Often, toxic relationships start out with lovebombing – aka where things move super quickly and you feel borderline obsessively-admired 24/7. It can feel like a reinforcement of everything every romantic movie ever told you love is, and can easily be confused with finding your soulmate.
Of course, once actual conflicts start, things can take a drastic turn via namecalling, stonewalling, and the abusive partner’s aggressive unwillingness to ever be wrong. But once the fight is “over” or you’ve broken down crying, the abuser can apologise profusely and fabricate a new honeymoon period, where you feel like the worst is over, until it happens again. Bockarova says this is called a trauma bond, and FYI, it’s that much harder to get over because of all the emotions linked to this partner.
2. Breaking up is a constant threat, and when it does happen, it’s usually very sudden.
A common theme in toxic relationships is the abusive partner saying they’ll just break up with you every time there’s a minor or fixable issue, which can make you feel unsteady being with them. But then the actual breakup can often be explosive and out-of-nowhere, which can throw you through an even bigger mental loop. “When a relationship ends, especially abruptly, this leaves you with a sense of not being sure of what went wrong, and in turn, affects your ability to start new relationships,” Bockarova says. “Without knowing what the problem that caused the breakup is, you may become very self-conscious and afraid to enter a new relationship, because you may see yourself as inherently flawed.” That’s why even a hard but talked-through breakup with a great partner can feel emotionally less devastating than losing a terrible S.O. without any warning. With so many questions unanswered during and after the relationship, moving on can take that much more time.
3. Your ex is a pro at making you feel like *you* ruined the relationship.
Again, because emotions see-saw so much in the relationship, you might have moments where you still think things could work out, or that you’re the reason everything’s broken. Them being SO caring and attentive can make it seem like there’s some piece to the puzzle missing that would make your partner never show that scarier, nastier side. Bockarova recommends reminding yourself of what’s actually been happening. “It’s better to recognise that no one can force another individual to act a certain way, and that if they have acted in a way that’s abusive, they’ve allowed themselves to cross a certain boundary. And it will be incredibly difficult to trust that that boundary won’t be crossed again.” You can’t stop someone from being hurtful or controlling, but the belief that you could can keep you invested far longer than you ever wanted to be.
4. You maybe lost some close friends while in the relationship.
Part of what gives a toxic partner power is isolating you from your friends who, in turn, can’t bring up any red flags they might spot. So whether you’re currently in the relationship or just got out of it, the toll it’s taken on your social life can be rough – and make you feel lonelier than ever.
But, at the same time, reconnecting with friends can be a huge help in healing yourself – as long as you choose your squad wisely. “Never underestimate the power that other people can have, positive or negative – it’s really important in this phase to have or make good friends who will lend an open ear while making you feel safe and cared for,” Bockarova says. She also suggests therapy.
However, if you went totally AWOL on your friends because of the relationship, they might want an explanation. Bockarova advises being open about the cycle of abuse you’ve experienced, which will hopefully bring you even closer as friends.
5. Your self-esteem has taken a MASSIVE hit.
No surprises here – dating a person who consistently treats you poorly can make you think you deserve it – and crush your feelings of self-worth in the process.
“In very controlling relationships, the abused partner often loses relationships not only with their friends and family, but with themselves because of put downs for things they might enjoy doing,” Bockarova says. “For instance, being made to feel badly for enjoying a certain television show could cause someone to feel uncertain of themselves and not want to reveal that part of themselves to others.”
Being nitpicked for your hobbies, body, friendships, career goals, outfits, and so on is supposed to wear you down and think you’re so lucky this person could even love you. Even if you break up, it takes a while to rebuild and reconnect with everything you used to love, so be patient with yourself!
6. Your brain is still figuring out how to trust people again.
Dating someone who oscillated between the best and worst person you ever met does a number on your sense of trust, and can make you feel like your own instincts and gut feeling are way off. And that can take a while to get past.
Bockarova’s advice? Throw yourself into some new hobbies or friend groups, even if it means getting out of your comfort zone. “Essentially, try to rediscover the world in a way that lets you concentrate on your wants and needs,” she says. “When you’re trying out something new, it may seem scary at first, but it will actually help you reestablish trust as long as it’s done in a way or with people who are kind and nonjudgmental.”
Yes, getting out of and over a deeply unhealthy relationship can feel like the longest stretch of time ever, even if you don’t love your ex anymore. But be kind with yourself – there’s a reason this is so hard, but you got this.