Identifying and Disengaging from a Toxic Relationship

July 18,2017 By: Mansi poddar

I believe that Love cannot be classified. But attachments can, as healthy and unhealthy. How do we identify and then break unhealthy attachments?

Unhealthy attachments are born from desperation. They do not nourish our souls and instead suck our emotional and spiritual energy. This is especially prevalent in couple relationships or friendships.Such relationships are highly toxic .

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How to identify a toxic relationship?


John Kim, psychotherapist, defines unhealthy love is being powerless, selfish and enabling. It has no boundaries. Unhealthy love is unconditional and yet contingent. It is immature, irresponsible and dependent. Unhealthy love is urgent. There is a desperation behind it which produces manipulation and compromise of self. Unhealthy love is a pissing contest, a tug of war, a mute silence and a kick stand. Unhealthy love promotes the false self and stunts growth: it is a drug.

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On the other hand, a healthy attachment is a secure attachment.We know the other person is there for us; we know their true self, the good the bad, the ugly. There is space in the relationship for both authenticity and pain. Love is not conditional, and our humanity is accepted and honored. There is transparency and truth. Trust is built over time, there is respect for ones emotional, physical and psychological well being. A healthy attachment is growth oriented and freeing. I describe it as a feeling of having come home, comforting, nurturing, secure, free of suffering.  there is open communication and both people strive for mutual well being.

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Many of us find ourselves in very toxic and unhealthy relationships, often we can’t break out of them and other times, we are left with no choice but to. How do we do this? Especially if this is a love relationship? I asked former clients of mine who were in recovery from breakups.

” It’s important to recognize the truth. To see what kind of relationship you are in”

” Till you face the hard truth, and stop letting memories define your idea of the relationship, you will never feel better.”

” You have to let time heal the pain”

” Till I realized how much this was killing me, I couldn’t give it up.”

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These are individuals have left toxic relationships, but how do you get out of one, when you know you are in it? Toxic relationships have a strange pull. They can be magnetic, passionate even. We keep living in the hope,  that one day, it will get better, we will get the love we want.


John Gottman, renowned marriage counselor says for every single negative interaction there should be five positive ones. This keeps a relationship healthy. And The 4 signs of a toxic relationship are what he calls the 4 horsemen– defensiveness, criticism, contempt and stonewalling.

Now, personally I  believe that romantic relationships aren’t the only ones that can turn toxic and abusive. friendships, family relationships, relationships with co-workers may become unhealthy too.

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How do we free ourselves from toxic relationships?

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Firstly, if we do not love and respect ourselves, we will not get the same from people. Law of attraction states that like attracts like. I have seen this to be very true.  If we have no self respect, we attract people who do not respect us.  Thus, our work begins  from within.

Explore and identify

images (8)Start a daily journal and follow the following prompts to help delve into your self image and understand the nature of your relationship. Explore:

  • Who am I?
  • How would someone describe me?
  • If I had to give myself a report card what would I write in it?
  • What messages about myself/ relationships did I grow up with?
  • What does my family think of me?
  • Do I like myself?
  • What kind of relationships have I had with people?
  • Have I got what I wanted in relationships?
  • What are my needs in relationships?
  • Have my needs and desires been met? Do I sacrifice and suffer more than I want too or need too?
  • Am I happy?
  • What kind of relationship do I seek? does my current relationship measure up?
  • Can I make any changes in my approach?
  • What if I stand up for myself or assert my needs? will it be met with understanding?


The above approach helps you clarify your own self esteem, understand whether your relationship is unhealthy and figure out what you and whether your current relationship meets those needs. This is essential in identifying unhealthy attachments.

Refocus your energies

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While in such relationships, we feel like we are on a rollercoaster of emotions. Most of them bottled up. try to refocus. Spend time with your friends, on your body, career etc. Take up a new hobby. See how the attachment holds up when you begin to reduce focus on the other person. This is often a good indicator of how healthy an attachment is.

Identify healthy and unhealthy attachments

Speak to people who you feel are in healthy relationships, what makes it healthy? how are they relating to one another? Once you reframe your view on healthy relationships, it becomes harder to be in an unhealthy one. Talk to a Counselor if you feel you need to understand the difference or are trapped in an unhealthy one.

 Change the way you think about it

Cerebro meditacion mindfulnessReplace negative thoughts. Recognize, accept and let go of negative fearful thoughts. ” I’ll never be in a love relationship” ” friends aren’t perfect, I must forgive her and let go.”  ” I deserve this, its my fault, i should understand why the other person is behaving this way.”

These are thoughts that keep us trapped in such relationships.  replace them with ” I need not spend my life suffering.” ” I deserve more” ” there are people who will meet my needs and treat me with respect.”

Take responsibility.

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This is essential.  In any relationship, we have to take responsibility. Few years ago, I was in an extremely unhealthy and toxic friendship with a narcissist , who was completely disregarding of others needs.  I kept justifying her behavior, finding excuses and letting myself be put through a lot of sadness and betrayal. I was not taking responsibility for the situation. I kept struggling to make it work, despite knowing this person was highly toxic.

I soon realized that I was pandering to this persons narcissism by being so soft, always forgiving and unassertive. I took responsibility, I asserted my needs to myself, and then, in few months, found the courage to let go.  I had got myself into this relationship, and I took full responsibility for it. This was freeing.  The truth sets you free.

Take up a spiritual practice.

This is essential in helping you get out of negative relationships. when you feel your energy shifting, you begin to feel stronger and more able. You realize life has different plans for you and suffering is a choice. As the Dalai lama says, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Unhealthy attachments are suffering that can be ended.

Don’t blame yourself for everything

images (3)Often in these relationships, one person feels guilt and is always trying to fix it. Remember  it’s not your fault.

Recently, a client looking for breakup  recovery discovered her reactions and feelings of desperation were natural in this toxic relationship. The minute she realized she was not at fault, she felt free of a huge burden. Her partner had convinced her that her behavior lead him to be abusive. This is never true.

Reclaim Control

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Finally, realize you are in control of your destiny. Your life is a series of choices you make, especially in relationships. We need not judge people, but we can choose the energy we allow to flow through our lives. This is the energy we will merge with. Let it be a source of strength and light. Relationships have the potential of revealing us to ourselves. Choose wisely. Does this energy feel right? do I want to include it in my life?

All relationships come with pain and happiness. If you spend alot of time feeling incomplete, stressed out, unhappy or exhausted, seek help.  You can change your life to flow in the direction you choose. Even if such relationships cannot be ended, we can shift the way we relate and communicate. There are ways to reduce the pain.


Published in Life Positive Magazine in October 2014.