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The thought of breaking up or separating from a toxic person can be a difficult decision to make. But taking a break before a breakup can bring clarity and perspective in a problematic relationship, helping you rediscover something you lost and even help decide if you really want to make that difficult decision or take a different path. 

Some individuals are exceedingly challenging, even toxic. Some are unaware of their behavior. They might not even recognize their difficulty, often projecting it onto others. They could shift blame entirely, believing themselves faultless while criticizing you relentlessly.

Regrettably, this occurs frequently, especially in romantic relationships. In such cases, one person accuses the other, saying, “It’s all your fault. I’m perfect; you need to change.”

This doesn’t qualify as a balanced relationship. True relationships involve two people jointly nurturing and taking responsibility for their roles within the partnership. They should support each other’s happiness.
If my fiancée, Asha, expressed unhappiness, I wouldn’t dismiss it as her problem. Instead, I’d inquire about ways I could assist her and strive to be what she needs for her happiness.

I’d ask, “Am I contributing to your unhappiness in any way?” Essentially, when two caring individuals are involved, they prioritize each other’s well-being.

I define love as supporting the other person’s journey to happiness, even when you disagree with their choices. Loving someone means backing their happiness and the decisions they make.

But what if you can’t agree with their choices? Do you complain or try to control and change them? This is where emotionally abusive behavior can emerge in any relationship. It’s about not accepting the other person’s decisions, actions, or words, and wanting to control or change them. This can be considered emotionally abusive behavior.

Interestingly, the flip side of this situation is the victim of emotionally abusive behavior having similar thoughts. They may dislike the other person’s choices, behaviors, or words and wish for a change. The key difference lies in their response.

The victim typically strives to better themselves to escape victimization. The abusive or hurtful person, on the other hand, resists change and expects the other person to change to suit their needs. Recognizing this difference eliminates the need to question who is engaging in hurtful behavior.

To reiterate, the crucial distinction is this:

When someone is being hurtful or abusive, they resist self-improvement and want you to change. They don’t acknowledge their issues.

In contrast, the victim often contemplates self-improvement, believing they themselves might be the problem and will try to do better.

In my relationship, I strive to improve myself in such situations. If there’s something I can do to improve my partner’s emotional well-being, I’ll do it.

I think this is a healthy approach in a relationship. In a healthy relationship, if you realize you might be causing harm, you likely take steps to change or improve yourself, striving to be more supportive, loving, and better in every way.

This contrasts starkly with the hurtful person who refuses to change, placing the onus of change solely on you, while avoiding responsibility for their actions and blaming you continuously. Such behavior isn’t conducive to a balanced relationship; it’s unhealthy. It reflects an avoidance of self-examination.

When someone believes there’s nothing wrong with themselves, it raises questions. Does it make them selfish? Could it indicate narcissism? Is it a form of emotional abuse? Does it make them extremely challenging to have a relationship with?

In my experience, the difference between a challenging person and a less challenging one lies in their willingness to give and reflect. Non-challenging individuals take a moment to consider all perspectives, strive to be better, and exhibit kindness, generosity, and care.

In contrast, challenging individuals don’t invest this time, quickly concluding that the problem lies with you. In such cases, maintaining a relationship becomes exceedingly difficult.

I’m not necessarily referring to those who have undergone substantial personal growth and healing after experiencing abusive behavior. If you’ve already done the work to heal and improve yourself, you may reach a point where you feel you’ve done enough and now believe it’s up to the other person to change.

However, there’s a caveat to consider. If you’re in a relationship with an abusive person, you must question why you’re subjecting yourself to it. Individuals who have invested in their healing and growth are unlikely to tolerate toxic behavior.

I often inform members of the Healed Being program, which I run for emotionally abusive individuals seeking change, that every person has a breaking point—a threshold.

When someone reaches their threshold, they’ve had enough; they won’t endure it any longer. This is when they assert themselves, saying, “You must stop or I’m leaving,” or issuing a similar ultimatum.

When you reach your threshold, you become resolute about ending the unhealthy dynamics. You decide they either have to change or you’ll leave.

Emotionally abusive individuals, particularly in romantic relationships, want to maintain the relationship but on their own terms. But their fear of losing you will likely kick in when you’ve reached your threshold.

This is a shock to them because you’re finally holding them accountable. You’ve reached a point where they must change or else. This is genuine accountability. They need to hear that you’re serious because, often, they can tell when you’re not. When you’re not serious, they tend to dismiss your warnings, believing you won’t actually leave.

Some emotionally abusive people may not perceive their behavior as severe enough because you’re still there, they think their behavior can’t be that bad otherwise you would have left by now.

That’s a twisted logic, I realize, but it’s their rationale! Therefore, they are most likely to change when there’s tangible accountability—something they can’t ignore. Otherwise, they may not see the need for change. This is an important aspect to understand before addressing today’s question, which is related to taking a break before ending a relationship.

Can breaking up give the emotionally abusive person even more control over you?

The person who wrote to me asked the question:

Should partners discuss the reasons for the breakup and be candid about likely outcomes? Or can it remain undefined and ambiguous?

This aligns with the concept of reaching a threshold I talked about above, but let me read the rest of their message first. They go on to say:

I ask because you didn’t distinguish between these two scenarios, and I believe this could pose a challenge with passive-aggressive abusers who often employ the excruciating silent treatment. In my experience, if given a chance, I would disagree with opting for a brief break because it often leads to a disappointing breakup in the end, something I’d rather avoid.

These individuals relish the opportunity to break you down every time you approach them. They derive satisfaction from seizing your power and punishing you for your emotions within the relationship. Granting them a break only furnishes them with an excuse and power to continue treating you as they have in the relationship, effectively casting you as the villain.

To the person who emailed me, I can sense that you’ve been through a lot as a victim of abusive behavior.

They go on:

I’ve often blamed myself for not standing up for myself and instead attempting empathetic, futile efforts to change or control the abuser’s behavior. I’m holding onto a tiny hope that I can eventually escape this situation. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.”

I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through this. It sounds like you may have encountered someone similar to who I used to be and how I used to behave in my past relationships.

I admit that I used to employ those passive-aggressive silent treatments. And I now realize how destructive they can be to the person on the receiving end.

Withholding love and connection through silent treatment is a very hurtful practice, especially when directed at someone who genuinely cares about you. If you’re experiencing this, I completely understand your feelings and the depth of your hurt.

To address your question, one of the first things you asked was whether you should discuss taking time apart and be honest about the reasons behind it, talking about the potential outcomes, or perhaps not considering the outcomes but leaving them undefined and ambiguous.

My take on this is when you’re considering taking a break before a breakup, if your goal isn’t necessarily to end the relationship, and you genuinely want to explore whether there’s a possibility to salvage it, taking a break can be valuable. It offers both of you a chance to gain clarity.

When you’re in close proximity to each other, however, you tend to trigger one another regardless of which side of the situation you’re on.

These triggers prevent clear thinking. The victim gets triggered by the abuser’s behavior, and vice versa. Progress becomes challenging when both parties are in a perpetual state of expecting the next trigger. This is why relationships can feel stagnant and unproductive. You’re attempting to work through issues, but the constant triggering hinders progress.

By taking a break before a breakup, you provide yourselves with an opportunity for clarity. It allows you to step away from those triggers, granting you both space to think. When you’ve been with someone for an extended period, your thoughts often revolve around that person.

Even mundane thoughts like running to the store for milk might involve considerations of their preferences. However, when that person is out of your life temporarily, you get to rediscover who you are.

Taking a break allows you to ask yourself questions like:

Who was I before this relationship?
Who am I now?
Who do I want to be?

This type introspection can help you reclaim your identity, which is a key component of a successful, healthy, and lasting relationship. When you can be yourself and maintain your authenticity while in a relationship, the relationship is almost always stronger and longer lasting.

In emotionally abusive relationships, however, the victim often ends up compromising themselves because the other person refuses to change. If you become the victim of emotional abuse, as you adapt and change to conform to the other person’s expectations, you may start to dislike yourself more because you’re slowly losing your authentic self.

Being victimized, love for yourself decreases. And this process continues until you become a mere shell of your former self.

This is not the outcome anyone desires. Being a shell of your former self means you’re only a vessel; you’re not truly “you” anymore.

If you show up in a relationship as your complete, authentic self, and you are comfortable in your own skin, any toxic elements in the relationship can start to erode that authenticity. It happens because you start hiding certain aspects of yourself because those aspects don’t align with what the other person wants.

Over time, you lose more and more of your true self. This compromises your self-esteem and happiness.

Taking a break from the toxic elements of the relationship allows you to reconnect with yourself. However, I understand that some people can’t physically take a break. In such cases, it’s crucial to find other ways to reconnect with yourself.

Rediscovering your identity is vital for finding happiness and escaping the emotional slavery that often accompanies toxic relationships. You don’t want to be a mere pawn in someone else’s game; you want to regain your sense of self.

If you’ve lost yourself in a relationship, remember that part of you is still there, waiting to be rediscovered. During your time apart, you might even find that certain aspects of your true self were incompatible with the other person or the relationship as a whole. If that’s the case, you might find yourself accepting that the relationship isn’t right for you.

It’s far from easy to consider this, I realize, especially when your emotions are deeply involved. Taking a break, as I mentioned in response to the person’s email, is about allowing the fog to clear, gaining clarity, and rediscovering who you are and what you want in life.

Who are you when you’re not with them?

In previous episodes, I’ve posed a question similar to this: “What would you do if you were alone?”

This question encourages independent thinking, free from external influence. It’s a way to understand your true desires and intentions, aside from any external pressures.

I’ve even asked my fiancée the same question during times when she’s felt uncertain or down. It’s a way to help her discover her own path without feeling compelled to make decisions based on my desires.

In a healthy relationship, both partners support each other’s happiness. Decisions aren’t purely selfish; they consider the other person’s emotional well-being. This mutual support and compassion create a balance where you both work toward each other’s happiness. It’s a partnership based on caring about each other’s emotional health.

However, this balance must go both ways. You make decisions with their emotional health in mind, and they do the same for you. If this reciprocity is lacking, it might be time to consider taking a break. The purpose of a break is to allow each of you to reconnect with yourselves, to understand who you are and what you want independently. It’s about ensuring you don’t lose your identity within the relationship.

Ideally, a relationship should involve two independent individuals who care for themselves and each other, showing compassion and respect. When you both bring your complete, authentic selves into the relationship, it becomes a partnership where you create something more significant together, something wonderful to share. This is what I call a well-balanced relationship.

Regarding the concerns raised by the person in the email, if they view taking a break as a means for the other person to maintain power over them, it’s essential to clarify your intention for the break.

Your goal with taking a break should be to regain your own power and to reconnect with yourself. It doesn’t matter if the other person tries to use the break as an opportunity to manipulate you or whatever. What matters most is your commitment to rediscovering yourself.

During the break, it’s crucial to maintain a degree of disconnection from the other person’s influence. If you find yourselves still communicating daily or feeling obligated to respond to their messages, it’s not a true break. A genuine break should offer you the space to reconnect with yourself without external influences.

Different people may have varying opinions on how to handle a break, but what’s most important is that you use the time to understand yourself better. The ultimate goal is to regain your personal power and make informed decisions about what you will and won’t accept in your life.

If, after the break, you re-enter the relationship and encounter abusive behavior, then you’ll be better equipped to recognize those behaviors as toxic so you can assert your boundaries or leave the situation before it gets any worse.

Taking a break provides an opportunity to step back, gain perspective, and potentially break the trauma bond that can form in toxic relationships. It allows you to see the situation from a more significant vantage point and make clearer decisions.

When you disconnect for an extended period and then choose to return to address the issues, both you and the other person will have had time to reflect and possibly consider how to show up differently.

If, despite the break, the emotionally abusive person hasn’t made any positive changes, you’ll be in a better position to evaluate whether the relationship is truly what you want for your future. It’s all about giving yourself the space and clarity needed to make decisions that align with your well-being and happiness.

I want to thank the person who wrote to me and tell them to try not to blame themselves. Emotional abuse can leave deep scars, making it difficult to stand up for yourself or make changes. We don’t always have the strength or resources to make the choices we need to make for ourselves. Just know that you are worthy of respect and kindness. You deserve nothing less than that.

Remember that your journey is about regaining your power and reconnecting with the person you used to be or aspire to be. And taking a break like we talked about above can be a crucial step in this process. Again, it can provide the space you need to rediscover yourself, your desires, and your boundaries.

Asking questions like “Who am I when I’m not with this other person?” and “What do I want for myself?” are fundamental to regaining a sense of self and agency.

Also remember that healing and growth take time. Rebuilding and starting over are completely valid approaches when necessary. Your well-being and happiness are worth the effort, and you deserve to be in a healthy and fulfilling relationship, starting with yourself, then with someone else if you choose to be.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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