Toxic relationships can disintegrate your strength and confidence, but you can get it back

When the toxic relationship has worn you down, taken away your ability to think clearly, and chiseled away at your confidence and mental strength, it might be time to pivot your trajectory to rebuild yourself and make healthy decisions.

(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)

I’m going to dedicate this episode to an email that I received with the subject line that says “All I have to say is thank you.”

It says “Dear Paul, in the past six to eight months, I’ve really started to feel and notice that I am in a verbally and emotionally abusive marriage. Through these realizations, and with help from my therapist, my support group like family and friends, it led me to self-help books, research, and your podcast.”

“When I came across Love and Abuse, I was first looking for a specific topic about manipulation through threats, such as suicide, which my husband does to me often. I then became a regular listener…”

If you have to deal with someone threatens suicide if you leave or if you don’t do what they say, that is emotional abuse. And it does need to be addressed. I have an episode on that right here. I give very specific pointers in that episode.

She goes on to say, “I became a regular listener, and I felt like you were speaking directly to me. Your podcast has helped me realize my self-worth and gave me the empowerment to finally tell my abuser I want a divorce. I finally mustered up the courage and told him I want to move on and I’m ready to go our separate ways, something I haven’t been able to do for 13 years. 13 years I have been battered, abused, belittled, and it has taken my sparkle and voice away, and caused me to be a shell of a person.”

“With all the tragedy going on in the world right now, ironically, it’s been a good time to self-reflect and grow. I want to thank you for helping me see that I am deserving of kindness and respect, and that my kids don’t need to live in a toxic environment anymore. I’m in my 30s, and I feel like life is just beginning. You have helped me get there and accomplish this.”

“Thank you, Paul. Thank you for reassuring me that I’m not alone and I’m not crazy, and giving me the strength and my voice back that I needed for so long to say enough is enough. I am a victim of domestic violence and while it pains me to say that out loud or type it out, it’s liberating to acknowledge it. You helped me save my life and my daughter’s lives, so that they won’t grow up thinking that what my marriage was, is normal.”

“Even though I’m terrified of the unknown, I am more terrified if I stay another day in a toxic relationship. Thank you from the bottom of my now stronger heart.”

Thank you so much for sharing that. Obviously, you’re dealing with the emotionally abusive situation right now and you don’t know the future. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

You do know that you are taking steps for you. And let me just say this before I comment on this, this is not something that I’m doing for you, this is something that you are doing for you.

You heard me talk about stuff that helped you springboard and take the next step. I am so so grateful for this email. I am so humbled by it. I am so honored that I was a part of your journey – I am a part of your journey – Thank you so much for sharing this.

These are the kind of emails that when I read through them, I tear up.  I just get so, I don’t know the word, proud? I just get so happy inside that this person is taking charge of her life. She’s not the puppet on the string like I talked about in the last episode. She is taking charge. She loves herself. She loves her kids.

I’m not saying that if you’re in a situation like this, you don’t love yourself and you don’t love your kids, I’m saying that you get to a point where you realize “Enough is enough and I have to do something, even if I don’t know what the future holds.” And that is a massive step onto an invisible bridge.

I always think about the third movie in the Indiana Jones series where there’s a giant chasm and Indiana Jones does not know how to cross it and one of the passages he was reading that is helping him get through this maze of booby traps and stuff was that you have to take a leap of faith.

He cannot leap across the chasm, it’s just too far so he decides to take a step over the ledge hoping with faith that something will be there to catch his fall.

I won’t give away what happens but if you haven’t seen it, it’s a good movie but that reminds me of taking that leap in any type of situation where you have no idea what the future holds. You might even think that you’re not going to survive, you’re going to die. You might have these thoughts like “I can’t survive this. How can I do this?”

Sometimes it does take a leap of faith. Sometimes it is a matter of telling yourself, “I don’t want to experience what I’ve been experiencing anymore.” That’s what she did.

There was a lot more involved, of course. But she came to that decision herself. I helped, her therapist helped, all the stuff she’s read, all the videos she’s watched… everything helped. Everything was a little bit of that construction of that springboard to help her with that leap. There’s guidance from all these places.

I look at something like this and am so touched. I couldn’t be more happy for her. I’m also here to say, and you already know what I’m going to say, it will be hard. This is a difficult transition.

Quite often, the emotionally abusive person becomes the nicest person in the world when you’re leaving them. They say all the right things, they do all the right things, they show up in all the right ways because they don’t want to lose you.

You represent a lot of things to them. First of all, they may actually believe that they love you in a healthy way. If they’re toxic, it’s not healthy. There’s a kind of love that they have mixed in their mind with toxicity that they think is healthy and good. So what ends up happening is they will say things like, “I love you so much. Isn’t that what you want? I love you, I care about you. I respect you, I want you to be happy!”

They’ll say all the right things. They may actually believe their own words. Emotionally abusive people will say things that seem really heartfelt. Their words seems so genuine.

The problem is they’re so focused on convincing you that they are the right person for you, that they are missing the boat on what they need to do for themselves. An emotionally abusive person needs to work on and heal themselves. They need to show up in a different way completely before you can ever see them as a healthier person for you.

It gets harder if the emotionally abusive person gets nicer because now they’re doing all that first date kind of stuff. They’re showing up in ways that look amazing. That’s one aspect of this.

The other aspect is that some emotionally abusive people get meaner. They’ll get uncharacteristically hurtful. They will do things that are just over the top. Some of them will make your life miserable.

It could go one way or the other, or it could go an entirely different way. It’s going to be hard no matter what because when you’re in a relationship for that long, you’ve actually developed feelings for them, otherwise you probably wouldn’t have been there that long. In a relationship like that, you’re always looking for those good qualities to come back. You’re hoping those good qualities return and that the person you knew is still in there. That person when you first met, or that person you’ve always known them to be. You’ll ask yourself, “Where is that person?”

You’ll stay in relationships like that for far too long looking for the person you saw a long time ago, but they never show up. Then you have to make a choice. You might have to take a stand. You might have to say, “I don’t want to be treated like this anymore.” And then you’ll need to make a decision.

This is what the person who wrote to me did. She made a decision. She decided, “I need to do this. Enough is enough.” She hit bottom.

When you hit bottom, that can be a very good thing. Usually, the bottom is where you spring off and go back up. I use the pool analogy: You’re swimming down, holding your breath, and it’s getting deeper. The pressure is getting greater and it’s getting darker. It doesn’t feel good at all. You’re thinking, “Oh, I don’t think I can hold my breath anymore and I’m starting to lose it. I’m starting to feel terrible.”

Then you feel the bottom. That is the breakdown point were is enough is enough. And at your lowest, you push back up! And you’re on your way back to the top, knowing that you’re going to hit air. You’re soon going to be breathing oxygen, and you’re going to see the light of the sun, and you’re going to be able to breathe that precious air.

Your life changes when you hit bottom. Sometimes that needs to happen. Sometimes you need to hit that bottom and, unfortunately, go through some very unhealthy stages to get to bottom which is why it’s so important to not go into denial.  If you are in denial about what’s going on in your relationship, like “Wow, maybe that person is doing this to me because of X or Y. And maybe they’ll change. Maybe this, maybe that…” If that’s what you’re thinking, you need to snap yourself out of it and see what’s happening in front of you today, and make a note of how you’re being treated.

If you’re being mistreated, there’s nothing to deny. You just have to accept that’s what’s happening.  This is what the person who wrote to me said. She said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud. It doesn’t make me feel good to say it out loud, but at the same time, it gives me strength. At the same time, it’s liberating. It’s liberating to say I am a victim of domestic violence.”

Yes, emotional abuse is domestic violence. Regardless if it’s your spouse or partner, or a family member, or a friend or co-worker. It may not fall into the typical description of domestic violence, but it sure is emotional violence. If someone is being controlling and manipulative, I would call that emotional violence.

We use the term emotional abuse but I also throw in there control, manipulation, deception, and coercion. It can get worse from there. There is also severe emotional abuse, where the person feels completely dead inside.

I hate hearing about that – someone who’s just completely dead inside because they’ve been with somebody awful for so long, and they’re in this state of mind, this emotional state, that they have a hard time getting out of because they fear the unknown. They fear the great void beyond their decision.

My mom dealt with this. For 40 plus years, she was with an abusive alcoholic, but she didn’t want to take the steps to get a divorce because she was too afraid. Not only did was she afraid of where she would live and how she would survive, but she was also afraid of him. She believed he could be very dangerous. He’d hit her in the past so the physical abuse showed it’s ugly face two or three times in their relationship.

Physical abuse is a different type of danger. When you’re afraid of the person and what they might do to you, of course that’s a justifiable fear. Many people outside the relationship may not know what you’re going through or the fears you have. If you’re afraid that the person doing the bad behavior in your life might actually hurt you, that’s totally understandable.

At the same time, that’s when you really need to take charge of your life and find help, find resources, and do something about it instead of doing nothing and staying in a situation that is highly toxic for you.

My mom stayed in that type of situation for decades even though she had several family members that said, “We will put you up. We will protect you. We will take care of you and he won’t be able to get to you.”

She had these resources but she also had her fear. Aside from the physical danger she thought she might be in, she also had a fear of not knowing what the future holds. She’d been with this guy for 40 years! He’d been her financial stability, he owned the house, and on and on. There’s a lot tied into a relationship so it makes sense that somebody may not want to make such a decision because they think they’re going to end up on the street. They’re not sure what’s going to happen to them, or won’t even consider what might happen so they don’t entertain leaving because the fear of the unknown is so great.

When the fear of the unknown is that strong, it puts you in that rut of indecision and you feel stuck. At that point, you may go into a denial stage. You might think, “Well, maybe it will better.”

You stay in bad situations because you are stuck in fear.

The person who wrote the email said she has no idea what’s going to happen next. She may have thoughts about what’s going to happen… perhaps a big fight, then a divorce. She doesn’t know. She really has no idea what life is going to be like without this emotional abuser in her life. That’s been her life for the last 13 years. It feels like a lifetime to her I’m sure.

What’s going to end up happening is that she is going to start thinking clearly, because the person who has been the major negative influence in her life is no longer in her head. It’s going to take a while.

After taking the leap, it’s probably going to take her between two and four months before she actually starts having your own have thoughts that aren’t influenced by anyone else.

Your own thoughts… What’s that like? Thoughts uninfluenced and untainted by anyone else. When that happens, she’s going to be shocked. This is what happened to my mom. She started having thoughts that didn’t contain any element of the toxic person in her life. Completely uninfluenced. That’s when she started making better decisions for herself. That’s when the doubts started going away. It just takes a little while to flush out that brain because your brain includes all the toxic elements from your past and from the recent events.

In my experience with clients, it takes about two to four months to get clear. When the toxic person is no longer in your immediate space or in your proximity, your head starts to clear of the fog. And it feels so good. You think more clearly and start to trust yourself again. You start to get your instincts and intuition back. You start to feel good in yourself again.

Being in that space, you’re like, “Oh, this is what life is supposed to be like. This is how I’m supposed to feel.” It’s a good feeling.

I’m not saying you have to separate or divorce to experience this. You can go through the steps of separation to be apart for a while to give you both a chance to learn and heal. That way, if you want to reconnect, you both have the opportunity to show up as different people. At that point, you might be able to meet again but this time, from a new place and new perspective.

It may not happen with this person who wrote the email, but it can happen if both people are willing to learn, grow and heal from the damage and start fresh.

This is why I’m saying it doesn’t have to be a divorce to help your head clear. Sometimes it’s just making a decision like, “I will not accept this behavior anymore. That’s my decision” starts the process of clearing your head from the fog.

Again, it takes a little while to get your bearings after you are apart from them, but it does happen. Your decision could also be, “I’m going to talk about this. I’m going to bring it up. I’m going to tell this person, ‘Look, you’re being emotionally abusive, and these behaviors are unacceptable.’ I’m going to list the exact behaviors I don’t like.”

It’s hard to do that when you’re being emotionally abused, because your head is usually foggy and you’re often tricked into thinking the reason for their behavior is your fault. You have to be really careful about that. If you’re in a heavily emotionally abusive situation, and your head is foggy, 99 times out of 100 you’ll need a couple months, at least, to get your head clear so that you can start thinking clearly again.

What happened with my mom is two months after she separated from my stepfather, I asked her a question. Jokingly, I asked, “If he came back and wanted to move back in, what would you say?”  

I was joking! I thought she would laugh. But instead, she said, “I don’t know.”

I looked at her and thought, “What? What do you mean? You don’t know?”

She said, “I don’t know. I might consider it.”

At that point, I thought she was joking.

She wasn’t.

She wasn’t joking because her head was still foggy. This was two months after he left. Her head was still foggy because it was entertaining thoughts that it might be better with the toxic person in her life than without.

In that moment, I just let it go. I realized if this is where she is right now, then this is where she is. It’s where she needs to be because her mind is processing stuff.

Of course, I was wholly against her thought process. But I let it slide. I didn’t say a word.

About two weeks later, she came up to me and asked me if I remembered this particular conversation. I said yes. She then said, “Do you remember I said that I might consider him moving back in and being together with him again?”

I said yes. She replied, “I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking!” (she rarely swore in front of me). She went on, “That is ridiculous. I would never do that. I can’t believe I considered it!”

To hear her say this, I thought, “Oh, thank God. Your head is getting clear! Your fog is lifting!”

Then she asked, “Why would I think that? Thinking back, I can’t believe I would have considered taking him back.”

This was very revealing to me seeing her change like this. She went from thinking that it might be a good idea to reconnect and see what happens because “Yeah, that’s the life I knew, and that’s what I’m used to” but her thought processes changed. As soon as the fog lifted she did a complete 180 and couldn’t believe she was someone who would have let that terrible person back into her life.

She said would never, ever entertain that. She declared “I’ll never let him in the house again.”

From that point on, that’s how she felt. She came to an understanding inside herself. She became clear. This is what happens after you get out of a toxic situation. The mind begins to clear so that you can think rationally and logically, and also connect with your real thoughts and feelings, and understand what’s going on instead of being unsure because of what you were exposed to for months or years.

After the fog lifts, you start to have a clearer perspective. You start thinking straight. You think normally, because for so long you weren’t thinking normally.

I wanted to read you that email to give you some hope and to give you some inspiration because you or someone you know might be in a toxic situation and perhaps you or them are entertaining separation or divorce, or whatever it is you’re going through.

It can be done. And yes, it can be scary as hell! The leap of faith may reveal to you a path unknown, but if you take it anyway, you’ll o learn what you didn’t know and you’ll face your fear of the unknown so that you can build more confidence in yourself and do what you need to do for you.

That doesn’t always mean it leads to divorce. It doesn’t always mean that you’ll never talk to the person again. It just means it’s the first step to lifting the fog and starting the healing process. Whatever happens after you make the decision, you’re going to be so much clearer in making more decisions in the future.

If you never make a decision, you’re never clear. You have to reach clarity so that you can get to a new space inside yourself, to make a new path for yourself and even for the other person.

When I was married and my wife kicked me to the curb, it was the most beneficial thing that could have ever happened to both of us. I hated it at the time. I was sad, I was hurt. I was suffering. And it was the best thing that ever happened because it finally took me out of my toxic trance.

I was in a judgmental and emotionally abusive space. I had never changed that until I experienced a loss so great that it shook me from that trance-like state I was in. That’s probably not the best way to put it. I was in a pattern that wasn’t changing, but it needed to change.

If I wanted to find happiness and if she wanted to find happiness and if anyone that I was ever going to be with wanted to find happiness, my abusive pattern needed to change.

When you’re taking a leap of faith out of an emotionally abusive situation, be prepared for the difficulties and get ready to hear things that make you think that maybe that person is changing. Keep your radar on! Emotionally abusive people hate to lose the person they have control over so they’ll behave in ways that make you think they’re changing.

Just remember the big picture that you are not out of the fog yet. When you’re out of the fog, you can make clear decisions. When you’re free of the toxic clutter in your mind, you’ll make the kind of decisions that you feel strong about. You can stand up for yourself and say, “This is what I want in a relationship and I won’t accept anything less than that.”

When you’re in that space, and you can make those kinds of decisions, then anything’s possible.  This is where your healing truly is. It’s in the ability to create boundaries in your life. Make sure you honor those boundaries and no one else violates them. That is a massive step into healing and makes “the unknown” a lot easier to face.

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