Ending an Unhealthy Relationship: Becoming Detached

I want to begin this blog post with a heartfelt confession. I recently ended what was for me a very difficult relationship to let go of. Not because it was so wonderful or fulfilling (certainly the opposite: draining and confusing) or because we'd become so emotionally attached to one another (again, not the case), but because I had become addicted to the familiar but crazy-making push-pull dynamics of the emotional distancer, an unresolved archetype best remembered from my childhood experience of living with the chaos of a BPD parent. 

While the relationship didn't last a very long time (although who's to say what's long and short when it comes to relationships as it's all relative to our perspective), nine months on and off in total, the emotional damage through the recovery process was quite evident. Old familiar self destructive patterns emerged, negative core beliefs about myself and relationships rose to the surface and I started to unravel; slowly and quietly, and with less intensity than in the past, but in an obvious manner to those who know me well. 

My friends began to notice that I had stopped hanging out or inviting them over. One friend joked "How come you're so exhausted all the time?" I wanted to explain to her "because I'm driving myself crazy with the constant thoughts in my head." Others noted my proclivity for frequenting bars by myself and smoking cigarettes. These were just a few of the new habits I had picked up over the past few months. Other fun habits included depression, anxiety, hypersomnia, insomnia, poor concentration, lack of motivation, avoidance of healthy activities, limited appetite. The standard break up protocol for many - which could be an entirely separate blog post in itself ("Choosing to Go the Self Destructive Route Post Breakup" or "Wallowing in Self Pity - How Long is Too Long?").

Difficulty letting go of unhealthy relationships has long been a struggle for me and I suspect for many of you. As my mother was quick to remind me, "You've dated a lot of troubled people Zoë!" And, she's right...but the other end of the deal is admitting that you are an integral part of the relationship with that troubled person and that you are responsible for deciding to stay in something that continues to disappoint, frustrate and hurt you. 

So how do we recognize the early signs of unhealthy relationship dynamics before allowing ourselves to become too attached? It doesn't mean that we may not make the mistake again, we are human after all, but we can be more informed and self respecting in the future and in turn incur less damage to ourselves and those around us. 

Here are a few things I learned while looking back that I'd like to share with you today.

  1. Look at the person's behavior from the beginning - sometimes this can be difficult especially if someone is projecting a certain image of themselves or playing the role of the charmer at the beginning of a relationship. Does the person appear overly pleasing or does it feel really intense too soon in the relationship? Are they offering to buy you expensive gifts and wanting to spend all of their time with you right off the bat? Take note of this. It would be pretty unrealistic to keep this behavior up consistently in the long term. Do the gifts and nice dinners fall flat and feel empty? 
  2. Do they schedule spending time with you in advance or is it always last minute and at their convenience? Do they insist on choosing the place or are they open to your opinion and feedback?  
  3. Do you feel valued or do you notice that they put you down or criticize you? This one was a slow burn for me since the person initially appeared charming and supportive. Sometimes it's hard to tell in the beginning of a relationship but as real life unfolds you see more and more the authentic self. Slowly I realized that this person was consistently in competition with me and felt undermined and subsequently jealous by any success I experienced. That's when the belittling comments surfaced. 
  4. Do you feel secure with them or do you find yourself second guessing yourself and not speaking up? Being able to express thoughts and feelings without fear of reaction comes from within ourselves obviously, but others can create a feeling of safety by their behaviors and reactions as well. Be on the lookout for how comfortable you feel just being yourself.
  5. Is there an emotional connection or is the connection purely physical? This can be a confusing one for sure. But try to be honest with yourself. Maybe the sexual connection is strong but the ability to connect on other deeper levels is not present. 
  6. Do they have social attachments to others or do they live a mostly isolated existence? Do they have hobbies or interests or are they obsessed with work? Again, this can be hard to decipher in the beginning as you're just beginning to hangout - but over time be aware if you notice that you only seem to spend time with them individually unless you invite them to hang with your friends. 
  7. Do your values align? This one kind of speaks for itself. If you are able to express yourself in an authentic way with the other person then this aspect will most likely become apparent to you right away. 
  8. Do you frequently feel like the focus is completely on them and their issues? Do you feel emotionally or physically drained after spending time with them? Perhaps this person complains consistently about something but isn't making desired changes in his/her life or refuses to get help for identified issues.
  9. Are they emotionally avoidant or are they able to process and discuss issues when conflict arises? Again, hard to tell in the beginning with someone because perhaps nothing has come up where you might have a chance to see this in action but maybe you see it in how they respond to issues they talk about in relation to family or co-workers or if they discuss past issues.  
  10. Are they kind? To me, this may be most important! Are they kind to you with no expectations? Are they kind to others for no reason at all? I hope so.