'How Do I Recover From The Breakup Of A Toxic Relationship?'

sad woman in depression and despair crying on black dark background
sad woman in depression and despair crying on black dark background

Reader Emotionally Exhausted writes,

I need advice on moving forward after a toxic and controlling relationship. While I know that the recent break up was in my best interest, reasoning that things are for the better outside of the relationship doesn't seem to be mending the hurt.

I met my now ex-boyfriend about a year ago and there was instant chemistry. He was clever and funny and we enjoyed many of the same activities. We are of similar ages and had similar backgrounds. He was emotionally and I am sure physically abused by his biological mother and I was emotionally abused by my step mom (who I am now on solid terms with) after my mother passed away. We both managed to leave our adverse environments, complete degrees, and have secured satisfying career paths.

It wasn't until I deeply cared for him that his anger issues coupled with controlling and jealous tendencies became apparent. He had been in therapy for a while at that point, but had taken a break from dating before me because of how these issues influenced his past relationships.

I tended to not understand his anger or how quickly he could become irritated, but the good times were good, beautiful even, and the bad times were scary and he was mean and critical. What originally felt like could be a warm place of understanding and support between us really seemed to drive us apart. He has said many things to me that I am ashamed that I let him get away with.

I am convinced he has the adult version of Reactive Attachment Disorder. To others, even close friends, he is charming, caring, and funny. His hostility towards me seemed to be very connected to the fact that I was his intimate partner and the closer we were emotionally, the more extreme his reactions became, both positive and negative.

His controlling behavior caused me to withdraw from my friends and was emotionally exhausting. I did not disclose the extent of the situation to my support system out of embarrassment and wanting to protect my relationship. I now know that being with him meant minimizing myself. He said that there wasn't room in our relationship to prioritize both of our feelings/needs - his needs increasingly became the only needs prioritized.

His behavior towards me became increasingly hurtful and I find myself struggling to move past/understand how he could be so caring one moment then cold and manipulative the next. It hurts to recall times when we bonded (such as when I took care of him for a week after a surgery or when he comforted me on the anniversary of my mother's death) that seemed to disappear for him as soon as he was angry again.

While I am typically a strong person who has overcome many challenges, I'm finding it difficult to get traction after this emotionally exhausting experience.

Dear EE,

What I think you are describing is indeed related to Reactive Attachment Disorder, but it is what an adult may experience after an invalidating and often abusive childhood: Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  The hallmarks of BPD are:

  • Frantic efforts to avoid being abandoned by friends and family.
  • Unstable personal relationships that alternate between idealization and devaluation of the same partner.
  • Distorted and unstable self-image
  • Impulsive behaviors, e.g., excessive spending, unsafe sex, substance abuse or reckless driving.
  • Suicidal and self-harming behavior.
  • Periods of intense depressed mood, irritability or anxiety lasting a few hours to a few days.
  • Chronic feelings of boredom or emptiness.
  • Inappropriate, intense or uncontrollable anger--often followed by shame and guilt.
  • Dissociative feelings--disconnecting from your thoughts or sense of identity, or "out of body" type of feelings--and stress-related paranoid thoughts. Severe cases of stress can also lead to brief psychotic episodes (criteria from NAMI)

When partners are faced with the behaviors characteristic of BPD, they often feel hopeless, depressed, and that they are "walking on eggshells," and you can read about living with a BPD in a book with that title.  You can also read another book whose title should resonate with you: I Hate You, Don't Leave Me.

It is very painful to break up with a partner under the best of circumstances, but breaking up with a partner who exhibits borderline traits can be far worse.  For the length of the relationship, you were led to believe that your needs and desires were less important than the partner's needs, and you withdrew from other supportive relationships, leaving you alone with your partner.  Your mood rose and fell based upon his mood.  Your day was either good or bad based on the day that he was having.  And you couldn't enjoy anything outside of him because it was too threatening to him and would lead to fights.   This is emotional abuse.

Now, when you are no longer with him, your world has no shape.  He was the center of your life, and now you feel disoriented and without a purpose, since previously your purpose was to care for him and make sure he wasn't unhappy.  This is not a normal breakup where you can find comfort in friends, either, because your friends did not know what was going on.

It is important to realize that your feelings are valid.  Your ex was not all good or all bad.  He was a loving guy at times, like in the examples you provided, but then his mood would turn on a dime, since he was so deeply troubled.  You can mourn for the loss of the relationship while still acknowledging that it is for the best that it ended.  I suggest that you reach out to friends and family and confide exactly how difficult and unhealthy the relationship had become.  I am sure their reactions will not be as bad as you fear, and it is highly unlikely that anyone will blame you in any way for the dynamic.  Instead, I think people will rally around you and provide support.

If this seems impossible, then find a good therapist in whom you can confide the details of the relationship.  Going forward, it will also be very useful to think about what factors led to you staying in this relationship for so long.  Perhaps you saw an enabling dynamic between parents growing up, or perhaps you find an angry, unhappy person to be familiar because a parent or other loved one acted this way.  It is essential to examine why you may have maintained this connection for so long, so that you can prevent yourself from getting involved in another toxic relationship in the future.

Good luck, and thanks for writing in.  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, And Some Time Being Single Wouldn't Hurt.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.