Humans are creatures of habit, especially with behaviour caused by systems of oppression (patriarchy, sexism, hetero-normativity, etc.). This is why it can be so difficult to pull yourself away from a bad relationship, and why it can seem easier to stay with or go back to someone who is bad for you. However, freeing yourself from the grip of an unhealthy partner is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your future.
In order to move on, there are a few steps you will need to take. As the process of unlearning is continuous, you will need to revisit these steps more than once, but each time you do, you will have new knowledge and understanding that will make moving on easier and help you to form healthier relationships.
Understanding Relationship Patterns
It’s not unusual to look back through your past relationships to find patterns – commonalities in the types of people you got involved with, their personality traits or the ways they treated you. Often these patterns are related to the formative relationships you had, and the level of security or insecurity you felt, with your caregivers in childhood. Think of these patterns as programming, and look closely at what unhealthy programming can be influencing the people you attract or are attracted to.
Take some time to document your significant past relationships (friends as well as lovers), by writing them down in a notebook or creating a private blog. This process can be very healing in itself. Look for similarities between your relationship with your ex, and their relationship with others close to them. Draw or write down how these patterns of interactions overlap. Notice their habits – they may be fickle friends or lovers, always “on again, off again,” self-centered, users, players, or the like. Notice your habits – for example, the ways you have been conditioned to seek approval or please others, or how you tend to interpret others’ neediness as desire. Pay attention to the ways past partners may resemble your parent figures. Survivors are more likely to confuse a relationship with a Narcissist/Abuser for “passionate love” when in reality it is a cycle of affection and abuse that is made by the abuser to look normal.
This relationship conditioning, like other addictions, keeps us from being honest with ourselves and using critical thinking to show us what is truly happening. But living according to our programming enables other people to oppress us by taking advantage of our desire to be wanted and feel loved. Take back your power by recognising your relationship habits, understanding where they come from and changing them if necessary.
Identifying Unhealthy Partners
Identifying unhealthy partners takes some practice, especially when you are fighting conditioning that attracts you to them. We have created this list of early warning signs that should help you avoid them.
Ten Warning Signs
- They give love/affection then take it away suddenly, blaming you
- They are overly self-involved, and may expect you to wait on them/take care of their every need
- They put you down or otherwise make you feel bad about yourself/unattractive/unloved
- They demand attention, sex or affection, sulking or becoming abusive when it is not given
- They act like they have something to hide (probably do)
- Instead of appreciating your input, they try to prove you wrong
- They regularly try to change your mind/control your thoughts
- They try to separate you from/turn you against/discourage you from talking to friends/loved ones
- You catch them lying or making you feel as if you are going mad/crazy
- They fit any of these descriptions or combinations thereof: 5 Men to Avoid or the types listed here.
Keep It Moving
Once you have made your way for the door, your ex may try to get you back. Start to identify in their behaviour the patterns above – e.g. complimenting then insulting you, appearing desperate and begging for your help (“I need you /can’t live without you”) instead of respectfully listening. When you recognise their habits for what they are, you are less susceptible and more able to avoid falling back into old patterns and keep things moving.
Some common tactics are compliments, unexpected gifts, showing up unannounced, promising to change, offering to take you out, or any combination of Lies of Affection and Lies About the Future. But understanding their patterns enables you to prepare a plan for how you will respond. One thing we have found very effective is calling your ex out on the tactic that they are using (e.g. “I’ve heard that before,” “You’re just projecting right now,” or “Saying that may have worked on others, but actions speak louder than words with me.”) In reality, their actions have led you to split up with them, they are not likely to change, and that’s why you are leaving.
After the breakup, aim for no extended phone conversations, and do not, we repeat, do not, allow yourself to be alone with them. These people do their best work in private, because this is how they can most easily manipulate you. If you have to discuss things — like how to get your stuff back — do it by text. If you must meet and talk (which we strongly advise against! Why waste one more second of your precious time?) do it in public, and don’t go home with them. Use the strategies outlined in Cutting Communication to help you maintain a safe distance.
Make an effort to socialise and meet new people. Develop your own interests and activities and you’ll find other people that share them. Ask your friends to introduce you to people they think you might like. You may feel like you’re never going to meet anyone, but this is just not the case. Put yourself in the company of other people you find attractive, go on dates (not with the ex) and maybe even have (safe) sex with someone else. We are not encouraging engaging in unhealthy sexual relationships, but old habits must be broken in order for new relationships to bloom.
Learning to Love Yourself
By far the most important long-term strategy to keep yourself out of bad relationships is developing a strong, healthy sense of self-love. Although sexism tells us we are imperfect, we can unlearn these negative messages and replace them with positive ones about ourselves, our body image and all of the good qualities of our personalities. This process is lifelong, but the ending of an unhealthy relationship is a good reason to begin a daily programme of self-care coupled with self-love.
Unlearning Negative Thinking
Negative thoughts about ourselves are one of the main ways that our old patterns of conditioning emerge. Practices such as writing/journaling/keeping a diary, art/music/other self-expression, meditation and yoga can help you to become an observer of your thoughts, which is key to changing them. Be aware of the messages (self-talk) you send yourself through your thoughts, as they are powerful. Send positive messages to yourself as much as you can.
Write down/print out a list all of the things you like or love about yourself, as well as a list of all the positive things people have said about you. This can be from emails, Facebook messages, texts, comments on your work or anywhere else they may appear. Compile them and post them in a place you can see every day. Update as needed.
Techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) offer a way for you to talk yourself through your negative thoughts and thus begin to unpack negative thinking and look at situations from alternative angles. Try The Mood Gym for times when being alone with your thoughts is too much and you need some extra support, or include it as a regular practice of CBT.
It is normal to feel down, low, or depressed at the end of a relationship. Self-care is a main strategy by which you can pull yourself out of a slump. Prioritise this by taking a step back from other commitments and activities and doing at least one thing (more if possible) every day for yourself and yourself alone. Write it down in a diary for a record of what you did and the boost that comes with a sense of accomplishment.
Some suggestions: taking a walk, taking a bath, yoga, meditation, writing or blogging, cleaning out your closet/clearing old junk, dancing to your favourite tune, cooking/learning a new recipe, listening to music, discovering a new musical artist and checking out their work, getting a massage, acupuncture, or other body-pampering, stress-relieving treatment, getting a babysitter for the night, joining a club or a class, trying something you’ve always wanted to do/getting involved in a new hobby.
It’s All About Perspective
The end of a bad relationship can easily be the beginning of a new and healthier chapter in your life. It’s an opportunity to grow as a person, get rid of old habits, and develop your own personality and interests. Remember that unhealthy relationships are unhealthy because of the way they limit your perspective – your life becomes all about the other person and how they make you feel. But you can’t have a healthy relationship with anyone else until you really love yourself. Free from a bad partner’s negative influence, a world of possibilities can open up for you. Make peace with the past, and move on.