How to Safely End Unhealthy Relationships

Relationships are core to human connection. No matter what the nature of the relationship is, all of us crave and need connection and love from family and friends, as well as other kinds of relationships, like romantic partners. Of all of these kinds of relationships, though, romantic relationships are often the most fulfilling and the most challenging. It’s exciting and invigorating to find a special someone to love, spend time with, and maybe plan for the future together. But, sometimes, no matter how good it feels at the beginning, relationships can start off or become unhealthy over time. Unhealthy relationships can take a huge toll on mental health and, if left unaddressed, many other areas of our life and well-being. And while it may seem scary to end an unhealthy relationship, there are ways to do it safely.

What are some signs of an unhealthy relationship?

Just as there are clear markers of a healthy relationship, such as honest communication, mutual respect, and comfort being oneself, there are clear signs of unhealthy relationships. While the situation varies, unhealthy relationships most often leave at least one of the partners regularly feeling anxious, sad, stressed, disappointed, and/or untrusting. These feelings are most common in relationships where there’s physical or emotional abuse, chronic deception, a mismatch between words and actions or even gaslighting. Some signs of unhealthy relationships include:

Physical harm:

  • Hitting, pushing, punching, or slapping
  • Ignoring sexual or other physical boundaries (unwanted touching, demanding sexual actions, refusing to use contraception)
  • Destroying personal belongings, especially for the purposes of threatening or controlling someone
  • Hitting nearby surfaces or throwing things to demonstrate their ability to harm

Emotional harm:

  • Calling you names, provoking fights, needing you to feel bad so the other person feels good. Even if apologies regularly follow, this is a pattern of abuse.
  • Isolating you or attempting to isolate you from friends, family, and any activity or person outside of the relationship, so that the person is your only priority
  • Having unrealistic expectations such as demanding an unreasonable amount of attention, time, and energy, and making you feel guilty for not giving them everything they want
  • Minimizing your perspective and other interests
  • Pressuring you to do things you don’t want to do, like engaging in sex when you aren’t interested
  • Humiliating you in public by being confrontational, insulting, etc.
  • Controlling your time and demanding constant communication (done in a way to accuse you of keeping secrets or lying)
  • Engaging in deception and/or lying to control what you do and don’t know
  • Creating unequal or inequitable responsibilities such as demanding your time and your attention, but not returning the favor or attempting to keep your relationship fair

Why is it hard to end relationships, even when they’re unhealthy?

Even if we want to leave an unhealthy relationship, leaving can be hard for a number of reasons.

“No one else will love or want me.”

This is a common and paralyzing fear, especially if you have thought this about yourself or heard this from someone else in your life. The fear of losing the “only person” that will love us often keeps us in relationships longer than we want to be in them. The reality is that someone else will love us and want to be with us, platonically or romantically, in healthy ways that are better and safer than the ways we’re “loved” now.

“We’ve been together too long to end things.”

This is the sunk cost fallacy, or the idea that you have to stay invested in something because you’ve already put a lot of time, energy, or even money into it. But, this is a fallacy, and because you choose to end a long-term friendship or relationship in no way devalues your time and energy or means you’ve failed. Resistance to leaving can also be about the amount of effort you think it will take to leave and worry that you will not have the stamina to separate lives and start over. Staying in an unhealthy relationship, however, also takes physical and emotional energy. The short-term cost of leaving always outweighs the long-term cost of staying.

“I want a big friend group.”

The allure or myth of a big friend group is all over our favorite TV shows and movies. And there’s no denying that we’re often presented with a message that the more friends you have the “better” you are. But friendships and relationships should be about quality over quantity. We shouldn’t stay in unhealthy relationships just because it comes with other benefits, like a big friend group. Having a smaller group of good, healthy friendships is better than keeping yourself in harm’s way and damaging your mental well-being.

Tips for preparing to end an unhealthy relationship

As you think about ending an unhealthy relationship, it’s important to prioritize your safety, resources, and support system. If the person you’re ending a relationship with has hurt you or threatened to hurt you in the past, plan for your safety and protect yourself from harm when preparing to end the relationship. In this instance, we recommend a crucial resource, The Breakup Planning Guide, which offers help and advice for highschoolers, college students, adults, and adults with families in abusive or violent relationships.

Your safety plan will look different based on your own situation:

  • Do you need a class schedule or locker number changed?
  • Do you need to change your work schedule or routine?
  • Do you need to put aside money for transportation or food?
  • Do you need to organize safe or reliable housing, for yourself or for your family?

Even if your physical safety isn’t at risk, ending an unhealthy relationship can still lead to unpleasant situations like arguments, spreading rumors, picking sides, and general discomfort, so being prepared for these instances can help you in the long run.

Some other tips as you embark on ending this relationship might include:

Identify support

  • Identify your support system and let them know what’s been happening (friends, family, a close and trusted adult).
  • Tell that support system when and how you plan to end the relationship.
    • If your physical safety is at risk, or you worry about the person’s response when you break up, you don’t have to break up with them in-person. However, if you do break up in-person, do it in a public place, with your cell phone on you, and with an exit plan.
    • If you’re in the LGBTQ+ community and being outed is a concern, choose a support system that knows about your identity and/or orientation.

Document your treatment

If there were instances of abuse or other mistreatment documented through text messages, photos, phone calls, etc., create a safe place to store those — digitally or in hard copies — to have a record of what was occurring in the event that there needs to be external or legal involvement. For example, if you’re a high school student who’s received unwanted explicit photos, threats, or insults from a significant other, you may want to save screenshots when reporting the abuse to the school (this can help with wanting classes/schedules changed, or with more serious things like police reports).

Change your routines after the breakup

This not only helps you move on after the relationship with new hobbies, activities, etc., but it also prevents your ex-partner from causing further harm. It’s okay to be over prepared! Even if a breakup you expect to go poorly doesn’t, taking these measures for any breakup at all is valid and a good habit for potential future breakups.

How to end the unhealthy relationship

Now that you’ve prepared to end your relationship, how do you move forward?

Review your safety plan

  • Pick your place, timing, etc.
  • Write out a script (if you’re breaking up over phone/text).
  • Let your support system know.
  • Organize your resources (people and supplies, money, transportation, etc.).

Initiate the conversation

Ending an unhealthy or potentially abusive relationship is different from a healthy or “ideal” breakup, so having this conversation needs to be managed carefully. A few things to keep in mind:

  • If you have it face to face:
    • Tell your significant other you want to talk with them about something important (time and place).
      • Don’t pick a setting that could get you stuck, like eating at a restaurant (if you’re afraid for your safety, it’s best not to do this face to face or have support with you).
    • Be brief and direct.
      • You’re breaking up with them.
      • You’re not happy in the relationship.
      • You don’t want them to contact you again.
    • Exit the situation.
  • If you do it by phone, text, or letter:
    • Be honest about why you’re breaking up with them.
    • Don’t provide details about your plans after you leave.
    • Don’t contact them again.

Once you’ve ended the relationship, maintain your boundaries and the changes you’ve made. If you’re having a hard time moving on, or are struggling with your mental health in the aftermath of the breakup, consider seeking help from a therapist or counselor. This is especially important if:

  • You experience extreme sadness for upwards of two weeks.
  • You have thoughts of ending your life or harming yourself and others.
  • You’re experiencing nightmares or intrusive thoughts.

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