Do You Need Detox? Detox from a Toxic Relationship

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Toxic Relationship

By:  Rick Fannin

Supportive relationships are a huge benefit to health and well-being.  The need for a strong support system is especially true for people in recovery from addiction.  Supportive relationships help to reduce stress and help people feel like they have a place and a purpose in the world.  However, not all relationships are supportive.  Not many of us will make it through life without finding ourselves involved in one or more toxic relationships.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term toxic is defined as "containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation," according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  Often used to describe chemicals, the word toxic is also commonly used to describe people and relationships.

Many start their recovery from addiction by going to medical detox to detox from drugs or alcohol safely.  However, do you need a different kind of detox?  Do you need to detox your relationships?  Some start their recovery journey with relationships so toxic that they need a hazmat suit to hug the other person.  How do toxic relationships harm you?  How do you detox your relationships?

How Does A Toxic Relationship Harm You?

We all have been in the company of others who did not act for the greater good of anyone besides themselves. These relationships can be with family, friends, co-workers, romantic partners, or a sponsor or peers in recovery.  These types of relationships create a lot of stress in our lives.

Many studies have shown that our stress levels negatively impact health. Stress can increase just about every health issue, such as brain, thyroid, immune, and weight problems. But even more specifically, the Whitehall II study, [1] a landmark body of research followed more than 10,000 people for over 12 years, confirmed that the link between toxic relationships, stress, and health is indisputable.

The toxicity comes from the emotional and psychological turmoil that results from the harmful effect of lies, narcissism, verbal abuse, physical abuse, control, codependency, and any other form of tension and disrespect.  A toxic relationship can damage and leave long-lasting effects on the person involved in one.

Unless dealt with, toxicity in relationships typically leads to frustration, stress, anxiety, anger, resentment, low self-esteem, jealousy, depression, and a whole host of other negative emotions, as well as physical health issues.    Here are some of the ways that toxic relationships can impact you.

Poor Physical Health.

There is an absolute mind and body connection. Our physical bodies react to our emotions. This means a long-term toxic relationship can lead to a hormonal imbalance, stress on the heart, high blood pressure, GI upsets, and poor immune function.  A Research study found that people in negative relationships were at greater risk of developing heart problems, including dying from heart attacks and strokes, than those whose close relationships were not negative [1].

How Do Toxic Relationships Put You at Risk of Relapse?

Toxicity presents itself in many forms; some of the worst expressions of it come from individuals who appear shiny and nice on the outside. This can be an illusion as things aren’t always as they appear, and neither are people.

One type of hidden toxicity comes from enables.  Enabling is a dysfunctional behavior exhibited by an addict’s close friends or family members. To help, they end up tolerating and assisting with the harmful behavior. The enabling could be through giving money, housing, emotional support, and even providing their addicted loved ones with drugs or alcohol.

Another form of enabler comes from those from our past that are still in active addiction.  These “friends” see how well you are doing in your recovery, and outwardly, they may say how proud they are of you, but inwardly things may be different.  Seeing how great you are doing is a mirror that illuminates how dysfunctional their life still is.  They feel bad about themselves because of how great that you are doing.

These individuals may knowingly or subconsciously attempt to derail your recovery and get you to relapse with them.  This risk is why it is advisable to steer clear of old people in old places that may put us at risk of doing the old things that we are working so hard to escape .

Your attachment security style may contribute to you attracting and staying in dysfunctional and toxic relationships.   Your attachment style forms in infancy and defines your relationships with others. When you grew up in an emotionally healthy home, you trust others and develop healthy relationships later in life.

In contrast, insecure attachment happens when your caregiver is unresponsive to your physical and emotional needs. Those with an insecure attachment style are more prone to addiction and toxic relationships.  When someone has an insecure-anxious/preoccupied attachment style, they tend to jump into a relationship too soon, and they also tend to stay in a toxic relationship for too long.  Staying in a toxic relationship creates a tremendous amount of stress and chaos, and these toxic relationships often create a barrier of forming healthy and supportive relationships.

Stress and anxiety are significant contributors to relapse.  When we are stressed or emotionally hurting, we are at a higher risk of returning to our relationship with drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate our negative emotions.

Social support can be a powerful and beneficial force in the recovery process.  Suppose your toxic relationship is isolating you from social support. In that case, it is robbing you of the tangible and emotional support you need to make all the changes you need to make to recover from addiction.

When you recognize enabling behavior or insecure attachment, it’s possible to change. Let’s reword that.  It is possible for YOU to change because you are powerless over someone else changing.  The most important thing is to understand how your relationships with others contribute to the addiction cycle.  Your counselor can help you evaluate your relationships, build a play for exiting toxic relationships, and building a solid support system.  Your counselor can also work with you to help repair any attachment insecurity you might have that contributes to being drawn back into enabling, risky, toxic relationships or addiction.

How Do You Know If Your Relationship Is Toxic?

Most people know when their relationship with someone is not positive, but the toxicity can be so pervasive that it begins to feel normal for some.  Now you may be wondering if you are, in fact, in a toxic relationship. Is it time to end things?  Examine your relationships and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do your relationships leave you physically or emotionally drained of energy?
  2. Does your relationship lead to you feeling bad about yourself?
  3. Do you feel like you are always giving in relationships but getting little if anything back in return?
  4. In your relationship(s), do you feel like an outsider or otherwise not accepted for who you are?
  5. Does your relationship attempt to isolate you from your friends or family that are supportive of you and your recovery?
  6. Do you feel physically or emotionally unsafe in your relationship?
  7. Does your relationship often leave you feeling stressed, anxious, afraid, or like you are walking on eggshells?

If you answered yes to one or more of the above questions, then you may be involved in a toxic relationship. Let's take a deeper look into some of these areas.

How Are You Being Treated?

How does the person in question act in the world? Are they kind to others, or are they aggressive, judgmental, controlling, or snobbish? Do they tell lies easily or gossip? Do other people seem to feel good and supported around them, or bad and judged?

Sometimes, when we are too close to a situation, we need to step back and look at it from a different perspective. If you have a hard time recognizing that you may be in a toxic relation, look at the relationships your friend, lover, sister, or co-worker has with others.

Look at how the person treats the people closest to them.  Do they speak badly about family members or display signs of aggression toward parents, friends, or co-workers? Is the person in constant conflict with other people? You may feel as though this person is always coming to you complaining about something or someone.  Is this person using you as an emotional punching bag to take out their frustrations and conflicts with others on you?  If so, you may want to take a step back to gain insight into this situation and re-evaluate the purpose of this relationship. The best decision may be to walk away if the person lacks self-awareness and is unwilling to change.

How Does the Other Person Deal with Conflict?

No one likes conflict. Well, most people do not enjoy conflict.  However, those of us who have been in toxic relationships know that some people seem to love conflict.   While many of us try to communicate respectfully with others to find common ground and answers, some will not budge. They are never wrong, according to them, and will never apologize.  They will often go to great lengths to claim to be the real victim and attempt to manipulate others into owning the toxicity in the relationship. They yell, become excessively or explosively angry, and intentionally say hurtful things to lash out.

A person who truly cares for your well-being will treat you with kindness and respect, even in times of upheaval and confusion.  You should also learn to treat yourself well, be kind, and respectful and one way of doing that is to be good to yourself with the quality of your relationships.

How Do You Feel When You're Together?

Support is vital in recovery from addictions.  Our close friends, family, and lovers "should" be a significant source of support and contribute to our well-being.   Sure, they can get on our nerves occasionally, we're all human, and none of us are perfect.  But for the most part, we should feel loved and supported around those that we are closest.  However, that is not always the case.

When you are together, does this person talk about themselves the whole time? Do they verbally put down others or gossip? Does the person make you feel happy about spending time together, or do you feel burdened? Take a moment to reflect on your time with this person to determine how you feel after each experience.

If you feel more miserable than happy when you spend time together, you may need to set personal boundaries and take a step back from this person to protect yourself. Healthy boundaries are not selfish, but instead, it is an act of self-respect and self-love.

What are the person's past experiences with relationships?

History tends to repeat itself.  Although people do grow and mature, their past experiences truly shape them.  And individuals do have the capacity to change, but only if they have the willingness, skills, and commitment to change.

In examining your relationship with this potentially toxic person, explore the persons' relationship history.  Does this person have close long-term friends? Or does the individual sever relationships quickly? What happened with the person's past relationships? Were they toxic? Although it is important not to pry into one's past, allow your partner to be open and share their past with you.

Learning about someone's past may take time, but it can tell how future relationships might work out. People often learn from their mistakes and improve their relationships, but it is common for history to repeat itself. It is important that you are aware of this person's past behavior and make mental notes to determine whether they have taken the proper steps to make positive changes.

What Are My Options If I am In a Toxic Relationship?

When attempting to make decisions for your life, it is essential to consider all available options.   Consider these four choices you have to deal with negative and toxic relationships:

  1. Accept the relationship as it is and be at peace with it as it is. This can reduce a lot of stress based on trying to change someone else. (Accept the things you cannot change)
  2. Change the relationship by creating boundaries for yourself. Remember that you can't change other people, but you can change how you react and what you will allow into your own life. (Change the things you can)
  3. Leave the relationship. Sometimes, sadly, this is the best course if the other person's behavior is intolerable to you. (Change the things you can)
  4. Feel miserable. This is the choice that will continue the stress cycle that is likely to lead to a relapse. (Not a wise choice)

Recognizing and admitting that you are in a toxic relationship may be difficult, as many are blinded by love and temporary happiness.   Additionally, many people feel they may be lonely without that friend, lover or sibling. They might even intellectually recognize a toxic person or situation, but their emotions end up having more influence over their decisions than their intellect.

Many people who grew up in toxic homes find it hard to accept loving relationships because they are unfamiliar with them.  Healthy relationships feel uncomfortable.  In these cases, familiarity breeds comfort rather than contempt.  If you grew up in a toxic and chaotic household, then toxicity may even seem normal.  We can even feel comfortable even in situations where we should feel uncomfortable.

These early relationships significantly impact how we view ourselves, others, the world, God, and our future.  These early relationships may have contributed to the development of maladaptive schemas (patterns) and tend to repeat the painful events of childhood in our adult relationships.  We become attracted to what is familiar and more toxic relationships and reject and push away potential healthy relationships.

Since every relationship is different, these options will mean something different to each person, but you are encouraged to choose not to "feel miserable" anymore.  You are hurting your physical health, emotional well-being, and your chances of recovery by continuing to surround yourself with negative people.  The negative energy drains you and leaves you emotionally drained, physically exhausted, and spiritually flat.  It may be scary to cut these ties with toxic people. It's sad but true.  The good news is that toxicity magnets can be reversed with therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Principles to Remember Regarding Toxic Relationships

According to William L. White, a pioneer in addiction recovery, there are five principles and prescriptions to keep in mind regarding toxic relationships.

  1. Personal healing must take place before relationship healing.
  2. Recovery can threaten an intimate relationship.
  3. Healing a relationship takes time.
  4. It may take outside help to heal a relationship.
  5. Some relationships cannot be salvaged in recovery.

If you are in a toxic relationship and it is damaging you emotionally, stressing you out, and affecting your recovery, ending it is imperative to your sobriety.

How to End a Toxic Relationship

It's not easy to recognize that you are in a toxic relationship.   It can be even harder to cut ties and end a toxic relationship.  However, your health, well-being, and recovery count on you being rigorously honest with yourself and choosing the best for you and your recovery.

If you have concluded that you are in a toxic relationship, here are some tips that can help you end this toxicity by ending the relationship and beginning the healing process for you.

Seek Help and Support

People in toxic relationships need help from friends, family, counselors, sponsors, and peers in recovery to commit to the changes required to exit the toxic relationship.  Changing is a process and not simply a decision.  People often return to toxic, addictive relationships, sometimes because it is familiar and therefore comfortable. They know no other persona except their shattered self.

People in toxic relationships need support and often need counseling to help them see themselves from a different perspective.  This is a process that can take time.  Find a supportive friend, family member, sponsor, peers in recovery, or a professional to help you through the healing process.   However, if you are physically, verbally, or sexually abused in a relationship, you need to exit it immediately and seek help now.

Be Honest

Be rigorously honest with yourself about how the relationship is damaging you, and be rigorously honest about what type of relationships are best for you and your future in recovery.  Be honest with your counselor, sponsor, and others that are supportive about any fears that you might have about ending the toxic relationship.  Allow them to support you as you begin to end the toxicity in your life.

When you discuss with the toxic person, be honest with the other person and share your feelings. Do not feel that you need to engage them any more than you have the energy for. There is no need to get into a needless argument. Simply speak your truth and end the relationship.

"Say what you mean, mean what you say, but say it loving and kind."

And this goes for a lover, friend, family member, sponsor, and peers in recovery.  Even your family can make you sick, unfortunately. You have the right to end things.  It doesn't mean that you do not love them.  It means that you love yourself!

Once you have told the person that you are ending your relationship, many challenges are still ahead. And those challenges might remind you of your substance abuse disorder and your ongoing recovery process. You might be tempted to return to the relationship, even though you know that isn't the right thing to do.

One quick way to lessen the temptation is to break off contact completely. If you live together, move out (and don't go back when the person is home). Unfriend the person on Facebook (and unfollow them on other social media platforms). Erase their contact information from your phone (and block their number if they try to reach out to you). Stay away from places you used to go together (and be prepared to walk out of any place they walk into, whether it's a restaurant, a movie theater, church, or the grocery store).

Set Appropriate Boundaries

Whether you will accept, change, or leave a toxic relationship, setting boundaries can help you clarify your path and re-establish your autonomy. Setting boundaries is essential if we want to be physically and emotionally healthy and reduce the risk of relapse in recovery.

Creating healthy boundaries is empowering. By recognizing the need to set and enforce limits, you protect your self-esteem, maintain self-respect, enjoy healthy relationships, and increase your chances of achieving long-term sobriety.

When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully, and in as few words as possible. Do not justify, get angry, or apologize for the boundary you are setting.

You are not responsible for the other person's reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are responsible for respectfully communicating your boundary.  If it upset them, that is their problem, and it is not your responsibility to help them feel better about violating your boundaries.

Some people, especially those accustomed to controlling, abusing, or manipulating you, might test you. Plan on it, expect it but remain firm. Remember, your behavior must match the boundaries you are setting. You cannot successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologizing.

At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway and remind yourself you have a right to self-care. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don't let anxiety, fear, or guilt prevent you from taking care of yourself.

Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. Set the boundary on your time frame, not when someone else tells you. Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. Eliminate toxic persons from your life— those who want to manipulate, abuse, and control you.

Commit to Your Well-being

If you have determined that the relationship is bad for your health, then it is your responsibility to commit to your well-being and keep things ended.  Often after leaving someone, you begin to miss the person. That is normal. It is easy for our brain to remember the good times and forget the bad parts. The ending of a relationship with a toxic person sounds much like our relationship with drugs and alcohol.

It can be tempting to want the person to be back in your life but remember that you came to this decision after a long, thoughtful process. Stick to your decision and remember that the decision was made to better you, your life and help you succeed in your recovery from addiction.

It may be helpful to have your supportive friend, family member, counselor, or sponsor to keep you accountable. When you feel the urge to allow the toxic person to come back into your life, reach out to your support system or take out the list you wrote that describes why you felt harmed in the first place. Stay strong and stick to your decision.

"And EX is called an EX because it is an EXample of what you shouldn't have again in the future."

Surround Yourself with Support

If you have decided whether to leave or mend a relationship, it is important to surround yourself with positivity found in supportive relationships.  Spend time with people who make you feel good, who support you, and who lift you up instead of tearing you down.

Ending a relationship can be painful, but you do not have to suffer in silence.  Your support system may not know that you are struggling and suffering.  It is your responsibility to be open and honest with your support system about how you are feeling.  The empathy and love they provide can help give you the hope to make it through this.

Your counselor can also help.  Often our negative emotions are connected to dysfunctional thoughts and this Stinkin' Thinkin’.  Your counselor may use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you identify and correct these automatic negative thoughts. In doing so, this helps with the painful emotions you are likely feeling.

Do Not Neglect Self-Care

Making life changes and exiting a toxic relationship is stressful.  Stress and anxiety are significant contributors to relapse.  When we are stressed or emotionally hurting, we are at a higher risk of returning to our relationship with drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate our negative emotions.

During this stressful period, do not neglect your self-care.  Self-care is vital in recovery from addiction.  You need to develop a daily recovery routine that includes making time for self-care.

Non-Toxic Closing Thoughts

You indeed learn who your true friends are when you hit rock bottom, so don’t be surprised if many of your so-called “friends” during your addiction fall off the face of the earth once you get out of treatment. However, there are still those from your past who will hang on, with the hopes they can turn you back to the “dark side.” These are the most dangerous relationships, the ones that drag you back into your drinking and drugging past.

Your early sobriety is supposed to be about focusing on yourself and your self-healing and growth.  This is why jumping into a relationship right out of rehab is so frowned upon. Even worse than dating too soon is picking another toxic partner who only brings chaos, stress, and drama to the relationship.

It should go without saying but being on an emotional roller coaster day-in and day-out only sets you up for failure in recovery. Instead, pour energy into yourself; go to meetings, find new hobbies, volunteer at a local charity, and surround yourself with others who support you and your recovery from addiction. After all, you are who you attract and, if you’re in a good place in your head and in your recovery, chances are you’re going to find an equally suitable partner.

Keeping ties with past associations can drag you down, and staying in a toxic relationship will continue to hurt you physically, emotionally, at risk of relapse, and keep you from fulfilling your true potential. Instead, seek out a new, positive social circle and allow them to trudge along with you along the road to happy destiny.

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