You Deplete Me: 10 Steps to End a Toxic Relationship


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“You complete me.” You know that line, right … from “Jerry McGuire”? It comes right before “You had me at hello” (another puker). The completing-the-other bit nauseates me a tad because we relationship-analyzers (some with the right initials after their names and some self-declared experts who can type) like to classify that type of dialog with a term known as “codependency.” 

Ideally, you shouldn’t need anyone to complete you. You should be whole going into a relationship, right? My guess is that those who feel like they are getting fixed are actually getting ripped off. That’s why they keep coming back, hoping that THIS time their partner will make the ouches go away, making them feel all sunshiny and warm inside. Instead, the ouch is bigger, the hole is wider, and they are feeling the way I do when I see a Tom Cruise movie: bad.

A relationship doesn’t have to be romantic to fall into the “toxic” category, of course. Many friendships, mother-daughter, boss-employee, and waiter-eater relationships qualify. If someone is bringing you down consistently, chances are that your relationship with him is toxic. But if you follow these 10 steps, you can start to complete yourself, maybe even look into the mirror and say, “You had me at hello.”

1. Step out of denial.

Be prepared to dry off as you step out of the river of Denial. A few questions will get you there. Ask yourself these, for starters: Do I feel energized or drained after I spent an hour with X? Do I WANT to spend time with X or do I feel like I have to? Do I feel sorry for X? Do I go to X looking for a response that I never get? Do I come away consistently disappointed by X’s comments and behavior? Am I giving way more to the relationship than X? Do I even like X? I mean, if X were on a cruise and I didn’t know her, would I walk up to her and want to be her friend/boyfriend based on her actions and interactions with others? Go check out this questionnaire if you are still confused.

2. Keep a log of emotions.

One of my depression busters is to keep a record of things that make me feel bad. Consistently bad. I am not a fast learner. School was hard for me. So I have to perform the same mistake, oh, about 35 times before my brain gets the message that perhaps I am doing something wrong. The journalist in me then takes the case and begins gathering the facts. So if, after 35 tries, I suspect that having coffee with X makes me feel worse, not better, I will log my feelings immediately following our meeting. If I get two or more of “I feel like crap, like I am a weak and pathetic person,” then I know that I’m enmeshed in a toxic relationship that I should consider tossing out.

3. Identify the perks.

As I wrote in “10 Steps to End an Affair,” every relationship, even toxic ones, have hidden benefits. Or why would you stay in them? So identify the perks. Determine what, specifically, you are getting from this relationship. Does X make you feel attractive and sexy again? Does helping X with her kids even though it exhausts you relieve your guilt in some twisted way, because you feel like your life is easier than hers? Even though X doesn’t treat you well, does she remind you of your verbally abusive mom, and therefore bring you a comfort level?

4. Fill the hole.

Now that you’ve identified what you were hoping to stuff with this relationship, it’s time to find alternative sources of peace and wholeness. The other day, when I was attempting this very task, my friend Priscilla Warner listed not 5 or 10, but 18 ways she nourishes her soul, or center, attempts to complete herself so that she doesn’t have to rely on others for that job. Among her 18: writing and making jewelry, retail therapy (like picking out the juiciest orange she can find), meditation CDs, hugging her dog, Mickey, listening to sad songs–to release the tears, calling up friends, and reminding herself that her sadness won’t stay forever.

5. Surround yourself with POSITIVE friends.

Lots of support and friends isn’t going to cut it. You need the right kind of friends–i.e. those working on their boundaries as hard as you are, who aren’t enmeshed in their fair share of toxic relationships and therefore become somewhat toxic themselves. The stuff is contagious. I suspect the risk for getting sucked into or stuck in a toxic relationships for people who have friends in toxic relationships is higher than 100 percent. So be smart with whom you choose to hang out.

6. Drop a note to yourself.

I got this idea from Howard Halpern’s “How to Break Your Addiction to a Person.” One of his patients wrote memos to herself to cover those fragile moments when she knew she’d need reinforcement. She would compose a note, drop it in the mail, and then be pleasantly surprised to find a letter from her self saying something like: “Hey self! I know you don’t feel like it right now, but you really should make some plans for the weekend before it’s here, because I know you get down when you are sitting around the house alone. Call Carolyn. She’d love to hear from you.”

7. Bribe yourself.

I know there are parenting experts that don’t approve of this technique, but I say nothing is more effective than bribing to get to a goal. Therefore, on your way to freeing yourself from the harness of a toxic relationship, reward yourself at various stages along the way. First, try not initiating any communication for a week. If you pull it off, then treat yourself to coffee with a fun, supportive friend, or a half-hour by the bay alone (no computer, phone, or iPod). If you have been able to utter that delicious word “no” a few times in a row, go celebrate by downloading a CD of your favorite musical artist from iTunes or splurging on the dark chocolate hiding in the freezer.

8. Heal the shame.

For me, breaking free of toxic relationships has led to a lot of inner-child work. You know, when I sit the wounded little girl on my lap and let her tell her story. Because I’m a visual person, I facilitate this process with a pretty doll that Eric almost gave to Goodwill (like she needed any more trauma!). I ask her why she is scared and lonely and wanting the wrong kind of attention. “Because that’s all I know,” is usually her response, at which point I play with her hair and reassure her that relationships are supposed to make her feel better, not worse, and that the right kind of love is out there–in fact, she has already found it in so many of her relationships.

9. Repeat affirmations.

The other day I used the bathroom at a friend’s home and on the bathroom door were posted all kinds of affirmations like: “My Life is full of loveliness, passion, tenderness, surrender and flowing with DIVINE LOVE”; “My Life is full of play and humor and overflowing with RADIANT HEALTH”; “My Life is COURAGEOUS and FREE”; and “My Life is FULL OF MIRACLES.” I came out of the bathroom and said, “Wow, I feel much better.”

In her book, “Women, Sex, and Addiction,” Charlotte Davis Kasl writes, “Once the negative core beliefs have been exposed and challenged as false, you need to adopt positive, life-affirming beliefs. ‘I am unlovable’ becomes ‘I can love and be loved, I am a sacred child of the Universe.’ Feelings of hopelessness are counteracted by the new belief ‘I have the power to change my life.’ ‘I am defective’ slowly changes to ‘I get to make mistakes and be loved.’

My affirmations these days are “I have a good heart” and “I mean well,” especially when I get guilt trips about not giving more to a relationship.

10. Allow some rest.

In “Ready to Heal: Women Facing Love, Sex, and Relationship Addiction,” Kelly McDaniel advises persons who have just broken off a toxic relationship to lay low, and avoid packing their day with too many activities. She writes:

The energy it takes to endure withdrawal [to an addictive or toxic relationship] is equivalent to working a full-time job. Truthfully, this may be the hardest work you’ve ever done. In addition to support from people who understand your undertaking, you must keep the rest of your life simple. You need rest and solitude.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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