How To Survive After Escaping A Toxic Relationship

There are three primary stages of recovery from a toxic relationship, which usually means you had a partner who has a Cluster B personality disorder, including narcissism, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, or other forms of psychopathology that is long-term, usually over a year and often decades. This is the third article in this six-part series.

Stage 1 – Survival

Stage 1 is, quite literally, making sure you survive. It’s not easy to leave a toxic relationship. Most people return several times because they are manipulated by the toxic partner. Or they still have hope that if they change just one more thing about themselves, life will get better, and the relationship will be happy and loving again.

When someone leaves a relationship with a toxic partner where they have experienced verbal, emotional or other types of abuse, they expect to feel relieved. The excruciating pain commonly known as “the aftermath” comes as a surprise. And it’s usually overwhelming. It’s not an understatement to say that survival is not assured.

There are four primary ways in which the partner may not survive:

  1. Murder. They are killed by their former partner. The most dangerous time, even if the toxic partner has never been physically violent before, is when one tries to leave. According to Domestic Abuse Shelter, Inc., about 75% of domestic violence homicide victims were killed as they attempted to leave the relationship or after it ended.
  1. Suicide. The pain that occurs in the immediate aftermath of the relationship’s end is both intense and unexpected. Too many partners find the confusion, loss of self and crazy attachment of a trauma bond to be unbearable. They give up hope for a future they care about living.
  1. Return to the Relationship. The emotional pain can be so intense that many return to the abusive relationship for relief, because it feels worse to be out of it than to live with the abuse.
  1. Disease. They develop or are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or disease, usually resulting from the long-term stress of the relationship and its aftermath. One estimate is that up to 50% of breast cancer patients have been in emotionally abusive relationships. Fibromyalgia and other autoimmune diseases are not uncommon.

Your Task Is To Survive

That’s why I don’t use the term survival lightly. Once you’re out of the relationship, your first essential task is to do whatever necessary to survive the aftermath. Just get through it. It will get better, but you must persevere even though you may feel like you want to die.

Here are a few specific activities that will help you get through this period. These and more are discussed in my free report, 7 Secrets for Reclaiming Your Life, Yourself and Your Sanity (after a toxic relationship).

  • No-contact and mental disengagement are extremely important. This is not intended to be cruel. These two actions are simply about self-preservation. And that must be your highest priority right now. Contact will only slow down your recovery, feed your ex’s ego and open you to further abuse.
  • Exercise. Just move in some way—take a walk, do some gardening, dance in the living room
  • Art. In some form, express feelings you cannot put into words
  • Sleep. However you can get it, even with temporary medication if needed. Our bodies repair themselves during sleep, and this will help prevent disease, benefit your mood and clarify your thinking.
  • Spend time with animals—adopt a rescue animal, do some pet-sitting, volunteer at an animal shelter. They will love you without judgment and are proven to reduce stress, bring comfort and even help you make friends.
  • Gratitude. It’s a simple thing that makes a huge difference if you actually do it.

A Toxic Relationship & Finances

In addition to surviving physically and emotionally, you also face the need to survive financially. Most former partners have experienced financial rape of some type. It’s common for the pathological partner to use money as a weapon.

Although you may be faced with debt, an inability to work or an impossible financial gap, your physical and emotional survival needs to take precedence. Worry and guilt will not solve anything. If at all possible, try to take some time off work and give yourself the space for the tender care your nervous system needs to calm down from adrenal fatigue and the fight-flight-freeze response you have likely been living with for a long time.

Give yourself permission to postpone financial decisions if you can. Promise yourself you won’t succumb to threats. Cut expenses as much as possible, but try to leave a little space in your budget for things that support your well-being. That can be therapy, applicable healing courses or retreats, an occasional massage or a new haircut.

If you have family, religious affiliations or other sources who can temporarily contribute to your financial support, this is a time to set aside your independence and to ask for and accept help. Your goal is to give yourself time—chronologically and within each day—to attend to healing and self-care.

Money doesn’t matter if you don’t survive. When you move into Stage Two, you’ll proactively address your financial challenges and opportunities. And you have a fantastic resource for doing that at when the time comes.

Travel In Stage One

The survival stage is exactly that—we need to do whatever it takes to survive. For some, that might mean getting as far away as possible and disappearing if you can. For others, it might mean hunkering down and preserving your resources until you are stronger.

If you have trouble maintaining no-contact, then leaving town is a smart thing to do. If you can go someplace where you already have a support system—like family or a close friend—that would be a good choice.

I found it was very helpful to visit people who knew me before the toxic relationship. They related to me as though I was still the person they had known 10 years earlier. I began to interact more as that person too and to see that some of that woman still existed in me.

Still Wondering If You Should Go Back?

The draw to return to a toxic partner with a personality disorder will likely be one of the strongest addictions you will ever experience. Yes, those are withdrawal symptoms you’re feeling, just as strong as withdrawing from an addictive substance. Most people who leave toxic partners go back seven times before staying out for good.

It is hard to be rational and objective at this time. To me, the following question is the most straightforward and simple way to decide whether to go back and try again.

Do you feel better about yourself when you are with this person or do you feel worse? If the latter, it doesn’t really matter if they are pathological or not; they are not worth much of your precious time. Staying leads to a long, slow deterioration in yourself…and probably has already.

This is really the only question you need to answer… and no one needs to be declared at fault. It’s just not good for you to be there. Cut your losses, and create space in your life for someone makes you feel more you. And to like who you are when you’re with them. Listen to your body!

Looking Forward To Happiness

There are some things you need to do after leaving a toxic relationship. You need to survive. You must learn to honor and protect yourself and decide that you’re worth it. And you need to step with courage into a willingness to experience new things, think in new ways and travel a new path—literally and figuratively—into the Dawn of a New Life. I didn’t think it was possible for me, but I learned that it is—one step at a time—and I can assure you that it’s possible for you too.

You need to rediscover your own essence and experience the joy that comes from just being you. Next month, we will look at how to do that in the second stage of healing after a toxic relationship: Transformation (Cocooning and Self-Care).

How You Can Help Those You Care About

If you know someone who is suffering the aftermath of a toxic relationship (most of us do), please share this article with them, refer them to or send them to where they can order their own “7 Secrets” report.

This simple act of caring demonstrates that they still matter and have value to someone. It takes courage to get out of a toxic relationship…please muster up your own and share. You won’t be intruding; you will be sending a lifeline.

Catch up on the rest of this series here.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of

image credit: Bigstock/Kasia Bialasiewicz

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