“Why am I stuck in a cycle of terrible, toxic relationships?”
This unfortunate question is the cry of many young men and women that come to my office for relationship help.
For some, these unhealthy relationships involve a partner who is withdrawn and distracted; for others, a partner who is aggressive and abusive. For many, these relationships involve addictions that run the spectrum from alcoholism to work-a holism. As Robin Norwood notes in her book Women Who Love Too Much, all of these young men and women, these relationships involve a partner that is in some way “emotionally unavailable.”
A need to feel loved
Rita could not understand why it was so difficult for her to break up with Andre once and for all. She had heard of women who were stuck in the cycle of abusive relationships and couldn’t face the fact that this was now her story. All along all she had wanted was to feel loved and accepted, and now this need had brought her to a dangerous place.
For men and women like Rita, this need is a familiar ache. The desire for love and affirmation is birthed in us from the day we enter this world. For young men and women who grow up in healthy families, this need is nurtured through the loving words of our parents, through their affectionate touch, through their gentle presence, through their awareness and deliberate fulfillment of our emotional needs.
But for many others, the dull ache for affirmation and love is never fulfilled. For these young men and women, emotionally unavailable parents were the norm. Such a picture of emotional unavailability can take on many different forms: Mothers distant and withdrawn, preoccupied with their own burdens; fathers aggressive and abusive, overtaken by their long standing addictions; in short, parents so entrenched in their arguing and fighting that the needs of their children went ignored. In every case, deep seated emotional needs are left unfulfilled.
For many of these young men and women, relationships become the avenue by which to pacify these unmet emotional needs. A way in which to “reenact” the interactions of their past. An opportunity to change now what could never be changed then. A chance at gaining that which was never offered in their original family structure.
And so the cycle of toxic relationships begins—a pursuit of the emotionally unavailable partner, in hopes of gaining from them what could not be gained from their past. In hopes of changing them. In hopes of winning them over with their love.
The sad reality is that these interactions, though many times passionate and exciting, are also chaotic and unstable. In the end, they will never bring the fulfillment our hearts are truly longing for, because they cannot. They will end with nothing but the residue of pain, brokenness, and shattered trust.
But for the determined, there is hope in finding freedom from these toxic relationships.
The promise of freedom
1. You must come to terms with your needs. One great way to begin this process is by starting a journal and writing in it a few times a week. Try to keep track of your feelings from the things that hurt you to the things that excite you. Take the time to really get to know yourself and understand your emotional needs.
2. You must bring these needs before God. For some, they may be able to make amends with their family members, but for others, this is not a realistic possibility. The good news is that healing and forgiveness can come with or without the consent of the one who hurt you. Ask God to grant you the ability to forgive, and then ask Him to begin meeting the needs for value, love, and affirmation through His Word. The bible is filled with affirmations and statements of worth about who we are in Christ. Take those words in, memorize them, and allow them to be a daily part of your life.
3. Find some friends to hold you accountable. Make a list of reasons why you have decided to make these steps toward change, and find some godly friends, family, or pastors/church leaders of the same gender to help walk you through this journey. Give each of them a copy of your list, and when you need a little reminder, call them up or schedule a time to meet with them to discuss your struggles and your successes.
4. Break away. Now is the time to follow through with the changes you have decided to make. Bring closure to the relationships that have been holding you back from God’s best for your life. If domestic violence or any type of verbal, physical or emotional abuse is involved, please be sure to see a professional counselor to guide you in taking the necessary steps to keep you safe from harm during this process. Surround yourself with friends and family who can support you through this hard time.
5. Remember: this process is never easy. It is always difficult letting go of the comfortable and familiar—even when it is harmful to us. Change can be seen as a very scary thing. Even if you are feeling motivated to take the right steps, don’t expect them to be a walk in the park. Your emotions will play tricks on you; you will doubt yourself and wonder if you have made the right choice. Make sure to take advantage of your accountability partners, and go to them for extra strength.
God is longing to free you from the cycle of toxic relationships. He is longing to fill the needs inside of your heart. He is longing to renew your mind and open your heart to the great things he has in store for your life. Every step toward letting go of the unhealthy relationships you are in will free you up into stepping forward into His best.
For more assistance in breaking free of toxic relationships, go to www.aacc.net (American Association of Christian Counselors) to find some professional help in your area.