“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” ~Carl Jung
It’s said that our first healthy relationship after experiencing an unhealthy one can be unsettling and confusing. That’s an understatement.
The reality is, because of having learned to walk on eggshells from old relationships, we carry those eggshells with us into new relationships.
However, if we’ve given ourselves enough space between relationships and enough time to heal the wounds caused by that experience — and the ones that led up to it — a healthy relationship can become our most rewarding.
The problem is that most of us don’t give ourselves the necessary time to heal from everything. There seems to be this unspoken “rule” that if we just lick our wounds from our last toxic relationship while pointing fingers at our ex enough times, that things will be fine.
Which is what perpetuates another round in a toxic relationship, even if it’s with a new partner.
For anyone who has experienced the kind of relationship that left its mark, it can be challenging moving past the pain and healing the hurt. Emotional damage will need to be sorted through — from processing betrayal to targeting codependency.
To everything in-between.
Because of the pain experienced, any emotional wall that was there before has now been reinforced with protective armor, while trust and intimacy got exchanged for looking at agendas and keeping everyone at arm’s distance.
The reality is, if it was toxic, then what you believed was love, was little more than a challenge they accepted as part of their game. The more you resisted, the harder they looked for a way in.
There’s your push-pull.
For every brick of your wall they knocked down, manipulation was in play, not love.
…A painful reminder of why the emotional wall was built in the first place.
After licking our wounds from one toxic experience, we may think things are fine as we move on to our next relationship. However, until we’ve addressed everything in our lives that led up to the last toxic situation, we’re setting ourselves up for another one.
Arriving at a place of growth requires taking the road less traveled. And, taking the road less traveled means taking as much time off as necessary from relationships for reflection, self-awareness and growth.
But let’s face it: the road less traveled can be a bitch.
No one is telling you that to travel on this road you’re going to have to face all your pain — where it started, how it started, who was involved and why it’s there — so you can start healing.
And, a lot of the time, you may wind up facing the pain alone.
No one is telling you that you’re going to have to unbox all your previous relationships to figure out patterns, habits, and cycles that repeated from one experience to the next.
And, a lot of the time, as you start unboxing the ghosts of relationships past, you’re also unboxing the pain you carried with you from one relationship to the next.
No one is mentioning how many sleepless nights you’ll experience, or the thousands of tears you’ll cry over memories shared or the potential you thought the relationship had.
And, a lot of the time, for every sleepless night or tear shed, you’re reliving the memories while trying to distract yourself from them.
So, the easy route is often taken instead.
Recognizing The Cycles
While those formally diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is small (.5% — 5%) nationally, with a staggering 75%–80% reported as male, there are an unprecedented amount of toxic relationship dynamics going unreported annually.
Toxic doesn’t need a formal diagnosis; all it requires are two players to keep the game in play.
While many identify toxic relationships as one or both partners having NPD, this is incorrect. Personality traits and behavioral habits — both healthy and toxic — are on a continuum. That means that a person may have a Cluster B disorder, may have PTSD or complex PTSD from surviving a history of toxic situations, or may be without a diagnosis.
And may still be engaging in toxic behavior.
Although toxic relationships are not always obvious at first, they carry similar overarching themes: stages of intense lovebombing, devaluation, and a push-pull attachment style that ends in discard (or, abandonment). Most toxic cycles repeat, often with shorter idealizations and longer devaluations each time the cycle plays out.
Just as there are differences from one unhealthy relationship to the next, there are also differences from one partner to the next.
Some partners may be higher functioning — meaning they may have some awareness into themselves and their habits, so the devaluation phase may be shorter, and once discard rolls around you may never hear from them again, where they’ve moved on to their next self-sabotaging disaster.
In this situation, they may not be feeling shame for how they treated their partner as much as they may experience shame that the cycle kicked into gear again. Just because they may be higher functioning doesn’t mean they want to change — here’s where that old saying comes in that the “…only things they change are excuses and partners.”
Awareness into a habit isn’t the same thing as taking responsibility in stopping a habit.
Others may toggle between a short lovebombing phase and an indefinite devaluation phase, where it’s never quite “deplorable”, but your emotional or physical needs are probably going unmet.
In this dynamic, the overarching theme is a mixture of unhappiness, boredom and incompatibility where ignoring or avoiding each other at least keeps the ‘peace’ until one partner realizes their needs probably won’t ever be met and they choose to leave.
Or, some may have cycles of passionate fights filled with a ridiculous amount of devaluing, flamboyant discards and then an equally passionate lovebombing phase. In this situation, emotions run icy and hot, but always tip into extremes. As long as both partners continue their roles, the cycles continue.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Still others may hover between devaluation and mini-idealizations, where ‘discards’ only last long enough to step outside the relationship, until both partners re-engage for another round.
Recognizing What Needs Healing
Because more than half of the people in the United States will experience a form of trauma in their lifetime, this statistic includes those who have experienced a toxic intimate relationship and are now living with the after-effects.
Dating again after having experienced a toxic relationship is nerve-wracking and emotionally challenging. You may struggle with getting to know a new person because your trust may have been shattered in an old relationship, or you may hold ideas about relationships that keep you on heightened alert and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
While these are perfectly normal reactions to abnormal relationship situations, they should be addressed and healed before engaging in a new relationship.
It Didn’t Start With Your Ex. Sure, we would probably love to pin everything on our ex as just some jackal who we unfortunately wasted our heart and time on. And, sure, if they were toxic, then their agenda wasn’t about loving us, but about getting their own needs met. This is nothing new.
However, what may be new is recognizing that our ex was a continuation of what we were likely taught to believe about ourselves or about relationships.
Those treated as worthless or without value early in life, will tend to seek out similar throughout their life as “validation” of their worthlessness. And with every toxic relationship they get tangled up in, it strengthens their misbeliefs about themselves and their feelings of worthlessness.
Or, others may have been taught that relationships are based on getting what you can and then leaving, or that a partner is only going to ‘use and abuse’ you, so trust no one and think only of yourself.
These misbeliefs about relationships get strengthened with each emotionally unavailable partner chosen or with every self-sabotaging behavior that plays out.
Educating ourselves is important in helping us recognize where our ideas about ourselves and relationships started, and where they were learned.
By figuring out where misinformation and toxic generational patterns were learned, we’re empowering ourselves to unlearn them.
Recognize Your Motivations. Two of the most important motivations to consider are: why you’re wanting a new relationship and what is motivating you to be interested in this person.
By digging deeper in understanding our motivations, we can begin peeling back the layers — are we motivated by a fear of being alone, or are we motivated by wanting to get back at an ex? Or, have we addressed our needs and are motivated by healthy reasons such as being authentically interested in this person?
Recognize How (or Whether) To Trust. We’ve probably all heard that we can trust a person when their word and deed add up. Inconsistencies in saying one thing while doing another are a red flag not to trust. For example, think back to a toxic relationship and start piecing together the misaligned information.
Maybe they claimed they never used dating apps, but you found out they have, or maybe there were other inconsistencies in their word versus their behavior that got you questioning their investment in you.
However, trusting others can’t happen until we’re comfortable trusting ourselves. Until that moment, anyone and everyone will be kept at arms-distance out of self-preservation.
Building self-trust is a process and can only happen over time in trusting our instincts and intuition, with consistency between what is said and done, with open communication and in building competency in trusting ourselves.
Ditch the Dating Apps. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, people met, dated, and had amazing relationships before Tinder and its reported 340 million downloads, and 6 million paying subscribers. The fact is, research has once again provided evidence that supports dating apps as a go-to for toxic personalities, including high rates of those reporting with both narcissistic and Machiavellian traits.
With so many options at our fingertips, it seems that chivalry and old school dating are literally a thing of the past. Yet, when reading up on the gravity of some of dating sites, it may make you think twice, especially if you’ve gotten out of a toxic relationship as many of us have.
Some options to consider are going out with a group of friends, having a friend hook you up with someone they know, meeting up with coworkers after work, or volunteering for a group or foundation that you’re passionate about. When you meet someone in person, they can’t hide behind the mask of a dating app.
Take It Slow. Give yourself time, and most importantly, be kind to yourself. Getting back out there after having experienced a toxic situation is an act of bravery and courage.
If you’ve experienced heartbreak or significant trauma, it may take you longer to feel comfortable or safe around someone new. Starting out slowly, with a simple and short date can work best, and gradually building from there is safest.
Cultivating Intimacy. Intimacy shouldn’t be confused with sex. Sex is actually quite impersonal; however, intimacy is not. Those who have experienced a toxic relationship can struggle with intimacy and may feel unsafe in any relationship.
This makes sense; if you were abandoned by someone you loved or trusted with your heart, you may emotionally shut down where you’ve chosen to never be emotionally vulnerable again. Or, if you went unheard or your feelings weren’t taken into consideration, you may struggle with moments of feeling vulnerable, or in saying what is on your mind.
With intimacy, we’re at our most vulnerable with our partner, where trust is mutually exchanged, and transparent. Intimacy is something that builds over time and through communication.
Once you’ve gotten to a place of feeling safe around them, you can begin cultivating more intimacy and a deeper connection.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington: Author.
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Kernberg, O. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.
Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
Lennart, F., & Batinic, B. (2020). How bright and dark personality traits predict dating app behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 168.
Ronningstam, E. (2010). Narcissistic personality disorder: A current review. Current Psychiatry Reports, 1, 68–75.
Vodicka, D. (2006). The four elements of trust. Principal Leadership, 7(3), 27–30.
Previously published on Medium.com.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want a deeper connection with our community, please join us as a Premium Member today.
Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: iStock