Should I leave a troubled relationship

Should I Leave a Dysfunctional Relationship?

Deciding whether to end a relationship is a big decision. As a therapist, I often see people struggle with whether to stay or go.

For someone with codependency, the decision to leave a dysfunctional or abusive partner is especially hard.

Why it’s hard to end a “toxic”, dysfunctional, or abusive relationship

If you’re struggling in a dysfunctional relationship, you may

  • Feel like you’ve tried and tried, but things don’t ever seem to get better (or at least not for long).

  • Have devoted lots of time, energy, and possibly money to taking care of and trying to fix your partner’s problems.

  • Love and care about your partner even though you often have conflicts or feel disconnected.

  • Wonder what will happen to your partner if you’re not around to help.

  • Feel unworthy or have low self-esteem.

  • Worry that you’ll be alone or no one else will want you.

  • Think getting a divorce or ending your relationship means you’re a failure.

Things to consider when deciding to leave a toxic relationship:

  • Is this relationship abusive? Abuse isn’t just about whether your partner beats the sh** out of you every time they get wasted. It’s also the occasional shove or grabbing your arm. It’s forcing you to have sex or perform particular sexual acts when you don’t want to. It’s telling you you’re worthless or you’ll be alone forever if you leave. It’s threats to harm you or your kids. It’s blaming you and making you feel “crazy”.

  • What will happen if things continue on their current trajectory? I know you can’t predict the future, so the past is our best gauge for what’s to come. Have things gotten worse over time? Does your partner use more frequently or larger quantities? Do new problems continue to stack up?

  • How is this relationship affecting your kids? Are your kids really better off with you staying together? Perhaps their standard of living is higher in a two-parent household, but don’t fool yourself into believing your kids don’t know what’s going on. Kids are very aware of arguments, abuse, or Mom being too drunk to drive; even babies can sense tension and conflict.

  • Is this an equal partnership? Marriage may not be 50-50 all the time, but it should even out to a reasonably equitable partnership over time. Are you carrying the bulk of the work and responsibility? Can you confide in your partner and feel supported? Are you appreciated and valued?

  • Is your partner invested in change? Remember the old saying, “Nothing changes if nothing changes”? Well, that’s the truth. Change takes sustained effort. Has your partner shown you that they are going to work at recovery day after day or does she repeatedly quit programs, relapse, and make excuses?

  • What does it cost you to stay? Is staying eroding your self-esteem, your mental health, your physical health, your sense of peace and well-being? What else are you giving up in this relationship – your friends, goals, career advancement?

  • How long are you willing to wait? Change is hard and scary. It’s always easier to do the same thing rather than change even when you know the current situation is toxic. There’s a strong desire to hang in there thinking your partner will eventually change. You can’t rely on empty promises to change, you need hard cold facts. The truth is that even if there’s no evidence of change right now, your partner may eventually find long-term sobriety and recovery, but how long are you willing to wait? Six months? A year? Five years? 10 years? This is your life, too. What else are you missing out on while you’re waiting for your partner to change? You’ve put your life on pause. You deserve to live a fulfilling life with a partner that meets your needs.
  • Is your life unmanageable? Instead of waiting for your partner to hit bottom, consider whether you’ve hit your bottom. Do you want to live like this anymore? Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired?

Answering these questions will only be helpful if you can take an honest look at yourself and your partner. The sneaky thing about denial is that you don’t even know it’s there. Sometimes you need someone outside the situation to give you unbiased feedback.

Should I leave a dysfunctional relationship?

It’s time to seriously consider leaving a dysfunctional relationship if your partner:

  • Hurts you physically, emotionally, mentally, or sexually.

  • Puts you down; calls you derogatory names.

  • Doesn’t take responsibility for mistakes; blames you for everything.

  • Apologizes, but continues to hurt you in the same way.

  • Refuses to go to therapy or treatment.

  • Denies problems.

  • Tells you that you’re “crazy”.

  • Lies, cheats, steals, or other dishonest and unethical behavior.
  • Controls where you go, who you see, what you wear, or your access to money.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should leave a troubled relationship. There are also times when a couple can recover from addiction, mental illness, trauma, and codependency together. I believe that in order for this to be possible, two primary things need to happen:

  1. Both you and your partner must be committed to emotional wellness and recovery and participate regularly in recovery activities (in-patient or out-patient substance abuse treatment, psychotherapy, group counseling, 12-step or other self-help groups).
  2. Abusive behavior ceases completely. I can never advocate that you stay in a relationship where you’re being hurt physically, sexually, or emotionally. You deserve better.

I know from my personal and professional experience that relationships can change and become healthy. But I also know that people with codependent traits often stick around even when change is unlikely.

Please remember that you didn’t cause your loved one’s problems or toxic behaviors and you can’t fix them. It’s not about whether they love you enough to change or about what you did wrong or what else you can try. Sometimes you need to save yourself before you go down with the sinking ship.

Get support

When I was at this crossroads, going to therapy was a lifesaver that restored me to sanity. I can’t possibly know what you should do in your particular situation. If anything in this article spoke to you, I strongly suggest you get some support as you wrestle with these questions and try to see your life realistically.

Support resources:

  • Therapy (search online, in your insurance provider directory, or ask your physician for a referral)
  • 12-step groups such (Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous)
  •  1-800-799-SAFE

©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.

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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

4 thoughts on “Should I Leave a Dysfunctional Relationship?”

  1. Maybe Maybe you could help me understand if my wife of 5 years is a narcissist/sociopath. My name is Justin and I have two daughters 2 and 4 that I love dearly but even though I’m willing to stay in commitment to her if she does have this childhood trama induced disorder is for my girls and hope that love could overcome her lack of. I believe she may have just traits of this and or the past way I’ve ignored her. She has been known for lying and keeping substantial. amounts of tax money from me around the time she left me 20 months ago after I found a vauge picture of an ex on her phone to which she finally admitted to me who it was after I spent endless hours=hours of no sleep until I traced back the tattoos to who it was from social media. Giving she may not have had anymore than late night conversation from me not acknowledge her for her constant nagging but all that followed and.months of research leads me to believe she is in fact a sociopath or just a sweet angel that has only been hurt by every male in her life (if this is true) from childhood through the age of 24 when we married. I pray that it’s every bit of coincidence that all lines up with her idealized, devalued, and discarding of me but now after 20 months of claiming divorce and 4 months of no contact (restraining order) which she broke by calling me one morning which lead to me seeing my children and a uncertain one intimate night together. She still claims she has divorce papers and I still want my wife I married but I believe I may just be a narcissistic supply to her or that she wants me to be better with this addiction I’ve picked up because of her leaving. If here is anything you can say, do, or direct me so I could better know or understand so I could decide what to do for my sanity and hopefully what is. My. Family… Thanks in advance and God bless your gift

  2. Hi Justin,
    I married a man who I believed had suffered childhood trauma and had been cheated on by all his exwifes who turned out to number 9, myself included. 5 years later and a tumultuous 5 at that his behavior has escalated to cheating online on sex dating sites. I just discovered he is “emotionally attached” to several women professing his feelings for them. His volatile temper with zero anger management skills has reached a point of no return. I’m divorcing him too. There was no childhood trauma. HE cheated on all his exwifes. He’s a pathological narcissist who has eroded my sense of worth gaslighting me, destroyed my trust in him completely but insists its MY fault. He will never change as neither your wife will. She is not who you thought you married. It will only get worse. Your kids are suffering as are you. Leave. Take your kids n fight her for custody by getting a psychological evaluation after you get Child Protective Services involved. Start Over after divorce. FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE AND THAT OF YOUR KIDS. God Bless.

  3. Now, this is something amazing. Thank you!
    Sometimes, we can be in a relationship for so long we stop seeing how unhealthy it really is until someone points it out.
    And even then, we try to make excuses. we try to ignore it. We try to pretend it’s all okay. But deep down we find ourselves struggling with that sinking feeling: How did I end up here? and that’s the signal which tells us we need to get out of this.

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