Moving On After a Toxic Relationship

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Two important principles can help you move on and create a life that is healthy instead of toxic. The first is to overcome the ‘slot machine syndrome’ left from years of emotional investment, and the second is to redirect investments of emotional energy and time away from areas we have no power to control.

I receive dozens of letters and emails each month from folks around the world who are recovering from toxic relationships. And despite the tremendous satisfaction I get from the testimonials of many who have found my books and articles helpful to them in recognizing and dealing more effectively with the problem characters in their lives, I nonetheless feel I might not have spoken sufficiently to the issue of how to move on once someone has finally made the decision to end a toxic involvement. So many of the messages I get address this very issue.

Recently, I received two inquiries in the same day on the topic of moving on after ending a toxic relationship. The first person wrote:

In Sheep’s Clothing was such a life-changing read for me that I just ordered Character Disturbance. I should say that I no longer feel as awful as I once did. For me, the worst thing about being in a relationship with a covert-aggressive person, especially one who is so good at managing the impression others have of him, is that you always feel so all alone. It hurts so much that no one else gets it, including the marriage counselor we went to see. Sometimes, I would feel as though I either must be out of my mind or that I would certainly one day lose my mind.

I read and re-read the material in the middle chapters many times, sometimes taking notes. The most revealing part was where you describe the characteristics of the kind of person who certain disturbed characters like to take advantage of. I had to laugh out loud because I never saw myself that way before but I still had to admit it was an accurate description of me. Funny at first, then sobering, but ultimately, very illuminating!

I was in my bad relationship for 22 years and not until In Sheep’s Clothing did I find anything that described my situation to a tee and gave me the insight I needed. It also gave me the tools I was looking for to create a life for myself that is healthy instead of toxic. But I still have problems putting all the stress, distress, and what I now realize was abuse behind me. And I want to move forward instead of dwelling on the past, but just can’t seem to do so. What do you suggest for a person in emotional recovery from the victimization they allowed for all of those years?

It’s letters like this that convince me that I haven’t emphasized or elaborated enough on two important principles I have written about that bear on the issue of moving on after a toxic relationship. The first has to do with years of emotional investment. In my book, In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), I refer to what I describe as the “slot machine syndrome.” This is the syndrome in which a person puts in a substantial emotional investment over time, only to episodically get some small yet significant apparent rewards. That hooks the person into repeated investment. By the time they realize they’ve invested far too much for too little, it’s too late. It’s also difficult to simply walk away because walking away also means parting with a substantial investment and having nothing to show for it.

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The second principle has to do with the consequences of investing emotional energy and time in something we don’t have the power to control (e.g., someone else’s behavior, the outcome of events, etc.). Folks in problematic relationships spend a lot of time and energy trying to make things work. Occasionally, they become deluded by what seem to be minor payoffs. So, they keep trying, often futilely. That becomes a formula for depression and a good deal of self-reproach. When they finally decide to walk away, they’re often consumed with needless but nonetheless significant and destructive self-questioning (e.g., “How could I have been so stupid?” or “What made me waste so much of my life?”).

The principles that apply to effective moving on afterwards are actually quite simple, but not easy. Folks have to simply remember to focus all their time and energy on things over which they have power, most especially, their own choices and actions. Ruminating about the past, trying to get others to understand, worrying about whether their former partner will “keep getting away with” their manipulative behavior, etc. is simply a recipe for emotional disaster. And as hard as it may be to do, simply directing one’s thoughts away from these things and toward the actions one must take now to be more empowered is the secret to ending the emotional nightmare. Then comes the most important part: giving oneself an internal pat-on-the-back for re-directing those thoughts and for taking action. It’s really as simple as that. But it’s hard and it requires not only constant practice but faithful self-reinforcement.

I don’t know that I’ve said that often or clearly enough. Hopefully, I just did.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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