Toxic Relationships (5): How to Make them Healthy

Updated: Nov 13

The solitary process of recovering a relationship

Contrary to what many couples counselors would suggest, I will argue below that you need to approach the task of reducing the toxicity level of your relationship alone and independently from your partner first and observe how they change their behavior as a response to your initiation. If you approach the idea of healing your relationship together as the team that you are not (because your relationship would not be characterized as toxic if you were), you run the risk of passing to each other all the hot potatoes without ever rolling your sleeves to deal with them. So be ready to start working on your toxic relationship ALONE, just you, yourself, and your issues. In more extreme cases of highly toxic relationships, it means alone AWAY from your partner.


Healthy relationships are made of ... healthy people, naturally.

But we often forget about the key role of our individual strength of character, the need for accountability and transparency before ourselves and our partner, and the 100%, instead of only 50% share of initiative in the common venture called relationship (as we have taken the decision to be with this person and the exact way to be with this person alone. No one forced us to and we own this choice 100%).


If we, who are only 50% of the relationship, change alone, 100% of the relationship changes too. (If you don't believe it or if it sounds illogical, remember that when you mix yellow with blue, it produces green. Now, if you substitute yellow with red, the result is violet even if you do not change anything about the blue!) If we stick to a new course of action, so does the change stick around. But if we expect and demand only our partner (the other 50%) to change, and mind this, even if they objectively do exactly what we ask of them, the relationship does not change at all to us, and our subjective perception of it.


If we do not trust that our partner will improve even if only we work on ourselves, this means we do not trust our partner's capacity to understand and adapt to us. This mistrust is there because we deeply fear they do not care enough for us to make a move in the right direction. Don't take it personally! This simply means we don't care enough about ourselves, and they do not care enough about themselves. They may not care for themselves if they believe we do not care for them. So we need to start caring for them by taking care of ourselves first because:

  • We see as much of our partner as we see of ourselves. We cannot recognize and identify anything more in them beyond what we have already encountered in ourselves.

  • Our partner likes and loves us as much as we like and love ourselves. If we pretend to like and love ourselves, they pretend to like and love us when they are actually full of the opposite feelings. They might be unable to express their dislike and hate openly out of the fear of losing us. (We turn out to be the person who they hate just as much as they hate themselves but brain-wash themselves that they love, so the time and energy invested are not regarded as wasted, for that would reveal us both as losers). The same fear makes them pretend and even sell to themselves that they would do anything for us when the truth is they won't, and so they don't. Instead, the suppressed negative emotions vent out as passive-aggressive, physical, or verbal abuse followed by regret and self-pity => more severe brain-wash => more severe play-pretend => more severe venting out/ abuse => more severe remorse, etc.

=> Love, trust, like, forgive, embrace, and respect yourself to be loved, trusted, liked, forgiven, embraced, and respected by your partner. DON'T HOPE OR WAIT ON THEM to do/change/stop/start/leave/stay if you refuse to make the first move!


In the previous posts on this topic: Toxic Relationships (2): Classic Recipe, (3): Why They Taste so Good but Hurt so Bad, and (4): The Toxic Spiral Down, we have seen the genesis of the toxic relationship by doing the dirty job of getting to the rotten roots of our personal issues and the toxic spiral we need to find a way out of 1. weakening of character => 2. unresolved guilt and shame => 3. low instead of balanced self-esteem => 4. a mask of overly high self-esteem => 5. social isolation => 6. emotional isolation => 7. lack of purpose and meaning => 8. lack of motivation => 9. lack of sleep => 10. lack of energy => 11. lack of healthy nutrition => further weakening of character that marks the beginning of another cycle in a vicious circle or downward spiral (= a whirlpool of negative emotions and sensations that is hard to get out of)


Now we have finally arrived at the moment of healing when we are ready to

Get these roots out in the Sun (=your conscious revision and will) to die!

So it is only logical to start the healing of our relationship from ourselves, one issue at a time, although a positive change in any one of them brings about a positive change in any other virally and automatically! Below are some ideas you can experiment with. I suggest you start with what's easiest for you to do and not with what you perceive as the most urgent problem to be solved.

  1. weakening of character: There are many ways to strengthen your character that deserve a topic on their own, but the one general rule I often find very handy is this: Whenever, wherever you have the impulse to do something you consider good, do it immediately! Don't make excuses about why you cannot do it now, feel the fear and do it anyway. Before the opportunities for our growth, we always think we are underprepared, so don't wait to get completely ready for the acts of goodwill, you will never be! If you have been "invited" (by happenstance) to do something good, jump right on the occasion, or you will be out of the guest list next time, and you really don't want to miss the party. Don't rationalize about the infinite number of external factors on your way because this is how you surrender to them and lose identity together with your willpower. When you snooze your best intentions, you are snoozing on the vivid life in exchange for a gray existence. It is no bargain... Aristotle's definition of an animal is "a moving thing." Do stuff to be alive, that's the only way to declare your existence and wake up from a deadly slumber! There are at least 24 different ways to strengthen your character, and positive psychology will advise us to start developing our top 5. Check yours here. If you worry that you will overdo your strengths and underdo your weaknesses, check out what to be careful about in this amazing book in order to avoid the imbalance if it bothers you. If you mistrust the test because you mistrust your ability for self-evaluation, ask 5 people to list 5 top qualities of yours. After you know where your best chances are laid, the next thing is to start developing your confidence based on the pilling evidence that you are moving in a favorable direction by applying yourself in what feels natural to your personality. Here there are more than 340 ideas on what to do to upgrade yourself and start feeling better instantly. To maintain a steady course of action once you have set your heart, head, and hands into some particular idea(s), you need to turn the occasional activity that got your mind out of the problem for a while into a regular practice. Call it a ritual and be religious about it until the habit of doing it gets imprinted so deep in the fiber of your daily routines that the time you need to spend on it takes its unshakable place in your calendar. Building new healthy habits is crucial because many of our activities within a toxic relationship are just bad habits on autopilot we need to break ASAP. It is easier than you might think, and the book Atomic Habits makes it very accessible. If you don't have the time for the amazing stories in the book (which I recommend because they are very inspiring), you can still benefit from its workbook and journal. If you are so emotionally drained from your toxic relationship that you cannot focus on doing anything thinking about how bad your case is, give a chance to the movies on the list. In times when you question how could an activity totally unrelated to your personal toxic relationship drama help you solve it, remember that the goal is to bring yourself back to yourself and ultimately improve your self-image. It is a long and winding road full of surprises. Once you are on it, don't look back, just keep on moving.

  2. The unresolved guilt and shame issue: The psychoanalytic school will inform you that guilt and shame are by-products of targets set by the super-ego too high that the ego cannot measure up to. As the superego is a product of our interpretation of the demands on us imposed by the external environment we happen to grow up in, we need to change our interpretation of what is considered important by others and reconcile it with what is important to us. Then you can decide better if your actions in the past can be improved by a new one added to them, such as an apology, expression of gratitude, confession, or redemption, or if you just have to accept that you have been superstitiously and blindly stupid all that time. I don't know which one is harder, but try them all if you can.

  3. The low self-esteem issue:

The video highlights the external factors that form our self-esteem, such as family and social background. There is not much we can do to change them because the only thing we own 100% is ourselves and our free will for action. One of these actions may be to change the interpretation we have about the external factors, but the most effective one is to work on mastering our character. The self-image is not something we can put make-up on, no matter how elaborately our persona mask has been crafted. All the positive affirmations in the world will not help if we do not believe in them. It is not enough to repeat a phrase of self-praise and self-love if we do not work to silence the self-critic who knows us inside out. And the only way I know to silence that voice is to constantly testify to our inner witness our worth in action. But be careful in selecting the particular actions to invest your energy into. If the investment does not pay back, you risk getting your self-esteem even lower. One way to avoid the misalignment between your potential for accomplishment and your wants/dreams/goals/targets is to have as clear an idea about 1) your aptitudes and 2) your motivation as possible. This means asking yourself the difficult questions 1) What am I potentially good at?/ What kind of job am I best fit to perform? and 2) Why do I want to achieve what I want to achieve? If your motives are selfish such as I want to get that irresistible perfect body to break the heart of my ex, you are not going to get it in a deal with God. You may get it in a deal with the devil on credit that you cannot ever pay back, and so you would need to return it and end up with nothing but even lower self-esteem and self-hate. (By "the devil," I mean all the merchants of hopes for fast boosts on our self-esteem and their promises that we wouldn't need to do a thing but pay the bill such as plastic surgery, pills, chemicals, and other expensive slim and muscle-building “miracles”) Deals with God are slow, have many conditions, and require you to work in advance before being paid for your solo efforts or always pay in cash, no credit, no installment options available. But once you have what you have earned, it stays with you for eternity - the satisfaction, not that tight lean, and muscular body. You will be surprised to learn how many gorgeous-looking people do not feel any satisfaction out of it. Paraphrase the above to I want a better body to be of better service to myself and everyone in my life. I will be totally OK if nobody notices my physical accomplishment because I don’t need to sell my looks, I have substance instead. The substance is what designs the package, and we should not hide from and postpone working on the substance by glossing the package. It is not only superficial, but it is also impossible to catch up with – it is a constant struggle against the clock to keep appearances that produce an insurmountable amount of stress (and even lack of sleep). Sooner or later, the Dorian Grays pay with interest, so better give up the facade game altogether. Negotiate so that everyone is a winner, no harm, just growth and stick with your promises. For if you take what you wanted and did not deliver your part, consequences will apply that you are not going to like, but you will want and need them to restore peace with yourself. So be careful who you barging with when you invest your resources – your self-esteem is at stake. Sign the deals that will allow you to look yourself in the mirror without fear, self-hate, and disgust. Another possible harmful motivation is the pursuit of other people's dreams - the "grass-is-greener-over-there" side effect of social comparison that might trick you into wanting things that have little potential to make you truly happy. If you don't believe that writing a gratitude letter can have a better effect on your self-esteem than getting a promotion, do this free Yale University course in the science of well-being and the related exercises. Upon completion, you will understand, among many other things, why the potential for happiness and the real sense of satisfaction among handicapped and non-handicapped, rich and poor, married and single people are all the same as the Harvard research quoted in the course suggests. The take-home point of the course is that we really have little idea what boosts our genuine self-esteem and sense of fulfillment because these things are counter-intuitive, but we better fix our biases before they ruin our lives.

4. The mask (of overly high self-esteem) issue: To get realistic feedback from anyone, we need to present our authentic selves, no matter how embracing that may feel at the beginning, when we are crawling out of a toxic relationship, we will feel liberated instantly. Stop pretending before anyone, anywhere! Start saying what you mean and mean what you say because "Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most love is lost" - Khalil Gibran. Even when it takes you many hours in silence and self-reflection to produce the few meaningful, truthful, and sincere words to say to your partner, you need words and actions that are crystal clear and pure from manipulation, anger, and frustration if you want to save every tiny drop of love that's left between you. Refrain yourself from any games people play. Your sincere words ideally reveal your positive regard towards yourself, your partner, and the overall situation, no matter how bleak at present. Still, we might be visited by thoughts such as "I am so terrible, no one who truly knows me would ever stay. If I were them, I wouldn't. How could I allow myself such sincerity? I don't even know who I am, what I think, and what I feel." That may be very true indeed, but ... we are not them. Don't rob people of their informed choice to be next to you! If you feel like you don't know what you want, say it. If you feel like you don't know who you are, say it... You may fear they will dump you, or you may think of them as fools for their stupidity in wasting time on you, but let yourself be surprised when they prove you wrong about their intellect because that is the only way to believe society can give a chance to your heart and mind. Just don't get caught in the dishonesty of overly high self-esteem out of fear of being left alone and unloved because this would make their work harder. After all, the only way to receive help (from a doctor) is to let yourself be seen naked with the ugliest and sickest of parts on display. If they decide not to be with us, that's fine too because we don't really want or need anyone to play pretend with. It just wastes too much precious energy and time we will regret not investing wiser. This means learning to take no for an answer. Don't waste time trying to prove yourself to anyone, it only generates resentment towards them, following the self-betrail to fit into your idea about their expectations. To avoid speculations, dare to ask instead of assuming! If you believe that "No!" means only "Not now." in human relationships, it is a ticket to suffering in empty hopes and promises no one gave you but you yourself. Even if you get what you thought you wanted in the end, you will realize it was not worth the self-betrayal, and the resentment in you will transform into hate, dissatisfaction, grumpiness, and the feeling of being lost and meaninglessly wasted for nothing. In these moments, remember that you made the choice to chase a dream in your head that was fiction, illusion, and self-deception. You will wonder how it ended up all the years to come to nothing, leading you nowhere but behind your inner schedule and out of time, out of tune, out of rhyme, and out of sync with the rhythm of life.

5. The social isolation issue: Build a reliable support system of friends - the more in number, the less you will weigh on each one of them in particular when you feel down. You need to be careful, though, not to take your friends for psychotherapists. Remember that the way you pay a professional is with cash; the way you pay back to your friends is by providing the same support (and fun) back to them when they need it! If they never need you, but you always do, this is not friendship, and the game will be over soon because one of the sides is throwing a ball that the other one never manages to catch. Friendship is there only among equals in the same league, rank, train, and path. Weak/ suffering people are not good at making and maintaining friendships, but trying is worth everything you've got because friendship is the best thing in life! Once you start mastering the craft, you would like your friendships "until death do you part" because they provide continuity to your life narrative. The more friends you have, the better you learn how to be one, and you cannot maintain a healthy intimate relationship without being friends with your partner. (We are given a smaller span of time to be sexually active in comparison to the time we have to experience friendships - if not else, children and elderly people are capable of forming friendships no worse than people of reproductive age.) Finally, the more diverse background the friends come from (age, status, experience, conditions, etc.), the more diverse/ well-rounded and closer to objective a picture about yourself and the world you’d be able to construct out of their feedback.

6. The emotional isolation issue: Losing touch with the variety of human emotions is a side effect of toxic relationships as they polarize our sensations to experience only the radical extremes. You need to build your sensitivity to enjoy the bigger pallet of emotions out there, even if they initially appear to be mild in taste and far less intense than your previous toxic diet. Your taste for emotions was the equivalent of a sugar junkie that skips all the nutritious food and gets the cake rather than the fruit for dessert. To get in shape, you need to spend some time in the company of animals, children, and elderly people. If you are not ready yet to provide for these demanding creatures, you can turn to instrumental music, abstract art, nature, and/or sports and try to gradually sync with your sensitivity. An introductory course in classic music I particularly enjoyed is available for free from Yale University.

7. The lack of purpose and meaning issue: It is produced by a lack of available things to value and cherish. We may have had them and lost them or never had anything valuable really. In both cases, we urgently need something to give value to. It can be anything, and whenever such a thing is not around, we make it up because we need it. This primordial human need maintains gods, Dulcineas, ideals, ideologies, and their totalitarian leaders alive. I wouldn't recommend you anything of the above, and I wish I had something specific to give you a sense of purpose and meaning, but I can only point your attention towards creation and procreation. Try to apply whatever talents you have to produce the reliable goods or services that other people need and/or bring some children of your own into the world. Both ventures are hard, but nothing valuable comes easy. We simply cannot evaluate the things that did not cost (us) much. We have no instrument to take the measurement other than our own experience in the matter at hand. Grandeur may be impressive but not valuable enough to live and die for, so be ready to roll up your sleeves, get clear on your talents and start developing them. Don't give up until you find at least 1 thing you are good at.

8. The lack of motivation issue: The best way to stay motivated is not only to keep the vision of the end result constantly on your mind and your body at work (eyes on the prize and hands on the handles) but also to reconcile your sense of insignificance by recognizing that no matter how small your contribution to the continuation of the species, or the civilizational advancement under the Sun, your existence is making a difference, and you are entitled to opportunities with every breath you take to act in defense of the things you value to be worthy of your life. Do not allow the fictional glory of past and present big names to stop you from delivering your portion because you never know what the future will choose to erase and what to keep during the next historical edition. Cloud Atlas (The book, not the movie!), may provide you some perspective and food for thought when you contemplate what makes some names household and some people - historical factors.

9. The lack of energy, sleep, and nutrition issue: Remember that a healthy mind resides in a healthy body, and there is no exception to this. You can be fooled by the delay with which our bodies register the changes our psyche goes through. An unhealthy lifestyle is sure to catch up with you in time and vice versa - it will take you patience and time before your new state of mind is reflected by your physical appearance. But more important than the correlation between a healthy psyche and healthy natural looks is the correlation between addiction to substances and behaviors and the addiction to a toxic relationship. You need to transcend your present behavior in the core aspects of life (eating, sleeping, moving about) together with your attempts to transcend your relationship problems. The body keeps the score of not only physical but also psychological traumas from your childhood and from your toxic relationships later on. It is hard to believe that you could learn to live without a particular toxic attitude towards a partner if you cannot quit drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, sugar, scrolling on social media, playing mind-numbing video games, etc. because, in both situations, we are going through the same process of switching from nasty to beneficial habits. Ideally, your daily menu would consist of vegetable salad with animal-origin protein for breakfast; fruit for brunch; each lunch and dinner are recommended to be 50% fresh/steamed/air-fried veggies, 25% cooked grains, and 25% cooked beans. You can substitute vegetarian protein with fish or meat. Soaked nuts for an afternoon snack. The last snack of the day can be yogurt. You can add honey and dried fruits to the nuts or yogurt in small quantities once a week. Last nail in the coffin: water is your only friend among drinks, and you need a lot of it all day long! Supplements are ok only after you have established a deficiency of some microelement with a blood test and start taking them upon a doctor's recommendation. I don't recommend fast-results weight loss and detox programs because they often have the opposite yo-yo effect right after, and they do not allow your mind the time to internalize a habit because you are dedicated to hitting targets instead of polishing a process. Instead, try to make your food choices and time for sport a habit starting small and slow. I finally managed to stick to the above diet thanks to Stanford Introduction to Food and Health, available for free at Coursera. Once you fuel your body with a healthy intake, you will have the strength to exercise without the side effect of headache, fatigue, and nausea. I use Leap Fitness free apps for quick and easy workouts at home without equipment. And once you start a regular exercise routine, the quality of your sleep will improve too, just go to bed before 11 PM and have about 8 hours of sleep.

The above are all necessary individual work that cannot be done by anyone on our behalf, just like no one else could go to the toilet on our behalf. It may be laborsome and very far from sexy, but your future self will thank you for the work whether you end up back together with your partner as hoped or not because what is more important than hopes being justified is to stay in the virtuous circle - it produces rewards beyond our wildest conscious dreams, but right in the heart of your deepest unconscious desires ;) Here is the virtuous cycle, if you haven't figured it out on your own already:


1. ACTION in line with your inner authority makes possible real rather than imaginary/ (= in the mind) experiments and experiences that reveal the true self => 2. SELF-KNOWLEDGE (about our design, personality, authority, and strategy) => 3. brings CLARITY on what matters (our deepest VALUES) that dictate => 4. our specific WANTS/ DREAMS/ HOPES/ WISHES/ DESIRES so we can => 5. focus on what matters and master the respective necessary habits that build a strong CHARACTER to be proud of and really feel the => 6. SELF-LOVE that brings => 7. LOVE for and from others. When you love, you have the courage for all kinds of actions, and you jump head over heels in the next cycle! Enjoy!


Finally - Yes, you can

save your (no physical abuse) toxic relationship if you put in a solo effort, (self-)trust, (self-)love, and (self-)care. It is paradoxical to save the whole by fixating your attention on yourself only, but if you find a way back to yourself alone and put yourself alone first, you can save everyone who happens to be in contact with you without even intending to. Trust life to place on your way the people who would bring you closer to yourself because you are bringing them closer to themselves too. What’s for you won’t pass you by - you may not get what you think you want. But you will always get what you need and deserve, which always reveals what you really want, in case you don't know. Don't worry, we rarely do on a conscious level! One of the hardest questions to be answered is What do you really want? We'd rather mask our true desires under the sense of duty instead of claiming openly that bearing under our obligations is exactly the kind of test of our worth that we really want in order to believe in life's justice. It just sounds too masochistic and sick to admit it. But at the bottom of all desires and wants and needs, what we are all looking for is not only love - it is something to believe in! We need and want to believe in justice, life, love, and everything that is good. Once we get comfortable with speaking the truth to ourselves, we would find that what we want is what we need and vice versa. Everything else brings us closer to death, which may not be that terrible after all. We all wish for it one way or another (think about smoking, alcohol, cutting off your sleeping hours, eating sugar, self-inflicted pain, willful memory loss, a.k.a. suppression, and so on - necrophilia is a thing) We do not know anything about the really important things, so relax, you will be fine; and now that you have learned how to use the labels toxic and healthy in the context of relationships, I suggest you forget them and embrace whatever is the (no physical violence) relationship you are in for you have made it and you’d better love all of your creations. All the words and notions about what's good and bad are fictional labels we make up to construct meaning and make sense of the world so we can bear it. There is no borderline that separates things, we humans do this by forcing labels into things so we can buy and sell hope to ourselves and others. (“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche.) No one is perfectly healthy and in love with themselves, and no relationship under the Sun is entirely toxic if it produces new experiences. This is how real life is set in imperfection and paradox for us mortals. But if you would like to speculate about what would be beyond that in a hard-to-prove realm of perfection, you need to give your best attempt at the ideal healthy and bet on it all you have.


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