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Why We Must Walk Away From Destructively Dependent Relationships

My instincts were screaming at me to move forward, but I was scared to leave. I was afraid of what he might do.

By Nicole Schmidt

Content warning: suicidal ideation

My last relationship was riddled with problems — but for the year and a half we were together, I told myself that the bad times were overshadowed by the good days.

We met while I was studying overseas in New Zealand, and after I left to go back home, we decided we weren’t ready to let go of each other. In the beginning, while we were still on the same continent, everything was easy, and being together felt intuitive. He was older than me, but it didn’t seem to matter because we connected in a way I convinced myself could never be replicated with anyone else. I fell in love with his mind — he was well spoken, creative, kept me intrigued, and made me feel special.

For every good trait, however, I later learned there was a flaw that carried more weight. When he drank, which was often, he had two sides: He could be vindictive and derogatory towards me, or deeply displeased with his own life. I preferred the latter because I knew that the sadness would subside the next morning. The slurs he hurled at me, though, made themselves cozy in the back of my mind; “slut” was his go-to. He didn’t trust me around other men and constantly criticized my feelings by telling me I didn’t love him enough.

I made excuses for him by focusing on all of the times he said I was perfect, that I was the only person who made him happy. But this fixation, too, had a downside: I’d lost my ability to see just how emotionally abusive my relationship had become.

His history with chronic depression and anxiety was something we talked about often; he spent the entirety of his twenties drowning in it, unable to leave his room for days on end. He was a long way from being okay, but he assured me that things were better now. At first, I thought it was something I could handle. Still, there were times when he’d piece together his darkest thoughts and talk about leaving the world.

I’d lost my ability to see just how emotionally abusive my relationship had become. Click To Tweet

Tear-filled conversations about suicide often transitioned into him planning for a future he refused to think about without me in it. Those days were the hardest. They left me feeling scared and overwhelmed — like I’d taken on the sole responsibility of keeping my partner upright. His life was at a standstill before we met. He had three university degrees, but hadn’t held a steady job in years because he felt like he had nothing to work towards. Our prospective future was his first real plan, and that brought ambitions — like cutting back on drinking and finding a proper job — to the surface. He wanted to move in together after I finished my degree, maybe even get married.

But there’s an unsettling pressure that accompanies being someone’s main source of motivation and happiness. Good days became more frequent, but when he was having one of his bad days, I became what he depended on. His problems always took priority over the other things in my life, because if I wasn’t there, he made me feel guilty by telling me I didn’t care enough. It consumed most of my free time and all of my mental energy.

My instincts were screaming at me to move forward, to stop answering calls in the early hours of the morning, to refrain from constantly wondering whether he was okay. I neglected my emotions until the pressure to help him be okay — to be there whenever he needed me, to reassure him constantly of my love — finally made me see that the person who once made me feel so special had become the source of so much fear and sadness.

Still, I was scared to leave. I was afraid of what he might do if I did.

We had plans to see each other at the end of the year for the first time since I’d left, but as the date got closer I started to ask myself whether I could ever really be happy in the relationship. I knew that no one person could give him the true stability he needed, and finding any sense of balance between us seemed like an impossible task.

When I finally did leave him, I felt a sense of ease. I could breathe again. But all of those previous fears became real a few weeks later when I woke up to his name on my phone screen. When I saw his text, everything unraveled.

“It’s time to leave this behind once and for all…I’ll always love you but you did the wrong thing by me,” the message read. “All I ask is your forgiveness for what I’m about to do. It breaks my heart that I wasn’t good enough for you.”

Frantic calls and texts went unanswered. Minutes spent on hold with the police dragged on. My mind wandered. I questioned my decisions and my self-worth. I cried until my body was numb. When I finally willed myself out of bed for work, I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from everything around me. I spent the day trying to quiet my thoughts, which seemed impossible.

After 12 hours, it was the who police confirmed he was alive. They showed up on his doorstep and found him drunk and unharmed inside.

The episode was devastating and frightening — but also clarifying. Suicidal ideation is a very real issue rooted in mental illnesses too often stigmatized, and threats must always be taken seriously and handled with compassion. At the same time, the scenario forced me to understand the importance of boundaries in my life — and how toxic his dependency on me had always been.

Sue Johnson, clinical psychologist and founding director of the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, told me that when partners delve into extremes, they’re often driven by insecurities and a need for control. It’s natural to rely on another person for comfort, support, and affection, she says, but there’s a very important difference between constructive and destructive dependency. “Relationships don’t work on a level of threat. Relationships work when you help people feel safe…You can’t demand someone love you.”

There’s a very important difference between constructive and destructive dependency. Click To Tweet

Some relationships can be consuming to the point where any real sense of perspective vanishes. Mary Andres, a professor of clinical psychology at the Rossier School of Education, described it to me as your brain going into crisis mode: When you’re busy reacting to the emotional demands in front of you, trying desperately to hold up another person, it’s easy to feel depleted. Eventually, you can reach a point where you stop using your frontal lobes, which are responsible for problem solving and judgement. Andres spoke about one woman she worked with who spoke about her own life as if she wasn’t the protagonist — her partner was front and center in every problem and every thought.

“When you’re involved with a toxic person and they’re telling you that you should be able to make them feel okay, that’s a fallacy,” Andres says. “If we listen to them, we’re letting them define our reality…It’s difficult to make decisions when you’re in that place.”

At the same time, when you have someone begging you to rescue them, to be their entire world and sense of stability, saying “no” feels morally wrong. And so walking away — the most important thing you can do in such a situation — also ironically becomes the hardest part.

But as Andres emphasizes, ending an emotionally abusive relationship isn’t selfish; it’s the best thing for both people involved. “You’re saving your own life and it might be a precursor to the other person getting the help they need. A person has to experience loss to get incentive to make a difference,” she says. “But it’s not easy.”

As for me, it’s been 10 months since I left my partner, and I still sometimes wonder whether he’s okay. But the difference is this: that thought no longer takes priority in my life, because I know that my happiness is important, too.

Leaving was difficult — but it helped me realize that staying with someone out of guilt and obligation isn’t love.