6 Stages Of Recovering From A Toxic Relationship

Recovering from a toxic relationship is not as easy as most people think. You may have left your abusive partner and finally escaped the hell you were in, but healing from the trauma and pain of toxic relationships can be difficult to accept and deal with.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, paving the way for a deeper understanding of grief in the field of mental health. More than 50 years have passed since then, but these five stages are still used as a framework to describe many experiences of grief and grief from traumatic events.

We now know that these stages can come in a different order, and can be skipped and/or repeated, and recent research suggests that there are different stages that bereaved and survivors of other traumas may go through (Duca et al., 2011).

In research on traumatic relationships, including domestic violence or other toxic relationships, researchers have found similar patterns and stages of healing to those experienced by bereaved people. Today, we know that toxic relationships can be romantic, platonic, or familial, with recovery from each looking somewhat different.

These are the six stages of recovery from psychological abuse or toxic relationships that I have witnessed in my practice. Like the above stages of grief, these stages do not always occur in chronological order, they can be skipped or repeated, and survivors can start at different stages.

While the end goal is always safety, understanding, and meaning, recovery looks different in all survivors and no two paths are the same.

6 The stages of recovery from a toxic relationship

  1. Self-doubt.
    This could be called the “Am I crazy?” platform. It means realizing that something does not make sense, but not knowing how what and why. This stage can sometimes happen during a relationship, or it can happen during a breakup when you start to realize that something feels off.

While few breakups are pleasant or pain-free, ending a toxic relationship has the added cognitive dissonance of feeling liberating, yet overwhelming and confusing.

Sometimes survivors wonder if leaving was the right choice, or if they’ve been imagining or exaggerating all the strange events that make no sense. Many survivors struggle through the stage, asking, “Was it my fault? Did I get these behaviors out of them?”

  1. Learning and research.
    This is the stage where you are looking for everything. to. the. Things. You know something is off about the person’s behavior, but researching everything and anything about them gives you the terms to make sense of your experiences.

This often happens when clients come up with words or phrases like “narcissistic abuse,” “psychological abuse,” “personality disorder,” or other terms that come from their research.

When something doesn’t feel right, our human instinct is to try and try to make sense of it. This behavior serves to gain clarity and understanding, but it can also have the added benefit of self-soothing. Survivors sometimes find themselves obsessed with seeking and understanding as a means of healing.

Related: How To Identify A Narcissist: 9 Common Traits of Narcissism

  1. Clarity.
    This is when the search begins to slow down, and the survivor begins to understand their experiences—even if there is still pain, grief, and resentment. This initial burst of understanding can be liberating and calming, as it feels empowering to clarify a situation that seems muddled and confusing.

The key element at this point is the clarity that there is something beyond your control, that you have not been able to stop or change, and that it is not your fault.

  1. Break free.
    This is when you take steps to distance yourself from her, both physically and emotionally. For some, this stage comes at the very beginning, sometimes before they even realize what kind of person they were dealing with, especially if they have been neglected.

For others, liberation occurs after they realize they need to leave in order to stay safe and healthy. This is the stage when people start to go gray, no contact, and when I urge my clients to use N.E.B. Techniques I developed for survivors who must communicate with their abuser (necessary, emotionless, and brief).

  1. Do the work of healing.
    This stage usually takes the form of developing an understanding of yourself because you realize that this is the only way to fully heal.

This is usually the stage when people reconnect with family and friends that were pushed away during the relationship, and otherwise try to piece together the broken pieces of the mess of the past few months or even years.

During this stage, it’s important to understand and acknowledge that it’s okay to admit that you were human and imperfect during the relationship and that you inevitably made mistakes, but you shouldn’t blame any malicious cruelty that was revealed.

Related: Breaking Free: The Ultimate Checklist for Ending a Relationship With a Narcissist

  1. Accept and make sense.
    Many well-known psychological abuse experts report that finding meaning from your experience is an essential part of the healing process, as it helps you understand how to avoid these people in the future. Many people in toxic and abusive relationships repeat these patterns over and over.

They come to the treatment miserable and exasperated saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong to attract these people!” Usually during this time we discover that they have not taken the time needed to fully heal – not only from the experience but also to develop an understanding of their experiences and their meaning in order to recognize red flags in the future and to attract the people they want to be with.

Many people who end a relationship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies or other personality disorder traits find that they are left with debt, shame, embarrassment, or reputational damage as part of a smear campaign.

Taking control of your life and working to fix all of these things is a major part of the recovery process, and can help empower you to keep moving forward.

Many of my clients feel empowered when they consolidate credit cards, connect with former friends or acquaintances, and begin to rebuild their lives. Accepting what happened and taking steps to move on is part of the recovery process.

Healing looks different in each person. If the survivor is also a survivor of domestic violence in their childhood home or family of origin, this trauma can fester and be felt for a longer period, but this is not always the case.