Mailbag: On Leaving Toxic Relationships

Last week, I received a rash of letters about bad relationships. Like, really, really bad relationships. I feel like these kinds of relationships are a little bit like cockroaches: for every one that you see, there are 70 that you don’t. Which makes me dread how many more of you must be in these kinds of relationships without telling me — or anyone else. Speak up! First, let’s get to this first letter here. After responding to all of the “I’m Stuck with Toxic Boy and Don’t Know What to Do” letters personally, I felt this one was representative of the batch:

Dr Ali, I have been dating a man for the past 9 years on and off. He is 44 years old, divorced and still lives with his mother. He hangs out with his loser friends to smoke weed and drink alcohol. He hardly spends time with me when I confront him about the lack of time. All he tells me is that I complain about it too much and that I need to respect him and give him loyalty.

His comments make me resent him, so on and off, I block him from my phone. What I heard from an ex is that the times we are not together he was sleeping around and dating other women. In our last break up, he started dating another woman a week after breaking up with me. A month later, he proposed to her and moved in with that woman. He never did anything like that with me.

What bothers me is that he is trying to get back with me while he is still engaged to the other chick. I still love him but I feel disgusted and used. How do I let go of a loser who gave me crumbs of time?

Resentfully, Bree

Oh my. The only thing that’s missing here is “He also just recently got out of jail for a few felony charges and tends to beat me with a baseball bat for sport. And wants me to join his cult.” I mean, we all have different limits of tolerance, but it seems as if you’ve been patient enough here, Bree.

That said, the story you recount is shockingly common, and statistics show that a woman goes back to a battering partner 7-9 times before she finally wises up and leaves for good. And make no mistake: what you’re experiencing is emotional battery, which is still battery.

There’s a lot of unconscious psychology going on here which I’m not going to get into because there are entire books written about the topic. But here’s what you need to do:
1) Read this article: and do everything it says.
2) Cut off contact with this guy completely. And I do mean COMPLETELY. No email, no Facebook, no phone. In fact, you need to change your phone number, email, everything. Desperate times require desperate measures. Merely blocking him won’t work. We want zero contact here, forever.
3) Get 3 good friends of yours to keep you accountable. Have them check in with you on a weekly basis. Set stakes on to make sure you follow through.
4) Go meet other guys who treat you significantly better than this toxic waste dump.

Also, I would recommend getting professional help. My apologies for sounding a bit harsh at the beginning, since it would seem as if you’re making a lot of bad decisions when it comes to this guy, so gawrsh, why don’t you just stop doing that? Pretty simple, right?

But there’s usually more to it than that. Your willingness to put up with this kind of toxic guy is a symptom of something much more deeply embedded in your psyche than what a mere email could reach. Usually this involves a history of trauma.

Basically, whenever you see in yourself or others some pattern of behavior that makes no sense on the surface, think “trauma.” And still wanting time and attention from a guy who treats you like dirt makes no sense.

It is time to unravel these old knots and set yourself free – if not today, when? Otherwise, even if you get rid of this one, you’ll keep repeating the pattern with another guy.

The bad news is that he’s already latched on to some other vulnerable woman. The good news is that you have been spared that disaster. Stay away from this guy and get some healing help. That’s how you’re going to let the decent guys into your life.

Here’s another one, from Margaret in Toronto:

I loved your book! Here’s my question: A guy and I had an intense attraction for about 6 months. That finally turned into some drinking and hooking up, along with intense conversation. He has pulled away a little bit, but comes back around to chat and to get together, and has wanted to get our kids together. He is a shy guy and has been hard to read. I sometimes feel like he has probably read your book because some things that he has said. I don’t want to grip the sand too tight, how can I bring depth to the situation and help make it into a relationship? I want to give him the green light, but not be needy.

Awright, readers. So you may have noticed that I have a blog here, on which I take the letters that you send me and answer them publicly for the benefit of all womankind, and occasionally some mankind.

So it stands to reason that if you don’t want your question to appear on my blog, you probably shouldn’t be writing me. And if you don’t want to see your name published, use a pseudonym. I always anonymize things to protect the guilty. But a little common sense here, please? Thanks :)

But usually there’s a reason for asking for super-anonymity. So, Margaret: what’s important to you about not using this on my blog? What are you afraid of?

This is important, because it reflects on the other part of your letter, which is also about being afraid: of expressing yourself, of letting your true needs be known, of being honest with your feelings, of BEING SEEN.

The tragic paradox here is that being seen is also the deepest desire of your heart, whether you are conscious of it or not. So you’re denying yourself your deepest desire, then wondering why you’re not fulfilled.

For better or for worse, there is no real connection and no real love unless you’re willing to be seen for your vulnerability. And you don’t get there by being afraid of being needy. Because being afraid of being needy is being needy — you’re already where you don’t want to be.

So instead of focusing on what you DON’T want, here are some things to think about:

What DO you want? What is it that ultimately fulfills and delights you?
What can you bring to his life? What kind of growth and joy can you catalyze in his life?
How much fun can you have together?

Think about the answers to those questions, then take the steps to get to them. You get more of what you focus on, so focus on the potential upside instead of the downside.

This is what I suggest: Express what you want clearly, without apology or neediness, fully prepared to receive either a “yes” or a “no” and being totally cool with either outcome. Then see how he responds. If yes, then game on. If no, then you’re free to move on, instead of being mired in perpetual uncertainty. Either way, you win.

And remember: the reason that I share your questions (anonymized, of course) is because YOUR question is EVERYONE’s question. So when I answer it for you, I’m answering it for thousands of people who also benefit. To deprive them of your question would actually be kinda selfish.

There’s basically only one question: Am I lovable? Am I enough? And the sole arbiter of that answer is you. If you believe you are, and you pull your own weight in the world, then you are enough and you are lovable.


Now if you’ve read this far, I’m going to guess that you are the kind of person who enjoys reading what I have to write. So I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to my personal blog. That’s where I jot down my reflections on various topics: travel, the Burning Man Festival, Rio, the Beijing Olympics, mathematical chances of being alive, living in San Francisco.

It’s a different voice (read: more rambling and profane) and different topics. While some of the posts have gone viral around the world (e.g. What Are Your Chances of Coming Into Being and Why You Should Not Go to Medical School), most of the articles reside in comfortable obscurity.

The reason I’m bringing this blog to your attention today is that last week, I posted a parody graduation speech entitled The Commencement Address That Harvard Would Never Let Me Give. It’s about how elite universities are turning our most talented youth into mindless, conformist automatons who misplace their priorities, forget their ideals and principles, and waste their time, energy and talent on stuff that simply doesn’t matter. It’s an irreverent little rant (definitely not for the faint of heart) that I believe a lot of kids could use hearing before they go to college. It’s also a bit of a personal cri de coeur. Whatever happened to kids who wanted to grow up to be heroes?

So if you feel it’s a good idea to spread it via social media, that would be lovely. And if you know someone (or are someone) at the likes of Slate, Daily Beast, Buzzfeed or Cracked who would want this piece, that would be super-helpful, too. I just feel as if this is a message that a lot of young folks need to hear.

Thanks for your attention

Dr Ali B