Toxic Relationship Aftermath: A Wrap Up

The past few posts have addressed some of the feelings, reactions, and concerns experienced by survivors of toxic relationships (see:  Toxic Relationship Aftermath: Doubt, Mistrust, and Paranoia? and Aftermath of a Toxic Relationship – Part 2).  And because there have been so many helpful anecdotes shared by the readers, I thought it best to summarize all that’s been discussed before moving on to the next series of articles on personality and personality disorders.

People get into relationships with disturbed characters for a variety of reasons.  They might be somewhat naive about human nature, having an essentially Pollyanna-like vision of others, and never fully appreciating the extent to which some folks’ character can be so flawed that a relationship with them is destined to be toxic.  They might also have been over-exposed to and blindly accepted some of our older, traditional psychological perspectives that tend to view everyone as basically good and decent “underneath,” and, therefore, judged the hurtful behaviors of their relationship partner as merely the unfortunate manifestation of that person’s emotional wounding and trauma.  So, even if they noticed some red-flags for trouble early on, they might have entertained the notion that with enough patience, love, and understanding, the partner’s wounds  would necessarily be healed and all would be well.  Love, after all, conquers all – does it not?  But many relational abuse survivors have simply been the unwitting victims of a masterful con artist who said all the right things and did all the right things on the front end of the relationship to secure the object of his/her desire, only to reveal their true self once their conquest was complete and they found little reason to perpetuate their fraud any longer.

Once folks get into a relationship with a disturbed character, it’s often not so easy to get out, even when things get really bad at times.  For one thing, disturbed characters are often not only determined to win or dominate but also have the skills to manipulate others and keep them in one-down positions and under their control.  And perhaps even more insidiously, as I mention in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, the aggrieved party in dysfunctional relationships often invests considerable time and energy (and sometimes considerable financial and other personal resources) trying to make things work.  Infrequent but nonetheless significant and periodic “rewards” for making such an investment make it even more likely the abused party will stay involved (I discuss this phenomenon or “slot machine syndrome” in both of my books).  So even when the situation has become too toxic and painful to bear anymore, breaking free means walking away from a substantial personal investment, and reckoning with such a loss is not an easy thing to do.   And reckoning with the need to get out also invites understandable (albeit unwarranted) feelings of guilt and shame for having allowed oneself to be duped in the first place.

Most folks I’ve counseled who’d finally reached the point that they simply had to extricate themselves from a toxic relationship appeared as though they’d been run over by a train.  And in those cases where the disturbed character vowed all sorts of nastiness if divorce was pursued as the ultimate solution, the victim had virtually no energy left to weather the brutal battle they knew lay ahead.  They were deeply depressed and desperate for support.  And it was not particularly sweet music to their ears to hear me advise that they do their best to “let go” of the inordinate attention they’d focused on their abuser.  After all, they had finally come to identify the true source of their pain and wanted to hold their tormentor accountable.  So, the notion of emotionally letting go of the other person and taking stock in themselves was not initially appealing at all.  But in time, and with sufficient support and encouragement, they saw more clearly that they were their own key to a more rich, empowered life.

The readers have done a great job in providing helpful information both in the other resources they’ve suggested and in the stories they’ve shared.  I thought I might cite a few of the comments (edited for brevity, relevance, and clarity) for the benefit of readers who haven’t read every post or comment:

They’ re clever, calculated and smooth. Hard to rattle. At the end of one of these nightmares even the person who went in to the situation relatively healthy and intact comes out drained, shaken, weakened, confused and too exhausted to fight for their honor.  It’s hard to remember all the twists ant turns, let alone describe them in context. SO MUCH gets lost in translation. My sociopathic ex was just skipping right along and never missed a beat. Meanwhile I was feeling like I got hit head-on by a Mac truck. My life was turned upside down because so much of my time was eaten up with him. 

If only we trusted those early “pings” of unease and warning that our intuition sends! This is what I am focusing on now.  An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure!

[Disturbed characters] know how to care about people’s well-being but they just care more about their own well-being than that of others. It’s really about the misuse of power, not about immaturity or lack of skills. They [experience payoffs] bullying other people and these rewards are so [valued by them that they rarely find the motivation] to really change.

Next week we’ll begin a four-part series on personality and character.  Given the many misconceptions that exist on this issue, there’s a lot to discuss.  My years of experience have taught me how crucial it is that folks have a solid, basic understanding of what really makes people the way they are and do the things they do.  The series on personality and character should not only provide you with new insights about the nature of character disturbance and what we need to do as a society to help decrease its prevalence, but also help you understand yourself and the proclivities you possess that are likely to impact your relationship and happiness.

40 thoughts on “Toxic Relationship Aftermath: A Wrap Up

  1. Dr. Simon, I’ve said it many times but I’ll say it again…..thank you for your tireless work and passion to help people who have been affected by these relationships and how to avoid them in the future. You are a man of honor and I wish there were more like you. For me, I think it’s as important to know that there ARE men like you in this world as it is to know how to avoid and deal with the ones who aren’t.

    1. Thank you for such kind and touching words. There indeed are men and women of character out there, and the time is coming when it will mean a lot more to our societies to do all we can to see that there are more of them.

      1. You are welcome Dr Simon. I could go on and on!! I’m simply amazed at your dedication to the cause. Amazed and grateful as I’m sure are many.

  2. This is narcissistic personality disorder at its finest. The 12 step program helps one to “let go” . I recommend the Alanon Program, whether your partner is an alcoholic or not. The steps, slogans and community support are essential to repairing and maintaining a healthy life.

  3. I wanted to share this story. I think I might have shared it in anothr blog. This is a true story. It fits to what Dr Simon is saying. It is not done yet I have only just started writing stories.
    The Puerto Rican Man.
    I once met a Puerto Rican man. He flirted and charmed until I paid attention. He was not unattractive, he had a nice shape and he carried himself well.
    I spent some time getting to know this man. He was kind and charming considerate and easy going, he seemed to share my values. He was smart and seemed ambitious. He was proud of his heritage of his culture. He talked about his history and his search for family and cooked for us ethnic dishes. Wow I thought.
    He asked me to marry him. I said yes.
    He wanted children I said yes.
    I am very pregnant, I am having a boy…….I think…..I have only picked out boy names. I am happy.
    I am visiting with his brother , he is not home but his brother has come to visit He has told me that his brother is very private. That he does not like to speak about their family. Yet that is where the conversation begins to lead. . As we sit and chat I am glad that his brother feels so comfortable with me. …..I say something about their Puerto rican roots. What my brother in law says to me next shocks me…….Puerto Rican! Where on earth did you get that….. I tell him. His face does some weird type of contortions I can’t tell if he is going to laugh or scream. I think he wants to do both.
    Your husband is not Puerto Rican he tells me. He is Mexican.
    Does he know that?
    His brother is looking at me bug eyed, he is probably mimicking the look on my face. Of course he knows that! He almost yells.
    Whoa big time whoa. What do I do with this? Wow I thought. How will this play out. I am confused. Why would someone lie about who they are. Why would someone make up a nationality why would why would why would?
    What is that sound in my head. It sounds like music I can not make it out although I am listening. As time goes by I hear it clearer and clearer. Soon I begin to hear the words that go with it ……………..

    There is a dimension beyond that which is known to man. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just entered… the Twilight Zone. doodoodoodoo

    • It is Mother’s day twenty years later……..I separated myself from the Puerto Rican man three years ago. We have two children.
    • I send him an email. My sons are taking are taking their momma to lunch, I let him know. Please bring our daughter I ask him.
    • He responds shortly to my email. He begins with a cheery greeting. “Good morning and a Happy Mother’s Day to you” it reads. How very thoughtful of him I think to myself…….I read on……..
    • He continues………. “Our daughter has shared with me that her plans today are to take ME to lunch for Mother’s Day.

    • I email back……….
    Well then, I guess the only thing for me, is to whish you, a Happy Mothers Day.
    Please let our little missy know how much I love her.

    1. E……I love the end of your post! Well handled! I want to say…..his ” Good morning and a happy Mother’s Day to you” greeting………..VERY Spathy!! FYI, Spath means a disturbed character, Socio/ psychopath, cluster B, narcissist, etc. It’s an umbrella term used in some survivor circles.

    2. Also, I am learning……the word why is something you may as well delete from your Spath vocab. Firstly, if you ask them why anything you will not get a truthfully answer or at best will get an answer but it won’t make sense. Secondly, there is no answer relative to the reality the rest of the world lives in.

  4. My mother has a manipulative personality and tries to lay on Mother’s guilt. I can instantly spot it when she starts with her manipulative statements. My question is how can I respond to her when she says, “I know you don’t want me to visit you.” I’ve told her that’s not true but she tells me I’m just saying that. How can I respond when she says statements like that?

    1. Yes….it’s time to set a boundary. “My invitations are sincere and if you continue to respond to them in that way I will stop making them.”
      If you do X, I will do Y. Rinse and repeat.
      Vera, was it you who posted that? I love it!

      1. 🙂

        And don’t forget the most important part: actually do it; carry through. Never make empty threats… you’ll just lose credibility.

        And good morning to you too, Puddle!

        1. Oh…..right! The follow through…..screeeeeeching halt! LOL. I’ve always talked a tough game but when push comes to shove….I’m kind of a push over!
          Hi there Vera!!

          1. Heh. It’s hard, period. That’s why I am reorienting mostly on doing it in the now. Instead of saying what I’ll do if he does x again, I come prepared and do the intended consequence as soon as he does x next time. No need to alert him ahead of time, anyways… Whatcha think?

          2. Let me echo Vera, here, inasmuch as I’ve been reading some folks’ suggestions about announcing “if you do x, I will do y.” There’s no need to announce or red-flag. The bigger need is to ACT. Not only is that where you have power, but because awareness is not the issue with disturbed characters, there’s no need to broadcast either your intentions or rationale for taking action. Disturbed characters need to experience consequences. Their behavior patterns persist largely because they’ve always gotten reinforced or at least not appropriately consequented. So, only necessary to say and affirm to yourself, “if he (she) does X, I will definitely do Y to take care of and empower myself.”

          3. Dr Simon…Vera…. I like the sound of this but I don’t get it in real life situations. Dr. Simon, can you give us an example? Because if you just DO something in response to someones abusive behavior, they inevitably will ask for an explanation and there you are tangled up again. It’s kind of different in a theraputic environment because you have more control. But in a home environment, they are underfoot and you are sharing the same space.
            Plus, I tend to be easily talked down from my position because I have my issues and can’t keep who’s stuff is who”s….So frustrating!!!

          4. This is my favorite question to answer at workshops. And in my upcoming tour, I’ll have some video vignettes to illustrate. I’ll also be posting two or three articles dealing with empowerment measures that will address this. The articles will immediately follow the series on personality/character.

            But let me provoke some thought this way: You can put a lab mouse in a completely unfamiliar maze with only one route to get to a piece of cheese. The mouse will do basically two things, sniff for the aroma of the cheese and plow full speed ahead in any direction. What happens is that it hits walls – many walls. These are the “consequences” of its behavior. No one alerts the mouse that a wall is coming. The mouse just does its thing and occasionally hits walls. It also finds unobstructed pathways. This is a consequence, too, and a consequence no one alerts the mouse to either. Eventually, after PAYING ATTENTION TO THE CONSEQUENTIAL FEEDBACK IT GETS FROM ITS ENVIRONMENT, the mouse, after altering its behavior according to the consequences it experiences, changes course sufficiently to find the cheese. What’s more, it only takes a few “trials” before the mouse goes straight to the cheese quite quickly when put in the same maze (situation). Why? Because it remembers the “rules” of how to get where it wants to go and modifies its behavior accordingly.

            People have infinitely more powerful brains than mice. And they’re quite capable of figuring out the “rules” about how they should conduct themselves if they want certain things. The have only one disadvantage, compared to the mouse. The mouse doesn’t have to deal with stubborn pride. It just accepts the rules and conforms its conduct. People are different. Especially CD people. And of course, prideful people will demand “explanations” (justifications) when we respond to their antics, just like they attempt to justify their own preferred actions and blame us. But they’re infinitely more capable than mice to simply “read the signs” based on our responses to them. Re-flagging, announcing in advance, or justifying our responses is totally unnecessary. Besides, it takes the burden off of the disturbed character to really PAY ATTENTION and get the message about what shaping up they need to do with regard to their behavior if they’re to get what they want from us.

            I’ll give some “real life” examples in the upcoming empowerment series. And you might want to re-read sections of In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance where I describe the intervention technique of “selective speaking,” one of the most powerful tools in my therapeutic arsenal, for a good example of instantaneous behavioral feedback that is not announced or red-flagged in any way.

  5. Thank you for your work.

    I hope the world of trained therapists start to catch on to what you write about here. I saw a therapist as one of my CA parents was intruding on my life as I was recovering from a breakup and attempting to date again.

    The therapist, at first, was good in that he taught me about individuation and enmeshment. However, he took a wrong turn when my CA parent (who did not know I was seeing my own therapist) proposed going to therapy right when I was a little bit vulnerable and my parent had found out about it.

    My personal therapist said “you better go to therapy” with your (CA) mother. It was as if my CA parent had manipulated my personal therapist without ever even meeting him.

    It was so knee-jerk of this therapist to say this, it was very strange. My first instinct when my CA parent suggests things like this was to ask :what is her motive?

    But I was so worn down at that point that I walked straight into chaos after almost getting away.

    I’m trying to stop being so bitter about it all.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Claire. As you find more resources and continue to empower yourself, your bitterness will hopefully take a back sit to greater joy.

      1. I don’t think it will be that easy.

        It is years later and I’m still picking up the pieces. It is too late for me to have children now, most likely.

  6. Inspirational and motivating. Today is the beginning of resolution and change. Have been reading these comments for hours now and am in shock. Maybe there is hope for me yet. “Eci eerf and rotalupinam eerf”

  7. Hi Puddle!
    I’ve found that one of the best ways to do the X, Y thing is this: Know as many scenarios in advance as possible. You know this person so you can predict many of the games already. Know in advance that if X happens, you’ll do Y. For example, the aggressor makes a disparaging comment. Your rehearsed Y will be to: stay calm, say, “totally unacceptable thing to say to me. I’m going to get some fresh air for a few hours.” Then leave- fast- do not hang around for the tactics that follow. Alternatively, don’t even say anything! Just leave. Then, he/she will try everything to get you to believe it wasn’t said with the intention it was. “What did I say?” (feigning ignorance) “You know I didn’t mean it that way!” (lying, feigning innocence) “Why are you so sensitive — you must be crazy to think I’d mean it that way.” (villianizing the victim, lying, etc etc) and finally, after all else fails, “I’m sorry!” (giving assent, LYING). Don’t say another word- just smile and walk out the door. Then, when you return, act like nothing happened. Spend those few hours out of the house taking good care of yourself. Come home refreshed and at peace. If it comes up, say something like, “We’re not going to talk about that incident, it’s in the past.” Or, “you know, I just went for an awesome hike and I’m feeling great. We’re not going to discuss your behavior. Let’s talk about the weather…” You are very strong, very courageous and YOU are in charge. You have to be- because you’re the responsible “parent” in the situation and the incorrigible child just got a time out he/she deserved. Negative consequences for bad behavior; positive reinforcement for good behavior. It is exhausting and emotional (don’t let on that it’s either of these). Now I may have mislabeled the tactics, and I may be able to improve on my method, but this is working for me. I’ve been doing this consistently with a relative for many months now and the change in our relationship dynamics is unbelievable. And in a very odd way, this person clearly feels safe with me, like a child. She knows what to expect at all times. She knows I’m in charge, not her. We tried that, I allowed that, and it was a fiasco. Puddle, good luck! It’s hard but you can do it! Sorry for the long reply. Keep us posted…

    1. Good stuff! I would only add that you owe no explanation, Puddle. If you want to say anything, just say, “it seemed like a good idea at the time” (meaning, to do “y”).

      If you get pulled into an argument or justification, you’ve taken the bait, and are just being reeled in! Duck. But actually, they don’t necessarily ask… because that would shine light on their behavior.

      If I got attacked with blaming, said “I don’t play that game” and went for a walk, like Linda says, the strategy was not to ask me, but to wait until “I forgot” and do the blaming again. 🙂

      Linda, have you been able to deal with chronic lies? That is my big issue right now with my CA relative.

      1. Vera….yes, lies…..Never knew how to deal with that. He actually told lies,,,,,just obvious that you KNEW they were a lie but subtle so you really couldn’t prove he was lying. Or…..just neglect to tell the truth.
        Just an example………If someone was after you for sex and money…… say something to the effect ” I’m afraid the all you want is my money” They respond…..I am not just after your money!! Stop saying that!” well, its the truth because he ISNT just after your money, he’s after sex too! And maybe babysitter companionship and a place to hang out too!!

      2. Hi Vera, as far as lying goes- again, it probably has to do with who you’re specifically dealing with. But I think something that has been helpful for me to realize is that so MUCH of it is lying. With this particular person, I challenge the stories/statements with the truth. I’ve found that Dr. Simon’s assertion that the truth is incredibly powerful to be correct. What follows my statement of the truth is a lot of tactics. More lies to cover the original. Playing dumb, feigning ignorance. it’s weirdly high-pitched and frantic at this point. And then, I just calmly repeat the truth. And I don’t back down. And when I’m tired of the absurd conversation, I end it. Actually, she usually ends it. (Angry voice) “Fine. Can we talk about something else?” Then it’s one-word answers, freezing cold chill while she fumes inside about how she got called out. Then I might get “punished” in some way but again, this person is not dangerous. The punishments are completely tolerable (most common- silent treatment for about 2 weeks).
        Something important- This person, I love her! it’s a lot of work to have a relationship with her, but I do love her. There are things about her that are wonderful. When she’s not engaging in tactics she is a joy to be around. And I see less of the tactics now that she knows she can’t get away with them.
        Vera- what do you do about the chronic lying? I would love to hear what you and others have to say about what works for them.

        1. Linda, yes, that makes total sense. I did something similar last year, and after he did the usual tricks, the “confusion”, more lies, urging me to check again, etc. I ended the conversation. But then the lies began with something else… then I cut that off quickly, created more distance, and now he’s getting back by lying to others about me.

          I am trying to hang on to a semblance of a relationship, but I dread being with him again. The stress of it all, the endless tricks, so many I can hardly keep up even with this newfound knowledge. Awful. It’s good that your CA is good to be around the rest of the time… mine isn’t, alas.

          I told him I would not help him again until he apologized for the lies because it was in the context of my help that the lies were occurring. Sabotage mode. That will never happen, though. It’s been affecting my sanity once more. 🙁

    2. Linda, Here’s the deal……It was MY house!!! And it doesn’t seem right to leave my home because he is acting like a Spath! Or, if he did something out and about. what do you do if you are together with him with no way to get away?
      I think this is all a mute point now,,,,,we are seemingly D O N E. He has crossed a line in my sand which is to perpetuate slanderous falsehoods with his family and “friends”. And he is ridding the issue to the bottom….not letting it go, so there you have it. And he is a practicing alcoholic. Not seeking any treatment what so ever.
      Thanks so much for your suggestions. Sounds good!

      1. “what do you do if you are together with him with no way to get away”

        Find a way to respond he will dislike or find discouraging. Experiment. If the first one does not work, try another one.

        Here is an example: A dad drives kids after school every day. They screech and misbehave. Nothing he says makes a difference. So he switches to x & y: The next day the kids are doing their thing again. He pulls over a mile or two from the house, and tells them to get out and walk home. Takes off. (Meanwhile, a friend follows them surreptitiously to make sure they stay safe, as needed, by prior arrangement.)

        It takes some creativity sometimes, and a few tries, to arrive at the right consequence.

      2. Hi Puddle, My X’s and Y’s and others’ are probably going to be a bit different than yours. I was giving an example…Our situations are all unique and the folks we are dealing with are all complex, different individuals. The person I referred to above is not dangerous! It may not be smart/safe for you to implement others’ x’s and y’s with the person in your life, I don’t know. But it does sound like you are figuring things out! I have high hopes that your situation improves soon:)

        1. Hi Linda…….This is SO frustrating so much I wish i could just sit down and talk to you and Dr. S and Vera, etc…..start telling stories and get feed back.
          The thing that eats me up is that I am SO afraid that Im making a mistake and that maybe with the right skills, things could have worked out.
          I truly loved him but now I don’t even know if I knew who he was! I mean, he is perpetuating a lie about me! Saying I said I would have him killed!! A) it’s not what I said B) it’s out of context C) the context was a joke D) He told me two years ago he understood it was a joke. I told him I didn’t want to hear it anymore and if he was SO terrified of me then we shouldn’t be together! He DID drop it at that time! But now is using it as an excuse for him self! It’s sick! I have said plenty of things about him that were negative,,,,,,plenty. I have said that I felt deceived and emotionally raped. well, i do. his actions do NOT line up with his words….. Sorry….
          BUT, If I have misjudged him and his actions……due to his lack of viable explanations…..See, my head just spins and spins and spins with all of it.
          I need to just look at what I know to be true FOR A FACT!! He is an alcoholic drinker bar partyer. I don’t want that and can’t be around it if I’m going to maintain my own sobriety. By the way…..there is ANOTHER lie/ manipulation…..I said to him that I don’t want to be in a position with someone, invested in a relationship with him and something goes wrong and I’m left holding the emotional bag while he sticks his head in a bottle. Of course he assured me that he was all done drinking…..NOT!!!!!!!

          Anyhow….Im having an incredibly hard time letting go. I just want to feel……like Ive had my day in court and said what I need to say. I don’t want revenge but i do want to be heard. I sent him what I hope to be a final email today and didn’t hold back on my side of things answering a couple of his previous erroneous comments. I have his email blocked and for all i know he has mine blocked as well.
          He maintains it was both of our faults and I say BS. When you are in a “relationsh-t” with an emotionally abusive alcoholic, mamas boy spath……Im thinking the other party is fighting a loosing battle from the get go.
          Sorry guys for the spew!! Im just NOT in a good place with all of this.

      1. I for one would start with how they twist your words back on you and put you in explanation/ defense mode.

  8. can you tell me where it is in the book (s) or is it just all through?
    I wish so badly someone could sit Spathx in a room with you!!!!!!!!

    1. where in the book…..

      “I describe the intervention technique of “selective speaking,” one of the most powerful tools in my therapeutic arsenal, for a good example of instantaneous behavioral feedback that is not announced or red-flagged in any way.”

          1. I had just reread it so it jumped out at me! Did not catch it on the first read last year. 🙂

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