When I finally broke up with my toxic ex at 20 years-old, who was preceded by yet another toxic ex, it wasn’t the memory of his cheating that kept me up at night, or even the weird, disrespectful sex I’d endured. What really weighed on my mind was the idea that I’d squandered precious amounts of time on him, feeling sad all the time. “You wasted a whole two years of your life with him,” would poison every other thought I had. It would catch me while shopping in the supermarket, mid book-read on the tube, and out on the very dog walks I’d started doing to distract myself. The real catch-22? I spent another six months whining about it, instead of figuring out how to process my feelings and move on.
Moving on from a break-up is similar to bereavement. And everyone processes grief differently, don’t they? Humans are hardwired to respond to loss individually. Some crumble, others become stoic, or grieve intensely in one short burst, then let go and move on. Personally, I spent the best part of a year grieving the two years I already felt like I’d lost to relationship trauma. The irony isn’t lost on me now.
But that’s surprisingly common. After all, we’re surrounded by messages – on social media, on train platforms, through word of mouth – about living life to the fullest. “Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed,” one post will say. Another saccharine infographic might read in bold: “Live life like there’s no tomorrow” or “time is precious, so use yours wisely.” While well-intentioned, these messages hit like a punch straight to the throat when you’ve just left a relationship that’s left you in a mental health wobble. That’s why so many people fall into a pit of despair when trying to process the trauma of a past relationship.
84 per cent of women and 75 per cent of men have been in a toxic relationship at some point. And only around 60 per cent leave after early warning signs. The other 40 per cent who do eventually escape their bad relationships have to then navigate single life with buckets of trauma to unravel. And when you’re still reeling over yesterday, the reminder that there’s no tomorrow is not exactly welcome.
One of those people is 26-year-old designer Hattie, whose boyfriend of seven years cheated on her for six of them. “We split up three years ago after he randomly confessed and left me the same day. I shit you not, I’ve spent the entire three years pissed off. I didn’t know how I was supposed to get over it,” she tells THE FACE.
“I’ve been obsessed with trying to work out the point where the relationship went wrong and why he started cheating, and the signs I must have missed of his cheating and gaslighting,” she continues. Hattie’s now seeing a therapist, who’s guiding her to closure. “She’s helping me get out of the repetitive cycle of looking for old signs. I know it’s not helpful to me. It won’t turn back time and stop me from getting hurt.”
Hattie’s response to her ex’s betrayal isn’t unusual. As Dee Johnson, a therapist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, explains, people find it difficult to move on from relationship trauma because it’s often at odds with why you fell for the person in the first place. “Once upon a time, that relationship was probably wonderful,” she says. “So it is hard, leaving you almost incredulous that a person you loved and invested your life in has resulted in pain, loss, humiliation – and even trauma.”
People like Hattie are hanging on emotionally, as they try to find out when and where they missed red flags. This is a process called “rumination”, where you re-assess the warning signs over and over again, making it difficult to let go.
“There’s also a natural struggle to be able to accept that such harm can come from a place where you expect love. And fear of never finding a relationship again, fear of being unlovable and alone, and fear of change,” Johnson adds.
This is what 23-year-old Phoebe*, a copywriter from Manchester, is going through. “I just left my toxic ex a month ago, after my friends staged an intervention pointing out his behaviour and asking me to leave, which I really appreciate them doing now,” she says. “I’m surprised by how little I miss him now I can see the toxicity in the relationship. But I’m just so perplexed that I could have been so hurt by someone I loved for three years, and who was supposed to love me.”
Feelings like this have ramifications beyond impacting your mood. Both single-incident trauma and complex trauma (when the trauma has multiple causes) can impact relationships with co-workers, friends, spouses and family members, as well as the relationship with the self. It can also impact future romantic and sexual relationships, leaving many of us unable to “move on”. In severe cases, those leaving traumatic relationships may even develop full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
This has been called “Relationship PTSD” by many, including FKA twigs, who revealed on Louis Theroux’s BBC Radio 4 Grounded podcast that she developed all the symptoms of PTSD – restlessness, insomnia, paranoia and flashbacks – after splitting up with actor Shia LaBeouf, who she alleges abused her. Speaking to Michaela Coel for her THE FACE cover story, she described the effects of domestic abuse as “[Like] I’m holding someone else’s dysfunction. It’s heavy and I don’t know where everything is, and it comes up at weird times. It’s chaos.”
Thankfully, no one actually has to live with the effects of relationship trauma forever, even if your grieving period might feel like it’s taking your entire life to process. As Johnson says, “processing grief and trauma takes time, nurture, talking and care. The physical release from a bad situation is one thing, the emotional healing that will eventually give you that release from them always takes a bit more time, so go easy on yourself.”
But it’s important to start the recovery process as soon as possible, at least in some way. As Johnson tells us, “being stuck with resentful thoughts and anger can lead to not allowing yourself new connections, leading to depression and self-neglect.”
She recommends approaching recovery from relationship trauma slowly, starting with finding moments of joy in your day-to-day life. “Practice gratitude for small things on a daily basis. Things like having a laugh with a friend can be the basis of small mood boosters that help you move along every day. Make daily lists of what went well today, how you felt and what self-care actions you took,” she says. These actions can be as simple as meeting up with a mate, going for a walk or joining a class. Basically, “whatever you used to do and enjoy before this past relationship tainted your desire to do things that used to make you happy and fulfilled.”
That being said, try not to fixate on who you were before the relationship. Sometimes that contributes to the idea that you’ve lost yourself due to the relationship, especially if you’re struggling to remember what you liked before (a common trauma symptom). Now might be the time for you to try something new. Buy some clothes you wouldn’t normally. Take a pole dancing class. Or take up dog walking, like I did.
It’s best to keep in mind that recovery journeys – whether you’re waving goodbye to a shit relationship or another kind of trauma – are not linear. And as long as you’re safe, it doesn’t matter how you move on. Anything goes: the classic getting under someone to get over someone, talking to an actual therapist (we do recommend that one), a Fleabag-esque retreat to a silent spa, or even making a boyfriend bonfire (for his stuff, not him). Just do whatever you’ve got to do.
*Names have been changed