8 surprising ways a toxic relationship can affect you years later, according to psychology

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We all know that toxic relationships can be damaging in the moment. But did you know they can also have long-term effects that linger for years?

According to psychologists, the aftermath of a toxic relationship can show up in surprising ways, long after the relationship has ended.

From affecting your mental health to shaping your future relationships, the impacts can be far-reaching and unexpected.

Wondering what these effects are? Let’s dive in and explore the 8 surprising ways a toxic relationship can impact you years down the line.

1) Lingering self-doubt

A toxic relationship often thrives on undermining the other person’s confidence and self-worth. The constant criticism or belittling can, unfortunately, echo in your mind even after the relationship has ended.

The result? A lingering sense of self-doubt that can affect your future relationships, career choices, and overall mental well-being.

When love becomes toxic, it seeps into your self-esteem, making it difficult to persist and thrive.

Understanding this potential impact is the first step towards healing and regaining your confidence. But remember, it’s okay to ask for professional help to untangle these complex feelings.

2) Difficulty in setting boundaries

Another surprising way a toxic relationship can affect you is by blurring your understanding of boundaries. This is something I’ve personally experienced in the aftermath of a toxic relationship.

In my case, I had been so used to having my needs and wishes dismissed that I started to believe it was normal. I constantly found myself saying ‘yes’ to things I didn’t want to do and felt guilty for wanting to say ‘no’.

It took me years to realize this pattern and start reasserting my boundaries.

To quote the famous psychologist, Dr. Brene Brown, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

So, if you’ve been in a toxic relationship, remember it’s okay – and crucial – to set boundaries for your own well-being.

3) Fear of vulnerability

Here’s a raw truth: toxic relationships can make you fear vulnerability.

After all, when you’ve exposed your soft underbelly to someone who’s used it against you, it’s only natural to want to armor up. You start to equate vulnerability with pain and betrayal, and that wariness can seep into every relationship you build afterward.

Again, I’d like to refer to Dr. Brene Brown here, who says in her book “Rising Strong“:

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”

But when vulnerability has been exploited in the past, showing up and being seen can feel like the most terrifying thing in the world.

Recognizing this fear is a crucial step in healing — it’s okay to be vulnerable, and it’s okay to take your time trusting again.

4) Struggle with trust

Trust is a cornerstone of any relationship. But when you’ve been in a toxic one, trust isn’t easy to give. It’s something I’ve grappled with, and it’s a common struggle for many in the same boat.

You find yourself questioning the motives of others, even when they’ve given you no reason to doubt them. It’s like you’re wearing mistrust-tinted glasses, and everything is viewed through that lens.

Rebuilding trust, in others and in your own judgment, can be a slow process. But with time and patience, it’s possible to heal and learn to trust again.

5) Overcompensation in following relationships

Here’s something that might seem counterintuitive at first: surviving a toxic relationship can lead to overcompensation in your following relationships.

You become so determined not to repeat the same patterns that you swing the pendulum too far the other way. You might become overly accommodating, lose yourself in pleasing the other person, or suppress your own needs and desires.

As famed psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety.”

Overcompensating is a way of stepping back into safety – of trying to control the uncontrollable out of fear. Recognizing this is the first step towards finding a healthier balance in your relationships.

6) Chronic stress and health issues

You might not realize this, but the stress from a toxic relationship can also manifest physically, leading to chronic stress and health issues.

A research study led by Purdue University professor Rosie Shrout found that “couples who are more negative and hostile in their daily interactions have heightened cardiovascular reactivity, immune response, higher inflammation as well as higher cortisol levels.”

That’s concrete proof that toxic relationships can do some real damage not just on our mental health but also on our physical health.

It’s crucial to recognize these signs as potential indicators of the stress your body is enduring, or has endured, and to take steps toward a healthier environment for both your mind and body.

7) Difficulty in expressing emotions

In my own experience, a toxic relationship can make it challenging to express emotions freely. When your feelings have been belittled, dismissed, or weaponized, you might learn to bottle them up.

You may find it hard to open up even to the people who genuinely care about you. This emotional shutdown is a defense mechanism against the vulnerability that was exploited in the toxic relationship.

Unfortunately, as psychologist Sigmund Freud rightly said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

Holding back your feelings can lead to a buildup of emotional pressure, and without a healthy outlet, this pressure can manifest as anxiety, depression, or even physical illness. It might seem safer to keep your guard up, but in the long run, it’s not sustainable.

Relearning how to express your emotions after leaving a toxic relationship takes time and patience. It often involves re-establishing trust with oneself and others, which isn’t easy.

The journey to emotional openness is gradual, but it’s crucial for healing. Opening up to a therapist or a trusted friend can be a good starting point. It’s about taking small steps towards letting your guard down and finding safe spaces to share your feelings again.

8) Fear of being alone

Lastly, toxic relationships can leave you with a deep-seated fear of being alone.

You may find yourself clinging to relationships, no matter how unsatisfactory they are, simply because the idea of being alone terrifies you more. This fear can make you overlook red flags and tolerate behavior that you shouldn’t.

Here’s some great advice from counselor Michael Swerdloff: “Don’t be afraid of being alone. Be afraid of being in a bad relationship.”

It’s true, isn’t it? Besides, being alone is the perfect time to heal and grow. It’s a chance to reconnect with yourself and rediscover what truly makes you happy without someone else’s influence shadowing over you.

During this period, you can focus on personal development and building a stronger, more resilient version of yourself.

Being alone doesn’t have to mean feeling lonely. It can be a powerful, enriching experience that empowers you to set higher standards for your future relationships.

Remember, it’s better to be alone and work on your own well-being than to be with someone who diminishes it. Embrace the solitude as an opportunity to lay a healthier foundation for the relationships you choose in the future.

Isabella Chase

Isabella Chase, a New York City native, writes about the complexities of modern life and relationships. Her articles draw from her experiences navigating the vibrant and diverse social landscape of the city. Isabella’s insights are about finding harmony in the chaos and building strong, authentic connections in a fast-paced world.

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