Burning bridges with toxic people

Have you ever had a friendship or relationship that you recognised was unhealthy yet felt like you had a bungee rope attaching you to the other person? The more you pulled away, the harder you got sucked back in? Toxic relationships have a way of making you think that you need the other person.


When I say 'need', I don't mean on a conscious level - if it were that easy, we would all be able to walk away from relationships that were unhealthy. The need comes from lots of different drivers that include:

  • Pleasing to meet the need to elevate your sense of self-worth.
  • Feeling inferior and needing to gain approval from others.
  • Not being able to say no, needing to avoid painful emotions that saying 'no' evokes in you.
  • Having a sense of obligation and needing to return the favour/gift which may give you meaning, purpose or status.
  • You feel entrapped and cannot see an alternative therefore stay in the relationship to meet your need of feeling safe, even though it isn't necessarily safe. (Better the devil you know, than the devil you don't).
  • You don't know any better so stay in the relationship to meet the need for familiarity.
  • You fear isolation, disconnect or being alone so stay in the relationship to meet your need for connection and community.
  • The person gives you attention, albeit negative, which meets your need for attention which is probably lacking elsewhere alerting you to its scarcity.

The above form part of what humans need to feel whole:

  • self-worth
  • approval
  • purpose
  • meaning
  • status
  • safety
  • familiarity
  • connection
  • community
  • attention

Other human needs include; control, privacy and fun. Toxic relationships may provide you with these too, another hook to keep you connected with them.

Recognising an unhealthy or toxic relationship is one thing, extracting yourself is an entirely different matter, so how do you burn the bridges once and for all?

Moving on from toxic relationships

The first thing to do is to be aware of what human needs are being met by being in a relationship with the person. It is rarely just one otherwise you would have the self-confidence to seek that need elsewhere.

Once you have your list of needs that are being met in the relationship, choose one that you can seek and have met elsewhere.

For example - if it is a connection and community that you are seeing and have thought that you're better in it with some connection and community rather than out of it, alone and isolated, start creating new connections. Join groups, classes, and organisations where you have a similar interest to the others.

Here's a list of suggestions:

  • Exercise classes such as yoga, boxing, running clubs, hula hoop, swimming, martial arts, CrossFit - the list is quite vast.
  • Groups such as book clubs, Mum's coffee mornings, Dad's meet-ups, singles social events, study or speaking groups, wild swimming, motorcycling, or holidays for singles.
  • Organisations, if you are interested in business, local business organisations and likewise with religion, politics, public speaking, save the planet/plants/animals, local council/education - find what sparks your interest and seek it out.

Once you have begun to meet your needs elsewhere, the bungie rope weakens, and the bi-directional bridge that has been servicing both parties becomes less necessary to you for meeting your needs and thriving in life.

It then becomes easier to extract yourself, human need by human need, learning how to meet your needs in the wider world and autonomously - without the reliance on the person that you were in a toxic relationship with.

You don't have to have found alternative ways of meeting your needs for all of them, there will be a point when the balance tips and you are confident enough to branch out on your own. Often it is just a case of reminding yourself that you can fend for yourself in the big wide world and you don't need to rely on others to meet your needs. After all, you managed to get to adulthood so you've already come this far! When that happens, it is time to burn the bridge - if you haven't done so already.

Eight strategies to burn bridges with toxic people

Here are my eight strategies to burn bridges with toxic people:

  1. Acknowledge where you are, the reality and the consequence of staying put.
  2. Build your own life, away from the person.
  3. Take care of yourself, and say no if it doesn't serve you and your future.
  4. Allow yourself to grieve for any loss you might experience.
  5. Focus on the positives of widening your community and connections.
  6. Take one step, one human need, at a time. Focus on each day as it comes.
  7. Remind yourself of why you need to burn the bridge.
  8. Focus and actively seek out healthy relationships, healthy relationships is where each party wants the best for each other, builds the other up and is their biggest cheerleader.

A word of warning, quite often those people who are toxic in relationships are none too pleased about losing a crutch. For your relationship with them is also meeting their human needs and giving them a sense of wholeness. Expect some kickback. This can reveal itself in several ways:

  • Undermining tactics, you need me, you're useless without me.
  • Love/adornment bombing, telling you how wonderful you are, sending gifts or 'olive branches' to draw you back in.
  • Hoovering, similar to the above, doing all the things they know you like doing to please you and regain favour.
  • Covert criticism, telling your friends, family, and work colleagues how awful you are and what you've done wrong in order to isolate you from them so that you will return to them for friendship.
  • Shaming, reminding you of all that they have done for you and how ungrateful you are.

Don't be fooled by these tactics. Remember that they are also human, they have needs, but you are NOT the person to meet those needs, that is their responsibility to seek them elsewhere that is also healthier for them.

I've seen many examples where two people, when together, are a toxic combination. But, when they have parted and burnt bridges, have learned to create healthy and fulfilling relationships. Sometimes it is just a bad mix and neither person is particularly toxic, they just brought out what I call the 'shadow side' of each other - we all have shadow sides to our natures.

Once you have left the relationship, move on, don't pass judgement, see it as just a bad mix that you have learnt, grown and gained self-knowledge from. This way of thinking will free you from the chains of the past.

Let me know how you get on, I'd love to hear your stories, successful or otherwise.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 3BN
Written by Nikki Emerton
Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 3BN

Having spent the majority of my life not really knowing how to be resilient to life's ups and downs, I discovered NLP, hypnotherapy and coaching. I've found this invaluable in my own life and now use the skills I have learnt and the experiences I have had to help others change their thoughts and behaviours to achieve health and happiness.

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