Diving Back Into Dating After a Toxic Relationship

None of us are dating with a “clean slate,” so to speak — we all bring “baggage” into our relationships, whether that’s internalized narratives from our family, messages about romance we learned from movies or books, or tough lessons from previous relationships. If you’ve had relationships that held more than the usual ups and downs and included some toxic or harmful elements, you may have a tougher time than most approaching dating again — it can feel incredibly intimidating to try to make space for a relationship again when your last one brought you so much hurt and made you so uncertain of how to approach healthy connection. That said, it’s possible to find and thrive in a healthy relationship after a toxic one — here’s how.

Remember that you can trust yourself and you deserve stability and pleasure

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People exiting toxic or harmful relationships often worry about whether they’ll ever be able to trust a new partner — especially if they’ve previously been cheated on. But these same people can find themselves struggling more than they expected with trusting themselves. After all, they may feel, they also felt that past partner(s) were going to be a good match for them — can they really rely on their own judgment?

While it’s good to be judicious and thoughtful about big decisions like romantic partners, it’s important not to let this erode your core sense of trust in yourself. We all get hurt in relationships, every last one of us — no one on earth has never experienced pain, betrayal or being let down in a romantic context. It’s a universal experience, meaning you aren’t uniquely broken or failing. And in any circumstance, romantic or not, it’s crucial to remember that the responsibility for harm lies with the person who chose to cause it, not the victim. You are not to blame for the way you were treated, and your decisions about romantic partners aren’t fundamentally misguided.

Get serious about your red and green flags

Green and Red Flags

That said, it can be helpful to give yourself some guideposts you know you want to follow when dating — not because you’re incapable of making good decisions, but because new relationship energy is very powerful and it’s useful to ground yourself. Think of it as leaving water and ibuprofen out for yourself on the nightstand before you go out for a night of partying — you know that it will be more challenging to make the best choices for yourself later because of all the chemicals in your brain, so you choose to set yourself up for success now.

Thinking carefully about what green flags represent qualities you know you want in a partner — and what actions are red flags that you know are associated with toxic qualities you don’t want — can help make your decisions around dating easier, and help you feel more confident about them. We can struggle to trust our feelings, and it’s understandable why. The way we feel about someone in the heat of the moment can lead us to draw conclusions we don’t agree with later — but deciding what concrete actions and behaviors you value (and don’t) provides infrastructure to make choices that make your life meaningfully better.

Let your dates earn your trust over time

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We know that new relationship energy — also called the honeymoon phase, or just the feeling of having an intense crush or infatuation — can cloud our head and our judgment. That’s why some toxic dates use techniques like lovebombing. Overwhelming someone with adoration and affection early on is one way to try to create the experience of “new relationship energy” and rush into a relationship, so that by the time you realize your needs may not actually be met in this connection, you already feel “locked in.”

This doesn’t mean you need to run screaming from everyone who pays you a compliment or invites you to meet their friend group, but it does mean it’s helpful to have your own guidelines in place to avoid moving too fast — even or especially when you really like someone. Developing your own milestones for relationship pace — when to sleep over, when to become exclusive, when to move in — and staying consistent with them even when you’re over the moon about someone helps mitigate the possibility of a toxic relationship developing despite your best intentions.

Communicate transparently with future partners

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If a past history of toxic relationships is a meaningful influence on how you approach current ones — if it’s made you fearful of abandonment, jumpy about conflict, given you trust issues around lying or cheating — it’s crucial that you communicate this upfront to anyone you want to seriously date. 

This shouldn’t be done as a warning or as a confession. Having been in previous toxic relationships doesn’t mean there is something broken about you that you need to disclose to partners or hope that 

they’ll accept about you; on the other hand, it also shouldn’t be the basis for a set of rules they have to follow or otherwise be as bad as your ex(es). The goal isn’t to beg their understanding or control their behavior, but to give your partner the context they need to be successfully in a relationship with you. If a previous partner had a drinking problem and was prone to going out for the night and then being MIA until midday the following day, knowing that context can help your partner understand why it’s helpful for them to text you when they get home from a night out with friends to say goodnight.

Consider the support of therapy or counseling

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Healing from toxic relationships and gaining the confidence to date again afterwards involve practices of developing one’s perspective and also learning to trust the perspective you already have. Therapy or counseling can help support you with both of these endeavors. A trusted counselor can provide you with an objective take on your dating life, and help spot trends or behaviors that may be worrying before you can. But they can also, crucially, help you rebuild trust in yourself and in others after having experienced real harm at the hands of a previous romantic partner.

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