Toxic Exes and Breaking Up: Managing Boundaries and Behaviour

When you find yourself with a toxic ex, it's a tricky situation to navigate. The Sugar Doctor and Kia Handley talk about how to maintain your own boundaries and get the best outcome for yourself.

[Full Transcript Below]


You can listen to the show live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

[Original recording on ABC website here]

Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let's Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

Episode Transcript:

Kia Handley:

Ah, breaking up.

It's never an easy thing to go through. And in the perfect world, things would end on mutual terms, each partner hoping for the best for one another- "No, no, don't worry. We're still friends"… but that's not always the case.

So what happens when you find yourself with a toxic ex?

Well here is Tara Whitewood, Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor.

Good morning. Let's start with that word toxic, because I think it gets thrown around quite a bit in the world of exes. What does a toxic ex mean?

What is a Toxic Ex?

Tara Whitewood:

Gets thrown around a lot, you're right.

So for the purpose of today, what I'm not talking about is abusive, what we're really talking about is, you know, bad behavior as the result of someone being in pain, in a breakup.

So,  if it's the case that you're not sure whether you have a toxic ex,  or abusive, then definitely go and call domestic violence hotline 1-800-RESPECT or speak to your therapist. So you can work that out.

But what we're talking about today is a partner who, for some reason, just can't let the relationship go.

So, you know, they're having some Big Feels, Kia;  anger, resentment, frustration, fear, sadness, depression, desperation, or some flavor of one of those things. And as a result of that, they're acting that out on you. And they're trying to get your attention or, you know, reclaim some of their own power in some way.

Kia Handley:

Do we have to be careful how often we use this term 'toxic ex' and putting the label on it at the right time for the right thing? Yeah, it is all a lot of hurt. There's a lot of big emotions from everybody.

Tara Whitewood:

Different  elements that come into it. And there's so many different words that we kind of throw around. We've talked before about  pathologising people and, you know, all of those things.

I think one of the things to keep in mind when you have an ex in your life who's going through, you know, who, who is a toxic ex or who is creating drama in your life is, that that's someone who's in a lot of pain and they're not being their best self right now.

And you know, unfortunately that's impacting on your life, but a bit of generosity and compassion about what's happening for them can go a long way, I think.

What are the Signs an Ex Might Become Toxic?

Kia Handley:

All right. What are the signs that an ex relationship might become a toxic ex in that space?

Tara Whitewood:

I mean, you'll already know if it is most of the time.

It depends on what the kind of dynamics are, I suppose, between you when you've broken up. So if you don't have anything that you maintain as a long term interest, like, um, property or finances or children or pets, if there's nothing that would keep you together, then generally the way that you'd see that happen is someone creating some drama. So…

Kia Handley:

Constant sort of communication, telling people's stories about you, or…

Tara Whitewood:

They're calling you and carrying on, or,  you know, calling you and crying and so… ongoing contact that isn't welcomed.

And then, you know, in the situation where you do have ongoing interests together, then that really can kind of segue into power plays. So changing plans at the last minute or refusing to make plans, or just generally making things difficult for you when, when they could otherwise not.

So those are the sort of signs that you'd be looking for, that you have a toxic ex who is not handling your breakup very well.

A person from behind with their arms held out horizontal. They are wearing a bright yellow raincoat with a skull & crossbones on the back and the word 'TOXIC'.

Why Do Breakups Become Toxic?

Kia Handley:

You mentioned the Big Feels… is that effectively what it leads to we're in a situation where something that, you know, has been good is not good anymore and has ended?

Tara Whitewood:

Yeah. So in terms of how our relationship ends, I think the key is what we make it mean about ourselves.

You know, we've spoken before about the three fears that we all have, which is, you know, are we loved? Do we belong? And, and am I enough? And as you always say, you are!, yes, yes…

Kia Handley:

You are all of those things,

Tara Whitewood:

But you know, in the wake of a breakup where especially you, you didn't see it coming or you had in your head that it would be a longer term, more committed relationship… we can make it mean a lot of things about ourselves, you know, about our identity and we can lose a lot of self-esteem.

So we're definitely not our best self. And then,  from a physiological perspective and from a neurological perspective, our bodies are actually responding in a really… a really heightened way.

How is Breaking Up Like Drug Withdrawal?

It's, it's equivalent to the chemistry of drug addiction.

Well, so love is love has very similar brain chemistry to drug addiction. It lights up all of the same reward areas in your brain, same sort of chemistry.

So the dopamine, which is the reward neurotransmitter and hormone,  and oxytocin, which is the bonding,  norepinephrine,  which is like makes you giddy and kind of ecstatic. So that's all the love hormones.

And then in the absence of that, when scans have been done during research, the same parts of your brain, lighting up for withdrawal from cocaine or sugar, or, you know, things like that as withdrawal from this, the love of your life is no longer in your life. Oh my goodness. It's quite, it's, you know, it's quite an intense thing that happens in….  because it happens so often. I think we can get a little bit blase about it and say, okay…

Kia Handley:

Get over it…. It's always easy from the outside as well to be like "Oh, well, you weren't happy". So like, yeah, move on. What's the point….

Tara Whitewood:

But there's all this stuff in the body. There are all these things happening for people in their brains and in their bodies that really make it unpleasant. Actually, research has also shown that the pain that people feel during a breakup lights up the same area on an MRI in your brain as does pain from something like, um, being burned or having your arm broken. So it's real.

Kia Handley:

It's a real thing. The pain that we're experienced during experiencing during this breakup.

And so that changes our behaviors,  just like it does when you quit sugar, don't have coffee for a week, roll an ankle. You know, you may, aren't your best self when you're sitting in the ER with an arm broken

Tara Whitewood:

That's right. And then on top of that, we're playing out our relational patterns that we've developed over a lifetime, whether it's… you know, the, the dynamics that you had with your parents or how things were for you at school. And so there's all of this complexity comes in which means that people don't always manage a breakup as well as they could.

A table top with an ashtray & cigarettes, a glass of alcohol and some scattered pills.

How Can I Be Kind and Still Maintain Boundaries?

Kia Handley:

So if I'm playing devil's advocate at the moment, I'm like, yeah, but I'm feeling that too. So why are you being such a pain about it? How do we try to have that understanding a little bit while also trying to build ourselves back up?

Tara Whitewood:

Yeah. Which is a really, really good question, because being compassionate and generous and understanding does not mean that you have to put up with drama or rubbish or toxicity!

So being very clear, you can say, I can see that you're, you know, I can see that you're in pain and I'm so sorry for that…. but that doesn't mean that you necessarily need to change the way that you interact with that toxic ex. It's just, you know, a different position to come from. So take the position of being compassionate and then go on to modify your own boundaries and manage your interactions with them in a way that, that keeps you safe and comfortable as well.

Kia Handley:

All right. Let's talk about what some of those boundaries can be. What's a good way to start a conversation to be like, okay, this isn't working, we're both trying to move on in our own ways. How do we even start dealing with this dynamic of a toxic ex?

Tara Whitewood:

The best and easiest thing to do is to have a clean break, is to not see that person and to stop contact with them. Because if you think of it through the lens of drug addiction, right, effectively, if you're continuing to take phone calls…

Kia Handley:

…Or spend time with a bit of heroin

Tara Whitewood:

A little bit, you're just, you're giving them a little fix….

And then you're kind of maintaining that cycle of, you know, craving dependence, withdrawal, and relapse. So that's not super helpful. So ideally you will just cut contact with people which might mean, um, blocking them on social media. I really recommend doing that, taking them out of your phone, all of those things.

It doesn't mean that you can never be friends with that person again, but sometimes it's nice to have a period of, you know, three, six or 12 months where you just both go and reset and think about what's happened and, you know, get back on track with your own lives before you come back as friends.

Should I Make a Clean Break?

Kia Handley:

I will just say this, as you said a little bit earlier, this is if you don't have kids like, there's a whole heap of complications, which we can, you know, obviously make things a little bit harder, but this is if it's a break with none of that included,

Tara Whitewood:

There's no reason for you to maintain contact or you'd like to maintain contact, you know, later down the track, um, than, than clean break is the easiest and kindest thing to do.

In terms of someone who you share, uh, some kind of connection, or assets or children, or, you know, some reason that you need to go on having contact. Um, this gets tricky because this is where the power plays kick in really hard.

And the, the hostage taking… where you have to continually negotiate with that toxic ex. So the first thing that's really, really important here is to get professional advice, not from a relationship coach, from a lawyer or from a, you know, someone who is in the space where they manage, whether it's, um, the, the child access or whether it's, you know, business…

… find someone who's perfect whose profession is that, and, and follow their advice, because some of the things that you need to do to navigate that have implications for further down the track of how that happens.

So in that instance, it's really tricky. And you know, your question was, how do you, how do you communicate those things?

I would suggest that you probably don't even need to communicate them a lot of the time. You can just create your own rules and boundaries and maintain them because often when you do communicate it, if there's someone who's kind of like at the end of the scale of being toxic and throwing their weight around, um, that might just invite them to find the flexibility and loopholes or to, you know, just push that boundary a little bit more.

So, write your own rules and stick to them, stay super cool and professional when you're interacting with that person, just keep it really brief, keep it really clear. Imagine you're writing an email to your boss, and then go and vent appropriately.

Kia Handley:

Yeah. But there's, there's an asterix on that, right. Because you also don't want to be toxic. You don't want to get drawn into the drama. Yeah.

Can I Still Vent with Friends or Family?

Tara Whitewood:

Yes. Yeah. Sometimes you, sometimes you got to blow off steam. So pick carefully who you do that with!

Again, I recommend doing that with a therapist of some flavor, um, be really careful about bringing your family and friends into that kind of space where you're saying, Oh, my toxic ex did this and they did this and they did this because, um, it, you're almost asking them to take sides.

And then that might have implications socially. And, you know, we've all had that friend who broke up with someone and we, uh, agreed with them about some of the things they were saying. And then they later got back together, which also makes things quite awkward socially.

You want to be careful about who you're venting with.

Um, and I know that's really hard because we, we kind of have this desire for that toxic ex who you've broken up with to understand what they've done to take accountability for that….

And when that doesn't happen, you want to keep explaining it to them. Oh. So that they say, "aha! I see! I get it! Why didn't you say that? I'm so sorry. You're right."

Will Time Heal My Toxic Exes Behaviour?

But often that, I mean… that's just probably not going to happen. So finding your own kind of resolution and closure away from your toxic ex is going to be crucial and then have, have backup plans.

So if you, if you are in a situation with your toxic ex where they do have that power over you, in some sense, whether it's money or kids, housing, you know, all of those things, pets, um, have a backup plan so that if they do try and throw your life into some confusion, um, you have a plan.

So, you know, if your toxic ex is supposed to look after the dog on the weekend, make sure you have a backup plan with a friend so that you can go away on your holiday, for example, um, so that they have a little bit less power over you. And then I think just buckle in for the period of time, it's going to take you to navigate

Kia Handley:

That process through the withdrawals

Tara Whitewood:

Will enter work through the, um, the legal element, which can take years sometimes. So just, you know, set your sights on 18 months time when everything's signed off and then you get to make the clean break, right?

Kia Handley:

Yeah. Yeah. It's, uh, it's never straightforward. And there are always, you know, I'm sure people are listening. There are little elements that are like, "Oh, but that didn't work for me because…"  and it's finding what does work in that space. Right?

Tara Whitewood:

And if I'm really honest with you, the truth is that there is no way to do this. That works. There's no way to avoid, or, you know, fast forward out of that pain or discomfort or inconvenience

Kia Handley:

…messy, messy people are messy…

Tara Whitewood:

We're  messy humans. And I think all we can do is, is our best in any moment with, with generosity and compassion for the people around us.

Kia Handley:

Tara, always great to chat. Thank you so much; Tara Whitewood, Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor talking you there through toxic exes.


For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been lightly edited for flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "toxic ex" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same, for example instead of "...what does toxic mean?" I have said "...what does a toxic ex mean?".

This is a decision which I've made because SEO is one of the key factors in determining whether people do, or do not, read my blogs & articles, visit my website, and work with me.