Health

My ‘Fairytale’ Romance Turned Out to Be Toxic. Here’s How I Got Out.

You’ve heard about the Great Resignation, but quitting your job is just one way that throwing in the towel can be a great way to get ahead. This story is part of a Men’s Health series on how real-life quitters became winners—and how you can join them.


In movies, the protagonist of a romantic comedy often realizes their relationship is over after one careless-yet-loaded comment, or some other last straw on a haystack of minor flaws. It all culminates in a gratifying dumping scene, followed by our hero choosing their rightful soulmate or simply off-loading a toxic partner to fulfill their character arc. (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Wayne’s World, Hot Rod, The Wedding Singer: all dumping canon.)

While Hollywood can conveniently dispose of emotional attachment for narrative drama, most of us tend to stew in crisis for a bit before quitting a toxic romantic entanglement. That’s what I did in my longest relationship, which also happened to be my most ill-fitting—only, I didn’t see that in the beginning.

It began with a meet-cute: We both played in bands that were booked on the same show bill in New York City one night. We met in the green room at the venue, hit it off, and talked all night long. His band was on tour from Seattle, but we kept in touch every day until their tour was done a month later, and he immediately booked a flight back to New York to see me. The relationship barely required defining; as soon as I picked him up at the airport the first time, it was on.

He lived in Seattle for the first year of our relationship, but we were so connected that I never really felt that distance. We’d alternate flying between cities every few weeks, and he’d do sweet things like mail me love letters or spontaneously order me a pizza from my favorite place. His friends would gush about the sweet things they’d heard about me.

At the end of that first year, he moved to New York to be with me. I realize now that when you form deep emotional bonds with someone without being able to observe them in their natural environment, you miss out on a lot of crucial info, like how they treat restaurant servers or how they budget money. There are some things you can only learn about a person once you live with them, like their perception of “clean” or how they communicate and respect boundaries. By the time I was able to get that full picture, we’d gone from living across the country to living in a 700-square-foot apartment together, and I was already too deep in when his behavior took some confusing swerves.

You know that one argument you always seem to get into with a partner, no matter how many times you think it’s been resolved? It’s like a black hole for all other minor disagreements; they all funnel back to this one issue. I’d bring up something minor like, “Hey, can you replace the milk?” (after I bought it the last three times), or more intermediate, like, “Do you mind not interrupting me in front of our friends? It doesn’t feel great,” and somehow, both would become prompts for how I could be a more supportive girlfriend. After so many variations on that theme, the discourse would escalate into overblown fights. I’d try to stay level and on-topic, and they wouldn’t end until I was exhausted and in tears, mostly out of frustration. He seemed to know the exact limit of when to relent: generally right before I could bring up the very logical solve of ending the relationship.

“Conflict is inevitable,” says Shamyra Howard, LCSW, a member of the Men’s Health advisory panel. “It should be embraced in a healthy way, but that doesn’t mean you need to remain in a chaotic, unhealthy environment.”

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I’d get so tired of our ongoing disagreements that I’d just internally negotiate what I could live with and what I couldn’t. When I was firm on certain things, he’d pretend to go along with whatever resolution we both agreed to, and then behave passive-aggressively to ultimately get his way. He didn’t feel he should pay for half our household bills because I had more savings, so he fibbed the rent of our shared practice space that he managed, so I’d end up paying more for both. Clutter bothered him in our home, so he gave away my things without asking, claiming, “Oh, but you never use it.” He didn’t think I was giving him enough attention, so he secretly started an online relationship with someone else (also lying to her about having a girlfriend). Each time I uncovered these deceits, I was met with a barrage of guilt—that my actions or inactions had made him do it.

Even more perplexing was that he didn’t want to break up at all. Just mentioning the word “break-up” made him break down. I was afraid if I forced it, he would do something destructive. So, I checked out mentally and emotionally. On the one hand, it meant fewer disputes, but the walls I put up only reinforced the tension.

When a relationship starts to feel like Groundhog’s Day, it’s a sign (many identical signs actually) to re-think the whole thing, but that’s tricky when you live together, play in a band together, have loads of mutual friends, and share bills. My writing career was just beginning to take hold at the time, but I wasn’t financially in a place to double my living expenses after one nasty fight.

“Without the constant undercurrent of anxiety, I had so much more life-force energy, like some curse had been broken.”

You’ll be surprised at how long you can live in relationship limbo when you stop giving a shit—totally not a healthy, feel-good place to be, but I felt fully stuck at the time, waiting for some escape plan to magically present itself. After five years (I know, I know) that really should’ve been two, I finally took ending things into my own hands.

Our arguments had become so formulaic that I could predict their course based on how I chose to react to him. I was always the one to de-escalate and call it when I lost sight of a conclusion. So, one time, curious what would happen if I wasn’t always trying to save things, I decided to do nothing instead. (FYI, if you decide to leave a chaotic relationship, Howard recommends getting assistance from a therapist, and having trusted friends and family on stand-by in case you need someone to talk to or stay with.)

After another blow-out fight, he made a big show of packing a bag and driving away into the night, as he’d bluffed a handful of times before. In the past, I’d call him repeatedly until he picked up, pleading for him to come home. Not this time. The next morning, he came to pack the rest of his things when I wasn’t home. Shitty though that was, I was relieved it happened this way—there would be no grounds for him to guilt me with the break-up. I felt a singular rush of freedom that I can only imagine is as close to Nicole Kidman divorcing Tom Cruise as I’ll get.

Weeks later, I received a frantic text message: “So we’re not getting back together??” Confirming what I thought was obvious definitely reinforced the feeling I was on the right path this time.

When he left, my rent doubled, I lost a band I enjoyed playing in, and I took a job I wasn’t 100% sure about to cover new living costs, but the shift in my energy was palpable. Even my friends commented on how much lighter I seemed. Without the constant undercurrent of anxiety, I had so much more life-force energy, like some curse had been broken and the sleepy village was finally awakened (or something). It felt very “mega boss: defeated, collect 10,000 pts.” Sure, I experienced some post-separation angsty thoughts, but not one of them was regret.

Relationships often get championed as the most sacred incarnation of love worth fighting for, and it’s easy to get caught up in that when you’re in love. “Happily ever after” is a nice thought, but a flawed blueprint. I could’ve saved myself a bunch of grief by removing myself much earlier before things got so toxic, but I was naive enough to believe I needed to get to the bottom of his behavior. What I’ve discovered is that the bottom is highly overrated. You shouldn’t let a partner drag you all the way down there; ideally, they’ll come up to meet you at least halfway.

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