Ending a relationship is not easy. It means losing someone you trusted and deeply cared about, a companion, a lover, and a friend, someone you opened up to, with whom you allowed yourself to be vulnerable. But when it comes to ending a relationship that turned toxic, things get a lot worse. You have to dig deep into your wounds to suck out the poison, break free from chains you'd grown used to, and destroy a fantasy that had been pushing you into an abyss. The process is not only about moving on from that relationship, but also healing the wounds it caused and making peace with yourself. However, despite the pain and the bitter self-awareness that comes with this process, the possibility of starting over after recognizing how bad it had all gotten allows you to learn, grow, and become a new and stronger version of yourself.
Literature has depicted this type of love in many ways, but the esthetic and emotional approach of poetry has shown not only the rage and desolation of toxic love, but also the bravery and strength that comes when you finally decide to put an end to it. Unhealthy relationships make you think your life will be even worse without that person by your side, and the process of taking back your life might not be easy. However, as these poems show, the end result is so worth it.
1. “Love, I’m Done with You,” Ross Gay (excerpt)
You ever wake up with your footie PJs warming
your neck like a noose? Ever upchuck
after a home-cooked meal? Or notice
how the blood on the bottoms of your feet
just won’t seem to go away? Love, it used to be
you could retire your toothbrush for like two or three days and still
I’d push my downy face into your neck. Used to be
I hung on your every word. (Sing! you’d say: and I was a bird.
Freedom! you’d say: and I never really knew what that meant,
but liked the way it rang like a rusty bell.) Used to be. But now
I can tell you your breath stinks and you’re full of shit.
You have more lies about yourself than bodies
beneath your bed…
The first step is realizing you’re in a toxic relationship. As this poem by Ross Gay shows, this awareness requires either distance or a key moment that lets you finally decide you’re through with the abuse or the pain that outweighed the few good moments of being with that partner. With that distance you might even think, “what was I thinking?” The mocking tone of this poem reflects that critical moment of reflection, when you ponder the pros and cons of being with that person and realize you’re better off by yourself.
2. “Poem,” Lucy Ives (excerpt)
How do I tell my hands they will never touch that person’s hands?
How do I tell my ears that when that person says my name it is only a word?
How do I tell my lips to make that person’s name another word so I can say it?
How do I tell my neck that person cannot see it?
How do I tell my hair that person cannot pull it?
It is my hair.
It is my head.
One of the main issues with toxic love is that it’s difficult to let go. Whether this is because you're dependent on that person or because you've become so used to the relationship that imagining life without it seems terrifying. Despite the relief you find as you end that relationship, there’s also a mourning process. Sometimes you’ll feel the emptiness left by your partner’s absence, but this is the moment to remember that you don't need to depend on anyone but yourself. It'll be hard at first, but as long as you trust in your will to move on, you’ll be able to overcome the initial pain and emotional chaos of this loss.
3. “Still Start,” Kay Ryan
As if engine
parts could be
at random and
the car would
still start and
hearts can go
This poem by Kay Ryan makes us reflect on that wish to go on with our lives as if nothing had happened. However, an essential part of moving on from toxic love is realizing that you’re not the same you used to be and accepting the pain that comes from that. You might be feeling like a shattered vase or mirror, but it is up to you whether you keep mourning over your past self or you use those broken pieces to create something new and even more beautiful.
4. “Love Letter,” Sylvia Plath (excerpt)
Not easy to state the change you made.
If I'm alive now, then I was dead,
Though, like a stone, unbothered by it,
Staying put according to habit.
You didn't just tow me an inch, no—
Nor leave me to set my small bald eye
Skyward again, without hope, of course,
Of apprehending blueness, or stars.
And I slept on like a bent finger.
The first thing I was was sheer air
And the locked drops rising in dew
Limpid as spirits. Many stones lay
Dense and expressionless round about.
I didn't know what to make of it.
I shone, mice-scaled, and unfolded
To pour myself out like a fluid
Among bird feet and the stems of plants.
I wasn't fooled. I knew you at once.
Tree and stone glittered, without shadows.
My finger-length grew lucent as glass.
I started to bud like a March twig:
An arm and a leg, and arm, a leg.
From stone to cloud, so I ascended.
Now I resemble a sort of god
Floating through the air in my soul-shift
Pure as a pane of ice. It's a gift.
Many of Sylvia Plath’s poems are about feeling broken. However, in “Love Letter,” she explores the moment of rebirth after being hurt or feeling like the living dead. This is about realizing your fate is in your hands, and once you let that past die, you’re prepared to become a better version of yourself. This rebirth is a moment of joy and clarity, of accepting the power you actually have, and seeing all the potential within yourself.
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Photos by Zech Lee