Hey Man: How Do I Start Dating After a Toxic Relationship?

It’s completely natural to be on edge when you start seeing people again, but you don't want to get jaded about love.
Hey Man columnist Rhys Thomas at a desk
‘Hey Man’ is a personal advice column about guys, by guys. Need help? Email

Hey man, I had a really toxic relationship and I’ve been finding it hard to navigate dating since every situationship really gets to me. How can I change this? 

Hey man,  

Let’s get right into this one. Being part of a relationship that has bad vibes –whether it’s one that’s just a bit explosive to one that’s toxic or outright abusive – isn’t nice. It’s damaging, it’s stressful, and we shouldn’t wish this on our enemies. But they aren’t uncommon experiences. Fortunately, many people get through them and things end up fine. This period will likely pass, but we can do things that both stabilise the rocky waters quicker, and help ourselves to be better at sailing through them. 


Firstly though, the word “toxic” – let’s get into that. For better or worse, social media and our trending word-forward way of speaking about things mean that we end up using convenient keywords and phrases to represent huge swathes of emotions, feelings, and dynamics. 

If by “toxic”, you mean: You were both as bad as each other and just shouldn't have been together, then OK, cool, that’s generally alright and happens often. But given you mention getting a little damaged by the whole thing – if it was leaning closer to abuse, whether emotional, verbal or physical – then that’s obviously a lot heavier. It’s worth speaking to friends for moral support and, if necessary, reaching out to professional counsellors or domestic abuse helplines such as safeline, to make sure you’re doing OK before dating. 

Super serious point made, let’s get back to your overall concern. After a bad relationship ends, and even after having done work on ourselves to know what went wrong, it’s completely natural to be on edge when dipping back into dating. 

We become a bit weary after we've been hurt – it's a protection habit, looking out for warning signs and being a bit more vigilant –but you want to address it before getting jaded or cynical,” says Stefan Walters, BACP-accredited therapist. 


Simon Coombs, BACP-accredited therapist and founder of Working Minds, echoes Walters’ advice to unpick your own negative thoughts and feelings around dating. “It leads to men just saying they're happier being a single person,” he says. “It can lead men to end up fearful of dating to the point where they are lonely, and in some cases they mask loneliness with anger.” 

The fact that you’re writing in to say you need a hand means you’re probably not veering down that path, but it’s a reminder to keep the faith. If we shut off because we feel shit, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, being just happily single with no bitterness or bad thoughts is also very much chill and fine, but not if you’re secretly wanting to be in a relationship and growing increasingly resentful about it.

These days, dating has dramatically changed to the point where many of us have yet to make sense of the new world we live in. “I have men visiting me who have a huge anxiety and stress because they don't really understand the rules of engagement anymore,” says Coombs. 

Take the hyper-early stages where you’re wondering how many hours after matching you should ask about a date or those early stages where you want to take things up a notch but don’t want to scare someone away, for instance. There’s no rules for either, but I reckon: Get to know them a bit but don’t leave it too long in the case of the former – you’re both on apps for a reason – and ask nicely. As for the latter, I reckon hold off for at least another few weeks and ask them how they feel it’s going in person, not over text. 


If you’re recently out of a relationship, the idea that things are radically different is enough to ruin how confidently you use a dating app or slide into someone’s DMs. Approaching people in person all but never happens now, either – although if you have a genuine reason to say something interesting and considered, and are in an appropriate place to do so, then really there’s no harm in asking. 

In his experience, Coombes says, men increasingly “feel fearful of dating to the point that they decide it’s easier to not, even though they want to – and despite the perception that men just shake these things off, they don’t really”.

In these cases, we have to assess what the issue exactly is: Are you falling for someone new who’s basically the same as your ex – the person who definitely wasn’t right for you? Or are you simply scared of the fact that this is developing into something that feels emotional and relationship-like, and actually, uh oh, this means commitment and that you have to trust them, and you’re starting to want to tell them deep things that you don’t tell people, and the last time you trusted and confided in someone, it went south as fuck? 


“Having the courage to be open about it, both with yourself and then them, is key,” Walters says. If you’re spiralling, talk to a mate first to get a sense-check and then speak to that person. While having to consider all this may affect your confidence, nobody is perfect and there isn’t an exact science. From the convos I’ve had, the bar is quite low if you’re a cis het guy in the market for a cis het woman. Be nice, have a go and you might get further than you think. 

One thing to consider: Are you considering what you need when approaching these situations with people? “Paying attention right from the get go to what makes you happy is critical,” says Coombs, adding that it “will stop us over-compromising when navigating relationships, but it will also provide us with a sense of security in general”. If we’re in tune with ourselves, we’re more likely to be in tune with other people. We have to be as happy as we can within ourselves – or at least conscious of our own issues – before we try to be with others. 

The reason we ignore this is that “we all want connection,” Walters says. “We're wired for connection. We're social beings, not designed to live in isolation. So, obviously, no matter how secure we are within ourselves, we do want validation, love and reassurance from others. It’s is easy for us to look for these things prematurely – this then allows past insecurities to creep in.” 

Ultimately, when the vibe is good, you’ll feel relaxed and safe. There will be an energetic and horny spark, yes, but also a feeling that allows you to relax and be yourself without any sense of having to perform. Stay patient and open-minded and this will come with time – it’s a beautiful thing that we all deserve. The cruel thing is that you often have to test the waters to find the person you can do that with. It’s kind of like standing under a temperamental shower – one where you shouldn’t focus on how you got burned, but on the temperature getting better. 

Learning to put the past behind you is key. When we’re more comfortable, we’re more able to be present, stress-free and optimistic when speaking to new people. This is the formula for things going well: Being all happy-go-lucky like a lofty, adorable Hugh Grant from a Richard Curtis film.

Sure, sometimes we’ll have to deal with not having the same intentions as the person we like – these things are fine, normal, natural. There are seven billion people out there and finding the handful that we’ll have relationships of any sort with in our lifetime isn’t going to be simple. But to find them, we have to make sure we feel good enough to welcome them in and get the ball rolling – and if that ball stops, you just have to kick it back into play. 

The world makes this out to be a bleak concept. But really, isn’t that the point of life? Do things, learn more, have some stories for the lads, keep on going. What I’m saying is, we’ve all got to learn to be happy single and to enjoy the journey a little more. The rest will fall into place from there, even if there’s some bad patches along the way.