Why Do We Stay In TOXIC Relationships?
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
A ‘relationship’ can refer to romantic, business, friendship, family, and acquaintanceship where dynamics exist between two people; yes, I know, it could be said that you’re having a relationship with your phone, but I’m talking about HUMAN Relationships!. Human beings are a social species that relies on cooperation to survive and thrive., our relationships exist for the intention of bringing about enhancement to your life, to ‘work’ for you, to bring about whatever positive result you desire, altruism, happiness, wealth, companionship, learning or some sort of ‘pay off’ in exchange for your priceless time, amazing company, vast knowledge…. and yet we will all at one time in our lives find ourselves feeling ‘stuck’ in a relationship that is the opposite of positive, and sometimes dangerously TOXIC.
You’ve heard the phrase ‘opposites attract’, but the truth is opposite personality dynamics only come together to create a positive relationships if they are ‘strengths’; for example you may be a marketing genius with no creative talent and your partner may be creative talent with no marketing skills, or in a friendship, you may be a great organiser who hates to socialise and your friend may be great host who is terribly unorganised. The ideal dynamics for the most positive and rewarding relationships are balanced in that both people accept and celebrate each other’s strengths.
When opposites don’t attract: certain personality dynamics can be catastrophic in relationships, for example if your partner is aggressive and you are accommodating, you may feel you are keeping the peace whereas your aggressive partner is in control as you walk on eggshells and there will always be tension. If you are always active in any one of your relationships and the other person is passive, in the beginning you may feel great to be in the driving seat but you may eventually burn out and resent the other person.
Often unhealthy dynamics can turn to abuse and the relationship become ‘toxic’, when the abuse is so evident, you may wonder, why would someone stay, why do they continue to accept the conditions within this relationship?
You may try to explain it with logic, and even convince yourself or the victim of abuse that it is completely incomprehensible that they still stay in a relationship that is so obviously flawed and damaging to their self-worth, emotional well-being and even physical health at times - when physical abuse is also involved, and yet there are many reasons that stop you from moving on…
1) YOU FEEL GUILT
One of the most vicious manifestations of abuse in relationships is called ‘blaming the victim’. The abuser may have convinced the victim that they are responsible for their bad behaviour, accusing them that they brought it upon themselves. Although this may seem illogical to the outsider, guilt and manipulation has a potent effect for people staying in toxic relationships. It is not hard to gradually form the belief that the abuse happens because of what you do. Indeed, any relationship comprises of interactions, which is why it is useful to consider your own contribution to its pattern. Yet abuse is not justified, and it is therefore not your fault that it happens.
If that is the case for you, breaking out of the dysfunctional pattern of the relationship becomes even more difficult. You feel guilty for wanting to leave, because if you would try just a bit harder, everything would fall back into place.
2) YOUR SELF ESTEEM NEEDS BOOSTING
There is a bidirectional relationship between self-esteem and abuse: people with low self-esteem tend to get in abusive relationships, and the abuse further deteriorates their self-esteem and self-worth.
If you do not think you are worthy enough and do not value yourself much, then it makes sense why you may get involved with someone who feeds these beliefs more. Maybe you believe you cannot get any better anyway, or that you are permanently damaged and broken and only toxic love can come your way. Maybe you think that you do not deserve love or that is the best partner who could ever stay close to you anyway.
People with low self-esteem also have low expectations, and low comparison levels. They do not expect many benefits from a relationship, but instead problems- so their low expectations are fulfilled, and they stay in the relationship.
Alternatively, they may compare their situation with one that would be worse, for instance ‘At least he doesn’t hit me’, by minimizing the impact of the negative traits of their partner, they normalize the situation and do not regard it as ‘too bad’. This creates an illusion that the abuse is sustainable.
3) YOUR CHILDHOOD WAS ABUSIVE / NEGLECTFUL
Any form of abuse or neglect during childhood increases the possibility of getting involved in abusive relationships in adulthood, because that is the kind of love that one has known. When you form the idea that love is supposed to ‘hurt’, then you are more inclined to stay in an unhealthy relationship because it confirms that belief.
4) YOUV’E INVESTED SO MUCH
The more someone invests in a relationship, the harder it is to let go. Therefore, if you have invested lots of time, effort, energy, and resources to a relationship, you are more likely to stay in it, even if it becomes unhealthy. This can be applied to ‘material’ relationships also such as a failing business or a property with negative equity where the loss of not only the financial investment, but emotional investment is hard to bear.
5) YOU’RE AFRAID YOU’LL BE LONELY
A bad relationship is better than no relationship at all for many individuals that stay in toxic relationships. When we make decisions, we evaluate each of our options to choose the best possible one. So, if you stay in a toxic relationship, this means that it is preferable to any of the alternative options. This belief reflects impaired judgement skills and low self-esteem since fear prevents you from staying alone. Not only that, but you also deprive yourself from the opportunity to meet someone who is good for you, and that person DOES exist!
6) YOU FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES AND DISCONNECT FROM THE NEGATIVES
One important factor of relationship maintenance is perceiving our partner in a positive way. The more positive view we have of our partner, the more satisfied we will be with them. Research shows that we tend to attenuate the positive traits of our partner to sustain and strengthen our bond to them.
In abusive relationships though, despite the undeniable presence of negative aspects of our partner, these seem to be disregarded, even forgotten.
Trauma causes dissociation from unpleasant and distressing experiences. We can easily disconnect emotionally from something that hurts us, to not hurt any more. In abusive relationships, that is indeed what happens: the victim detaches from the negative aspects and focuses on the positive ones instead, which in turn become even more favourable in their perception.
7) YOU HAVE ILLUSIONS OF CONTROL
Many people involved in toxic relationship are convinced that they have control of the situation or they have managed to find ways to handle the abuse, for example disregard it, escape it, ignore it or minimize it. Developing coping mechanisms is indeed necessary, if you are determined to stay in a relationship that is characterized by episodes of abuse every now and then; But are you really in control, or are you maintaining an illusion...?
8) YOU WANT TO HELP / FIX THE OTHER PERSON
Many people choose to stay in unhealthy relationships out of an inherent need to help or fix the partner. Being in a caregiver role has likely been a pattern since childhood for those individuals and breaking free of old patterns is extremely hard. For example, this is the case for children that grew up with a parent who suffers from mental or physical illness, when they often had to look after them and assume caregiver’s responsibility. The caregiver may deeply hope that their partner could change, against all odds. If that would happen, then this would translate in raising their own self-worth too (‘He changed for me! Then I must be quite special to him’).
9) YOU HAVE CHILDREN WITH THE OTHER PERSON
Maintaining a toxic relationship for the sake of the children was much more common in the past than now, but unfortunately it still happens quite a lot. However, the belief that children would be affected more negatively by separation of their parents, than by witnessing abuse taking place between their parents, is somewhat twisted. If you are staying because of the children, be aware that you, as their parent, give them vivid examples of what love is supposed to look like. You are therefore teaching them that it is preferable to endure pain and abuse, then let go and walk away.
10) YOU’RE BEING MANIPULATED
Manipulation is a hallmark of emotional abuse within toxic relationships. Many individuals in unhealthy relationships are continuously manipulated to believe that it is not even an option to leave the relationship. Quite often, they may feel isolated, distanced from their support network. They may be afraid to leave the relationship because their partner may have threatened them about worse outcomes, should they even attempt to. A sense of entrapment may be prominent, as if there are no viable alternatives available. For example, perhaps you share some common beliefs such as ‘all relationships are doomed and meant to cause pain’; no, they are NOT!
11) YOUR’E ADDICTED TO THE RELATIONSHIP
The most prominent reason that someone would stay is that toxic relationships are highly addictive. Addictive, because of ‘Intermittent Reinforcement’ (inconsistent rewarding). Intermittent reinforcement is a conditioning schedule in which a reward or punishment is not administered every time the desired response is performed but is instead inconsistent and irregular.
This type of conditioning has been extensively studied on animals in the labs. It is the opposite of continuous reinforcement, where reward is given every time after a specific action is performed- but it all starts from there. Rats would have to push a lever, and then food would be administered to them. So first they learn that every time they push the lever, they get food (positive reward in continuous reinforcement).
Eventually though, food does not come out when they push the lever; only rarely.
Would you expect that this would result in the rat giving up from pushing the lever?
Wrong! The opposite happens: since the rat has learned that food was given when pushing the lever in the past, it becomes frantically involved with repeatedly pushing the lever in despair, until food is provided once again. It develops an anxious obsession with the lever.
Now replace the lever with the abusive partner in your mind, and you understand intermittent reinforcement in abusive relationships.
Intermittent reinforcement causes biochemical changes in the reward system of our brain. It is the basis of gambling and other forms of addiction in humans. If the reward always follows the conditioned cue, then the cue can quickly become less dopamine-inducing. Instead, the dopamine response is much more prominent and intense when the reward is inconsistent.
The rush is so much higher than, the ‘high’ is so satisfying when the reward does come in the end- it becomes long waited for, and precious. This is a great explanation about why so many people actually get bored of a good and caring partner; their brain does not anymore produce as much dopamine anymore, as a response to the nice things that partner does for them. But the more infrequent the positive reward, the more addicted the individual becomes. Intermittent reinforcement is the foundation of the trauma bond that maintains abusive relationships.
Trauma bonding is defined as the strong emotional attachment between an abused person and their abuser, formed because of the circle of violence interchanging
fear and love. The Circle of Violence is the application of Intermittent Reinforcement in abusive relationships. Tension build up results in acute explosions, that are further followed by a Honeymoon period of love and affection- that feeds the denial of the victim that everything will turn out simply fine this time.
Fear is the opposite of love. The abuser essentially creates fear of losing the relationship in the victim, and then alternates this fear with irregular episodes of love and affection. The good and the bad sides of the abuser create confusion to the victim, who cannot predict any more how to maintain the good moments, but deeply cherishes them when they do come- because they are so few and far between. This inconsistent cycle of reward causes the individual to invest more in the hope for that ever elusive ‘high’ of affection and love.
Intermittent reinforcement is the most insidious manipulation there is, bringing the victim into the absolute control of the abuser, who throws breadcrumbs of love and affection sporadically, just to keep them hooked there and occasionally satisfy their emotional starvation. The victim’s deprivation of affection can soon be forgiven and forgotten, once they receive fragments of attention, affection, and appreciation again. Suddenly then, all the painful moments are simply gone, and the victim gets fuzzy blissful feelings as their hope in the restoration of the relationship and the experience of ‘true love’ is reignited… and that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
To finalise, if you’re not in a relationship characterised by attention, affection, appreciation, acceptance and love, and if you suspect that your relationship is toxic, PLEASE seek out support from friends or professionals to begin your journey of healing.
Psychotherapy can help you break free from toxic relationships!