It might be difficult for someone to understand why their friend or loved one would subject themselves to the agony of relationship abuse and toxicity. One of the most common questions would be, “Why don’t you just pack your bags and leave?”
According to professionals, the following are factors that may contribute to why people stay in toxic relationships:
The abuse is subtle and escalates over time, making it difficult to identify a toxic relationship
This is a very complex question that is hard for many of us to understand, even for those who have been in a toxic relationship.
Why do we stay? The answer to this question is equally complex and requires us to look at a variety of influencing factors; it is not as simple as “just pack your bags and leave.“
Many people who have not experienced abuse in relationships say things like, “that would never happen to me,” or, “I wouldn’t put up with it – I’d be gone so fast!“
What these outside viewers don’t understand, though, is that it is not always easy to see that the relationship is toxic when we are in the middle of it, trying to survive day-to-day.
In order to understand why people stay in these relationships, it is important for us first to understand how they develop.
I often ask new clients to imagine walking into their relationship on the first day and to picture experiencing the level of abuse and manipulation they dealt with in the last week of the relationship, after however many years they stayed with their partner.
Now, if their partner behaved and treated them in that same abusive way back on the first date, I am fairly confident that the client would not decide to book a second date. In fact, I would bet good money that they would run away and never look back.
So, how did this happen? How did they get sucked into a toxic relationship? This answer is simple: very slowly, over time. Let’s draw an analogy using a lobster.
There are two ways that you can cook a lobster:
- You can throw it into boiling water.
- You can put the lobster in the pot of cold water and leave it in there as the water heats up to boiling.
The end result is the same, using either method: a cooked lobster that turns red and boils to death.
However, I want you to think about which method would feel most shocking to the lobster:
- The feeling of water that is already boiling when it enters the pot?
- Or the feeling of cold water slowly heating up over time?
Picture yourself taking a bath if you need more visualization.
Obviously, the lobster is going to feel more shocked and aware that something very bad is about to happen when he enters boiling water immediately.
However, the slow rise in temperature is not as noticeable to the lobster who starts in the cold water. His senses do not have the same high alert reaction because the change is gradual, over time, until things reach a boiling point.
The same thing is true for toxic and abusive relationships. The abuse is slow, insidious, and gradually increases over time, which makes it very difficult to identify when you are the person in the relationship with a toxic person.
Toxic relationships move through a well-known repetitive sequence, known as the “cycle of abuse.” This can include physical violence, but often times the abuse is psychological in nature – the effects of which are far more long-lasting and damaging than bruises.
I will use an example of the Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse to illustrate the different stages of abuse that are common in most toxic relationships, as they all have similar elements.
Related: What Is Narcissistic Abuse?
As I mentioned earlier, living through a toxic relationship is not unlike that lobster that starts out in the pot of cold water. In the beginning, everything seems great, comfortable, and even wonderfully loving.
The abusive partner has worked very hard to idealize and draw in their victim, using charm, flattery, and a term called “love-bombing,” which is the first step in the narcissistic cycle of abuse.
In the cycle of abuse, love-bombing or the “Idealization phase” is the practice of overwhelming someone with signs of adoration and attraction. The manipulator flatters you excessively, giving you all sorts of attention in the form of constant gifts, love messages left for you to find, flowers sent to your work.
You receive intense and wonderful sexual experiences, text messages that increase in frequency as they increase in romantic eagerness, and promises of a future together. Toxic partners surprise you by showing up unexpectedly, which is designed to manipulate you into wanting to spend more time with them – and less time with others.
They share secrets and stories with you to create a special bond; this technique also enables you to feel as if you can share your deepest insecurities and desires with them.
Later, they will use your disclosures as ammunition and pick at your weak spots to regain a sense of psychological control over you when you attempt to ‘step out of line.‘
In this initial “idealization” phase, you’ve never felt better:
- You feel beautiful.
- You feel loved.
- You feel cherished.
- You feel like you’ve met your soulmate.
Your manipulative partner has carefully paid attention to your values and interests so that they could mirror them back to you and make you feel like you’ve met the “one.“
Next, we move into the “Devaluation” phase, which is sometimes interspersed with love-bombing along the way. This phase is where the abusive partner subtly, insidiously, and covertly begins to target your insecurities and/or the things you were most proud of.
They make cutting remarks or dismissive comments to make sure that you learn that you are not special: there’s only room for one of you to hold the “special” title, and it was never going to be you.
Devaluation can be disguised as harsh “jokes” or “brutal honesty,” when they, in fact, involve:
- Verbal abuse
- Condescending sarcasm
- A sudden withdrawal of affection
- Overt or covert put-downs
- Unhealthy comparisons to others to instill a sense of worthlessness
Throughout the relationship, you will be labeled as the “crazy and oversensitive” person, even while enduring verbal and emotional attacks from your partner.
The abuser enjoys employing gaslighting and projection techniques to essentially rewrite the history of abuse in the relationship and misplace all blame onto you. They will stonewall you and abruptly end arguments, subjecting you to the silent treatment for hours or days and, in some extreme cases, months.
Since you are now prone to something called cognitive dissonance, which I will elaborate on later, you will often start to blame yourself for the abuse.
You may try to deny or minimize the severity of the trauma you’re experiencing in an effort to survive and cope with the fact that the person you love and care for is a pathological abuser. They will invalidate your emotions and gaslight you to the point where you really do feel like you’re crazy.
You will doubt yourself and apologize even when you have nothing to apologize for.
Devaluation can also be overt and psychologically damaging and usually worsens over time. In my own toxic relationship, during more overt, full-fledged devaluing explosions, my ex often used verbally and emotionally abusive comments.
He compared me to other women he had been with, which left me feeling degraded and wholly inadequate. He also regularly used gaslighting and projecting tactics to further confuse me and make me question my own sense of reality.
Once he could see that I was broken, he performed a display of false remorse and gave me a glimpse of his sweet false self to make sure I was pulled back in (a tactic known as “hoovering“).
What I didn’t realize when I was in the middle of it was, as the abuse gets incrementally worse, the victim gets more and more conditioned to it and becomes invested in the abusive relationship.
I was able to rationalize and make excuses for pretty much anything that my ex-husband did, and I usually ended up believing that I was to blame for his abusive behavior.
Abusive partners will cycle through these two phases of abuse numerous times until they have finally gotten all possible validation and attention-seeking supply from their victim. Once the abuser decides that you have nothing left to offer them, they move on to the “Discard” phase.
This is where they literally discard you. They move on, looking to other people to give them the supply that they desperately crave to survive. Or perhaps a better source of supply comes along, so they remove all investment they had in you to become enmeshed with the shiny new source of supply.
If you have provoked the abuser’s rage, and many people do simply by trying to defend themselves, the abuser may discard you and turn you into the enemy.
Similarly, if you have threatened the “False Self” (the grandiose, inflated, idealized version of themselves that they wish they could become) in such a way that undermines their fabricated image, they may cease all investment in you and begin the quest to secure another source of supply.
However, discarding you often doesn’t mean that the relationship is over, as you have likely experienced first-hand. It’s just a painful and traumatic intermission between these cycles of abuse.
Many victims experience an additional phase of the abuse cycle after the discard, known as “hoovering.” This is when the abuser attempts to suck you back into the traumatic vortex of the relationship, like a Hoover vacuum cleaner.
After the discard phase, hoovering confuses victims into thinking that their partner misses them and is remorseful for their previous behavior. In reality, the abuser employs hoovering as a way to regain power and control, especially if the victim “discarded” the abuser first.
Hoovering can include grand gestures or performances to convince you that they have changed, that they had time to reflect on their previous behavior, and promise you that things will be different and so much better once you come back to them.
This is usually combined with some more love-bombing to remind you of that amazing initial idealization or honeymoon phase that felt so incredible when you first met. This method enables the abuse cycle to continue, especially if the victim is susceptible to their hoovering attempts.
Thus, the abuse and manipulation continue, evolving into something even more twisted and toxic than before, without you even noticing.
Though this type of abuse cycle is repetitive and predictable, it is also intermittent, and the rest of the relationship may seem “good enough” or even loving.
In this context, victims often reason that they are not being abused, that their partner “really loves them” despite their abusive behavior, and that makes it all okay, that the abuse “isn’t that awful,” and other similar statements.
Victims are motivated to generate excuses for their abuser, to think of each abuse episode as a “one-time” thing (even when it isn’t).
Also, to focus on the good aspects of the relationship (particularly those positive things that happen during the hoovering/love-bombing phase of the abuse cycle) and convince themselves that the relationship is really a good one and that everyone has some problems in a relationship (i.e., my partner occasionally loses their temper when really stressed at work).
When poor self-esteem kicks in as a result of the abuse, the rationalizations may be thoughts such as:
- “I don’t deserve any better.”
- “This is the best relationship I will ever have.”
- “No one else will ever want me. I’m lucky to have this person.”
Now that we have a clearer picture of how these toxic relationships develop (slowly, over time), it will be easier to understand why many people stay for much longer than is healthy.
Most people don’t realize that exposure to continuous emotional and psychological abuse has traumatic and often long-term effects on the brain.
In his book, “The Body Keeps the Score“, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk shares that the brain changes produced by trauma explain why those who are traumatized experience a form of hyper-vigilance, as well as a sort of “paralysis” feeling that disrupts their lives.
If we are not able to engage in the typical “fight or flight” response to get out of the abusive situation, the stress tends to be stored in our bodies. Emotional pain keeps us stuck and exhausted, unable to escape the ever-firing stress hormone system that keeps firing.
This is one reason why survivors of psychological and emotional abuse tend to feel as if they cannot get out of their situation.
Understanding these effects of trauma and PTSD is essential to break free from the blaming and shaming regarding why people entered or stayed in a toxic relationship.
In fact, these effects are so complex that they create bonds between the abuse survivor and the abuser that are very difficult to break.
It also causes a great deal of conflicting thoughts and feelings as the victim attempts to reconcile the brutal reality of the abuse with the person they once saw as their greatest confidante and lover in the early stages of the relationship.
This phenomenon, called cognitive dissonance, is a defense mechanism that is often resolved not by seeing the abuser for who they really are but rather by denying, minimizing, or rationalizing the abuse that is occurring as a way to survive and cope with the trauma that the victim experiences.
This form of “abuse amnesia” is compounded by the nature of the abuse cycle. As we learned earlier, abuse is often slow and insidious, building up over time.
What began as a glimpse of an abuser’s false mask occasionally slipping becomes a horrific cycle of idealization, devaluation, and eventually, discard that the survivor has not only grown accustomed to but also inadvertently becomes addicted to, due to the strength of the “trauma bond” that forms between abuser and victim.
Patrick Carnes first explained that trauma bonding occurs after intense, emotional experiences with our abusers and tethers us to them, creating these subconscious patterns of attachment that are very difficult to break free from.
It is part of the phenomenon known as “Stockholm Syndrome“, a condition in which victims of hostage situations develop an attachment to their perpetrators and even defend their captors.
Trauma bonding is prevalent in abusive relationships as well as in kidnapping, hostage situations, and addiction situations, and it is even more difficult to break this bond if the victim grew up in violent or emotionally abusive homes, and/or have had an abusive parent, in addition to their most recent experiences with trauma and abuse.
Another layer of reasons for staying in a toxic relationship comes from a more “practical” stance, even if these reasons are not always rational. Some victims feel they cannot leave their relationships because they are economically dependent on them.
For example, an abused stay-at-home mother may decide that she cannot leave her abusive relationship because she would have no way of supporting herself or her children.
Many victims of toxic relationships also suffer from financial abuse, where the abusive partner controls the finances purposefully so that it makes it more difficult for the abused partner to leave.
Other abused people stay because they believe that is the “right” thing to do, according to their religious or cultural background, and they do not want to risk being rejected by their community or family.
Other victims may rationalize staying in abusive relationships because they believe it is the best course of action for their children. They might say to themselves, “If it were just me, I’d leave this marriage, but my children will be better off coming from an intact family rather than from a divorced one.“
I hear this rationalization from clients in abusive relationships often, and I help them to understand that this may not be a rational position to take in all cases and that the children may actually be far more damaged by staying in proximity to an abusive parent than they would be by being raised by a loving single mother, for example.
However, regardless of the truth of any of these rationalizations, the belief that they are true is more powerful than whether or not they are really true.
People stay in toxic relationships because it would be dangerous for them to leave
Finally, it is important to recognize that, in some cases, people stay in toxic relationships because it would actually be dangerous for them to leave. Some victims who try to break away from abusive partners may find that abuse escalates to very dangerous proportions.
Abusive partners may stalk victims who try to leave them, physically abuse them, or otherwise try to control their ability to leave the relationship.
If they do not threaten to kill or harm the victim or the children, they may threaten to harm themselves, and by so doing, guilt the victim into feeling sympathy for them and then staying to prevent the threatened violence from happening.
As you can see, there are many different elements that influence a person’s decision to stay in a toxic relationship. And while seeking help to get out of these relationships is the most important thing, blaming someone in an abusive relationship is never okay.
Rather than continue asking the question “Why do people stay?” we should instead be asking different questions, like:
- “How can we stop the cycle of abuse?”
- “What can we do to protect and support victims and survivors of these toxic relationships?”
We also need to ask ourselves why these questions seem so scary. I believe it’s because they upset the status quo and shine the light on the real problem– which means we actually have to do something about it.
It’s time to move the dialogue away from victim-blaming and start the conversation of creating viable solutions to this pervasive and devastating problem within our society.
There is a big difference between judgment and responsibility. While someone might have used irrational judgment by staying in an unhealthy or dangerous situation, it does not mean that they are responsible or asking for the abuse from their toxic partner.
In the end, there is no reason we can’t work together to stop the toxic cycle, for good.
Founder, Unfilteredd LLC
People stay in toxic relationships due to trauma bonds
One of the biggest reasons people stay in toxic relationships is trauma bonds. Here are the most common ways trauma bonds are formed:
Grew up in an abusive environment
The relationships we develop throughout our childhood have a very powerful influence on our cognitive development. When a child grows up with abusive primary caregivers, the potential for their perspective of a healthy relationship being corrupted is very high.
A majority of the movies, television shows, comics, cartoons, books, and even folktales we are exposed to as children depict a healthy parent-child relationship.
So, as a child growing up in an abusive environment, oftentimes without any type of emotional support, it would be very hard for them to understand that their primary caregiver’s behavior is abusive and not the love they see in other places.
Sadly, this often causes the child to equate the dynamics of a healthy relationship with the dynamics of the abusive relationship they’re experiencing. In adulthood, this misconception could cause them to gravitate towards abusive relationships because it’s what they’re familiar with.
Without a qualified therapist helping them address their trauma, a trauma bond rooted in an abusive childhood is extremely hard to break.
It’s almost as if the victim of childhood abuse gravitates towards abusive relationships in adulthood because the concept of a healthy relationship is a foreign concept to them, making it nearly impossible for them to acknowledge what they’re experiencing is abuse without the proper guidance.
Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals. It has a devastatingly powerful influence on just about every abusive relationship imaginable because it manipulates one of the four main brain chemicals, dopamine.
The best manifestation of this can be found in narcissistic relationships.
A narcissist has an uncanny ability to know their victim very well, very quickly. This ability enables them to weaponize their victim’s vulnerabilities and insecurities against them and create very powerful trauma bonds.
Related: 35+ Signs You’re Dating a Narcissist
The emotional instability they develop from an unhealthy/abusive childhood causes them to desperately need narcissistic supply, the validation, admiration, reassurance, acceptance, and chaos they receive from others.
Depending on the type of narcissism, the way they accumulate narcissistic supply could manifest in different ways. With that being said, narcissistic environments are so emotionally draining, manipulative, and abusive that eventually, the narcissistic supply becomes stale.
Meaning that those who suffer narcissistic abuse become so traumatized that they’re incapable of constantly validating and admiring their abuser. When this happens, a narcissist will use a manipulative tactic called breadcrumbing, also known as intermittent reinforcement, to reignite the relationship.
When a narcissistic relationship reaches this level of abuse, the victim is so emotionally starved that even the slightest amount of empathy feels like a proposal under the Eiffel tower, and narcissists know this.
After a pervasive environment of emotional abuse, intermittent reinforcement activates the victim’s brain’s reward sector, which floods their body with dopamine. This feeling is extremely addictive because what happens is that the narcissist essentially becomes the victim’s only known source of happiness.
Without a lot of therapy and other exercises designed to reconnect the victim with their core values, the trauma bond will be nearly impossible for the victim to break by themselves.
The love-bombing phase
Some victims of abusive relationships experience a very powerful phase called love-bombing. This phase is an overwhelming amount of:
- spontaneous moments
- superficial love
During this phase, the abuser will embody the definition of their victim’s Mr. or Mrs. Perfect through mirroring and future faking.
The love bombing phase may be one of the most malicious forms of manipulation in the domestic violence realm because while those who’ve experienced it have described the phase as magical or a once-in-a-lifetime experience, its true purpose is to lower the guard of the victim.
As I mentioned before, abusers have an infamous ability to know their victims very well; the love-bombing phase is one of the ways they learn so quickly.
During this phase, an abuser will bombard their victim with overwhelming amounts of communication, compliments, gifts, spontaneous moments, and superficial love while finding the core values and insecurities or vulnerabilities of the victim.
At the beginning of the relationship, this level of intensity, intimacy, and connection triggers our desire to have our own love story. It feels amazing because the abuser has maneuvered themselves into a position where they appear to know the victim better than anyone else.
Unfortunately, the love-bombing phase isn’t genuine by any means and doesn’t last long. Once the abuser feels like they have their victim hooked, they’ll begin to devalue them through various forms of manipulation and abuse.
When this happens, many victims of abusive relationships aren’t ready to acknowledge that what they’re experiencing is abuse because of how amazing the love-bombing phase was. It’s very hard to let go of someone who you believe is your soulmate.
In fact, one of the most common fears among victims of abusive relationships is the fear that the narcissist will move on and be the person they were during the love-bombing phase for someone else.
So they end up on this never-ending cycle of rationalization, justification, and normalization of the abuse in the hopes that one day, their abuser will be their “Mr. or Mrs. Perfect” again, making the trauma bond nearly unbreakable.
One of the most dangerous things you can do is idealize an abusive relationship. Idealization is when you portray something as better than it actually is.
When someone blatantly ignores the abuse they’re enduring; they’re rationalizing, normalizing, and justifying the abuse. This usually manifests as someone portraying an abusive relationship as healthy to friends and family.
Needless to say, this is incredibly dangerous.
The reason is that instead of learning how to manage narcissism, they’re creating an environment where abuse is an accepted normality. This makes it nearly impossible to break free from the abuse cycle.
In order for an abuser to successfully abuse someone while simultaneously portraying themselves as a saint to others, they need to isolate and gaslight the victim. When someone idealizes an abusive relationship, they’re essentially doing the abuser’s dirty work for them.
By idealizing the relationship, you’re gaslighting yourself because you’re pretending the relationship is better than it actually is. You’re also isolating yourself because you’re pretending that you’re in a healthy relationship.
Just to be clear, by no means is this the victim’s fault. Idealization is most commonly seen among empaths. Empaths are people who are incredibly attuned with their emotions and the emotions of others, self-aware, and wholehearted people.
The world benefits greatly from their presence.
However, being an empath is very dangerous when it comes to narcissism because empaths are more likely to rationalize, normalize, and justify abusive behavior.
Related: How to Deal With Being an Empath
When it comes to abusive relationships, idealizing the relationship makes you become your own worst enemy.
They are subjected to eroding emotional stability
Domestic abuse is vitally dependent on the victim having low self-esteem. The manipulative behaviors that abusers subject their victims to are designed to erode their emotional stability.
Abusers, especially narcissists, are often emotionally inadequate, meaning they’re incapable of regulating their own emotions.
Imagine you dropped a pack of Mentos in a soda bottle and closed the lid as tightly as you could. It would explode because the soda has nowhere to go. The only way to prevent the bottle from exploding would be to remove the cap.
Now imagine that the abuser is the soda bottle, and their emotions are the Mentos. With the amount of negative emotions abusers have suppressed within themselves, without a way to regulate them, they’d implode.
Therefore, they use a scapegoat to regulate their emotions, much like the hands that would take the cap off the soda bottle to prevent it from exploding and destroying the bottle.
Wherever there’s an abuser, there’s a scapegoat. Just to be clear, a scapegoat is a person that an abuser projects all of their suppressed shame, fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities on. They’re essentially a repository for the abuser’s negative emotions.
After months, years, even decades of being an abusers’ scapegoat, it’s almost guaranteed that one will have astonishingly high levels of self-doubt and a harmful tendency to blame themselves in any given situation.
Being an abusers’ scapegoat will surely lower one’s self-esteem. They’re bombarded with insults, plagued with the idea that they aren’t worthy of happiness, and doubted at every turn. This form of trauma bonding is probably the hardest to overcome.
Meenakshi Joshi, MS (ABA), MA (Clinical Psychology)
Practicing Psychologist, Epsychonline
Do you feel unsafe and lost with your spouse or partner? You know you are not happy. You feel you don’t deserve to be treated this way. And still, you are not ready or able to move on. You cannot break up with them. So, why do people stay in toxic relationships? Why do they not stop and take charge of their life?
What is toxic?
In simple words, “toxic” means “poison.” When you are a part of something toxic, it makes you upset and adds harm to your life. You feel put down and insulted. The person you are in a relationship with makes you feel that you are not good enough.
- You feel no empathy or care
- You are not respected that way you should be
- They criticize you
- They try to control you
- No support
- You feel trapped and helpless
- They lie and cheats
They feel it is the only way to life
People tend to believe and follow only what they have seen in their life. What we have seen or what happened in our home when we were kids, we feel that is the only and best way to do things.
In other words, if you have seen your father control your mother, then you feel that it is the way it is supposed to be. You have seen your father demean your mother; then you too will tend to do the same. As a woman, you will feel that it is okay if the man insults you or says that “you are stupid” or “you cannot do anything properly.“
In short, people stay in a toxic relationship because they feel it is the only way to life. They have not seen a mature and healthy relationship.
Fear of being judged or ridiculed by relatives and friends
Have you ever done something that you did not like or did not want to do? I guess we are doing that now and then. Imagine being in a situation where you are not feeling well. You just want to go home and curl in your bed. You are about to get up from your desk and inform the HR that you are leaving.
But your boss walks in and is very angry about some pending work. He wants to finish it today or else you are fired! What have you done in such a situation? Most people would just sit back at their desks and they would work.
So, we work and finish the assignment not because we want to but out of fear. Similarly, there are so many things that we do daily just out of fear. So, do people also stay in toxic relationships just out of fear? Sometimes yes!
We fear what society would say if you break up, especially if we are talking about marriage. Even today, people cannot accept that they failed at marriage. They fear being judged or ridiculed by relatives and friends.
If you know that song “All By Myself” by Celine Dion, you would know exactly why we fear being alone. Our need to be with someone and our fear of being alone and lonely make us accept the wrong treatment we receive. Thus, it is something like “I would rather be with a known devil than alone. At least I have someone!“
Fear of finding “love” again! Surely we all want love in our lives. So, we are ready to accept love in any form we get, even if the form is not so good for us!
People feel they deserve to stay in a toxic relationship
I am sure you have come across people who stay in toxic relationships and have happily accepted it. They feel it is their fate to be like this.
For example, Lina, who has been married to Neil for the past eight years, feels that “this is the best I can get.” She feels that she is a very average person – her education, looks, salary she earns, everything is just routine.
Additionally, she was “in love” before with a musician and he dumped her after cheating on her! So, now she is “grateful” for Neil. He makes fun of her in front of their friends, and she has to do all the household work by herself. He gets angry with her for the smallest mistake. He blames her for his misfortune but still, “he will never cheat on me.“
Like so many others, Lina has accepted that “she is to be blamed for her state.” She does not deserve anything better than this and now she has started feeling comfortable in this toxic relationship.
How can people move on from toxic relationships?
The main thing about moving on is first to realize that you are ‘in a toxic relationship.’ Accept that you are not okay. You need to feel that what is happening to you or what you are letting them do to you is not okay.
- Stop being in your bubble! Accept that what is going on needs to stop.
- Get help! You might become very overwhelmed with what you are feeling. Get help from a friend or family member. Talk to them and share your true feelings with them. You should even see a professional if you feel you cannot handle this on your own.
- Start by working on yourself. Take steps to build your self-confidence. Work on understanding your emotions and thoughts.
In summary, being in a relationship that does not let you grow or make you feel secure can be stressful. People tend to stay in toxic relationships because they don’t know anything better or they fear being judged. Fear of being alone and not finding love again can also make you feel helpless.
The worst is if you feel that you did this to yourself and start believing that you deserve it. Take steps to accept and come out stronger from such harmful relationships.
Dr. Menije Boduryan-Turner, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist | Founder, Embracing You Therapy
They are afraid of being alone
We’ve all been socialized to fear “dying alone.” In actuality, the odds are very low that losing one relationship will result in us being completely alone forever.
It is better to be alone with yourself and build or maintain your relationship with yourself than it is to be with someone who makes you feel lonely by not:
- understanding you
- respecting you
- prioritizing you
The reality is that losing one interpersonal relationship will not render us solitary, but it can feel that way. Sometimes, we can begin to feel that this person is all we have, usually, because we have made that person a priority, whether consciously or not.
It is difficult for them to confront and set boundaries
This can be because we are in the habit of people-pleasing or haven’t been supported in our boundaries in the past.
We may have been raised in a household without them or involved in activities as a young person that forced us to push past them, such as competitive sports.
It can feel difficult to walk away from a situation that doesn’t serve us if we struggle to stick to our guns. At that point, we will have unsettled an entire aspect of our lives “for no reason.“
They make negative conclusions about themselves, their life, and the future
If your partner has said and done things that displayed a lack of appreciation for you, you might think that all partners will see and treat you the same way.
It is important to understand that as we grow and develop, our lives do, too.
Whatever your reasoning for staying attached to people and/or relationships that no longer serve you, it will be difficult to walk away before you are ready.
Being ready doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt or feel like a challenge. It simply means that you have made your decision and are prepared to do what it takes to stick to it.
The decision to exit a toxic relationship is an act of self-love that you are worthy of experiencing.
Three steps to help you walk away from toxic relationships:
Get real with yourself
This can be the hardest thing to do when you truly care about the other person and want to be around them. But the truth is that nothing will change if you stay in denial. You need to be aware of the red flags.
You need to be honest with yourself about how often you feel:
- any other negative emotion within this dynamic
It is also important to be realistic about what would need to change for you to be happier and whether the odds are in your favor that this change can and will happen.
We cannot change others; we can only work on ourselves and have the strength to leave situations that do not suit us.
Learn to communicate your needs and set your boundaries unapologetically
When you know that you’ve been clear and communicative about your needs, your wants, your goals, and your feelings, then you can be certain whether there is any point in continuing to work on things.
You can depart knowing that you did everything you could to improve the situation, and it wasn’t enough.
Being set and clear on your boundaries can also save you the grief of going back and forth with yourself about whether to leave, try again, approach the problem differently, etc.
Being firm with yourself about your make-or-break boundaries eliminates questioning yourself when you realize it’s time to exit the relationship.
Take care of yourself
Walking away from relationships that mean the world to you is difficult. You need to hold space for your feelings compassionately and kindly. The stages of grief apply to any loss in life, including the end of a relationship.
Let me warn you that you will experience various emotions in no specific order.
Taking care of yourself also means being mindful of the way you are talking to yourself. Any self-criticism will only intensify the hardship of the struggle you are going through.
Pay attention to the way you speak to yourself, and make sure you talk to yourself the way you talk to someone you love. Find affirmations specific to ending relationships. You can also take care of yourself by going to therapy, and a therapist can help with these affirmations.
Whether romantic, platonic, or professional, if you are in a relationship that doesn’t allow you to know and be yourself, that is a sure sign that you have work to do.
Being comfortable in your own company is the surest way to guard against loneliness, no matter how many or how few people surround you.
John F. Tholen, PhD
Retired Psychologist | Author, “Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind“
A relationship is toxic when it begins causing physical or emotional damage to either partner. Furthermore, it is probable that both partners are sustaining damage, although in a less obvious manner to one than to the other.
We usually consider any partner who has engaged in physical abusive or self-destructive behavior (e.g., substance abuse, compulsive gambling or spending, etc.) to be the “villain” and the other partner to be the “victim.”
However, for a toxic relationship to exist, both partners must contribute, even if only by perpetuating the relationship.
There are two ways we become involved in destructive relationships:
- We are so naïve and needy—and have such a low self-opinion—that we either overlooked or believed we could “fix” the other person’s abusive or self-destructive behavior.
- Our relationship partner, who had previously shown no tendencies toward abusiveness or self-destructive behavior, develops such tendencies due to the onset of a mental illness or an addictive disorder—and we continue the relationship in the hope that we can “fix” them or they will recover and once again become the person we originally found attractive.
Because of dysfunctional thinking
No matter how we become involved in a toxic relationship, we stay in one because of dysfunctional thinking.
Although it seems that our emotions and motivations result directly from the life events and circumstances we encounter, they are instead reactions to our self-talk—the internal monologue that streams through our waking consciousness, interpreting whatever we experience.
Which thoughts automatically come into our minds is determined by a complex interaction between our inherited traits and our early life experience—neither of which is under our control.
When that interplay has left us excessively self-critical, our spontaneous thoughts are often dysfunctional—causing excessive self-criticism and self-doubt.
When such thoughts are allowed to linger in the spotlight of our attention, they:
- infuse our self-talk,
- our self-assertion becomes inhibited,
- and our peace of mind is disrupted
Even though these ideas are almost always incomplete, unreasonable, or completely wrong.
When we connect with an abusive or self-destructive relationship partner, our self-talk becomes characterized by dysfunctional thoughts, such as “I don’t deserve better” or “A healthier person wouldn’t want me.”
Remaining in a relationship in which we have become the “victim” of a partner who has changed drives our self-esteem downward, with the result that we may begin to doubt that we would ever be attractive to anyone else or that we could function decently on our own.
This type of dysfunctional thinking can prevent us from recognizing that we:
- Deserve better,
- Cannot “fix” our partner or prevent their unhealthy choices,
- Are enabling our partner’s irresponsible behavior by staying in the relationship, and
- Would be better off on our own
Several self-help programs are designed to assist those of us who find ourselves in toxic relationships, including Al-Anon and Codependents Anonymous. In general, however, “recovery” involves:
- Recognizing our own needs and desires,
- Refusing to continue enabling our partner’s unhealthy behavior,
- Setting clear boundaries between each person’s roles and responsibilities, and
- Managing the underlying our low self-esteem.
We can improve our motivation and self-confidence—and enhance both our outcomes and our state of mind—by identifying and shifting our attention to reasonable alternative ideas that are more functional, more likely to inspire hope and constructive action or hope.
The best method of enhancing low self-esteem is to adopt focused positivity strategy:
- Becoming mindful of our thoughts by recording and examining the ideas that occupy our minds when we are upset,
- Identifying the dysfunctional thoughts that have become the focus of our attention and are inhibiting positive changes,
- Constructing more reasonable, balanced, and functional alternatives,
- Systematically refocusing our attention away from the dysfunctional thoughts and toward the functional alternatives
Cognitive therapy (CT) is a psychological treatment approach that is considered “evidence-based.”
A review of 325 different research studies involving more than 9000 subjects found CT to be effective in treating depression (adult and adolescent), anxiety disorder, and social phobia (David, D., et al., “Why Cognitive-Behavioral Psychotherapy Is the Gold Standard of Psychotherapy,” Frontiers of Psychiatry, January 2018).
CT works because it is the most efficient method of challenging our dysfunctional thoughts, and the most efficient form of CT is focused positivity strategy.
Functional thoughts to enhance self-esteem
We respond best to any challenge in life by employing the closest thing we have to a “superpower,” our ability at any moment to shift the focus of our attention to a more functional thought, such as:
- Everyone, including me, deserves to be treated with decency and respect.
- Like all humans, I have hidden strengths, untapped potential, and the ability to grow and change in profound ways.
- No one is less deserving than others because they were born into a dysfunctional home or disadvantaged circumstances.
- There’s no shame in having been treated badly by life; that’s entirely a matter of unfortunate heredity and experience.
- Life is hard and mistakes are inevitable. I deserve credit for whatever sincere attempts I make to improve my future.
- Success or failure is less important than “sincere positive effort,” as only the latter is under my control.
- Sometimes, my best efforts will turn out poorly because life is unpredictable and I’m only human.
Licensed Professional Counselor | Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Attachment that was developed in the relationship
Originally understood to be similar to “Stockholm Syndrome” or “Battered Women Syndrome,” the Trauma Bond is the attachment that develops out of the dynamic between an abuser and victim as a result of the cyclic, ambiguous, and confusing interactions of some toxic relationships.
Role and life expectations
Our culture and upbringing supply a significant amount of visions of what “mother,” “father,” “partner,” “boss,” and “friend” look like. These perfect pictures can be hard to let go of, and people often chase that vision in spite of history indicating the persons involved aren’t able or interested in engaging in those roles in traditional or healthy ways.
Perception of personal deficit
Some people stay in relationships with toxic people because they believe the other person brings something to the interaction that they can’t otherwise provide. This can be stability, money, decision-making capacity, status, or it can be as “simple” as believing they will be alone without this person.
Lack of a support network
If the toxicity includes power and control, the dynamic may have isolated the victim such that they don’t have a support network and they may have lost contact with other people. They may feel— and in fact, maybe, alone.
They grew up with or developed unhealthy relationship rules
Some people grow up with or develop unhealthy relationship rules that involve:
- the expectation of continuing to try no matter what
This may come from some individual understanding of some religious tenets or cultural understanding.
Some habits can obscure clear thinking
Some individual habits can obscure clear thinking, such as substance misuse or behavioral/process addiction like over-spending, gambling, and sex.
Untreated addiction can create problems in which the person with the disorder stays in situations that are toxic, or the disorder itself puts them in situations or with people that are more likely to be unhealthy.
Dr. Erika Evans, PhD, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Life with Dr. Erika
People experience a palpable fear
Fear is a powerful emotion that has been known to rule many people. When dealing with toxic relationships, some people experience a palpable fear of:
- Being alone
- What life will look like
If you are a person that is fueled by fear, then that emotion has control in some cases more than the toxic person does.
Beliefs and values about relationships
Folks hold many beliefs about what it means to be in a relationship. Some of these beliefs can include that even if one sees “red flags,” that unconditional love can help overcome these red flags.
For some, the mentality is about self-sacrifice for the sake of the greater experience. In this case, that would be the relationship. Additionally, family values may posit that you never give up on them if you are committed to someone.
To leave a relationship in this context might activate a narrative that the person is selfish, uncaring, or ungiving.
Each person has a comparison level of self which influences their self-esteem. So, if a person has a low comparison level or impaired self-esteem, then this can have a significant impact on what they believe to be deserving of within their relationships.
As a result, when establishing boundaries and setting expectations, these may also be low in terms of standards for how a relationship should function and the person may not assert their needs.
If a person is contemplating leaving a relationship regardless of whether it is toxic or not, people will go through a list of perceived alternatives to what their life might look like outside of the relationship.
If the perceived alternatives to the relationship are appealing
Then there’s a higher likelihood that a person will leave, but if a person has a challenge seeing alternatives that are beneficial, then it increases the chance that they will stay in the current situation.
Rebecca Phillips, MS, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor, Mend Modern Therapy
They’re unaware of how harmful the relationship is
People often stay in these relationships because they’re unaware of how harmful they are. When someone wants to believe the best about their partner, they can have blind spots that lead to denial about hurtful behavior.
They may even justify their own behavior or that of their partner in an attempt to keep their relationship intact.
They subconsciously try to recreate past relationships
People stay in these relationships if they’re subconsciously trying to recreate relationships from their past in order to heal them. This is evident in a phenomenon known as ‘repetition compulsion.’
For example, someone who has experienced a parent’s rejection may subconsciously try to earn love and acceptance from a partner.
Problematic relationship patterns have been modeled to them
People may stay in these relationships because problematic relationship patterns have been modeled to them. People often have expectations of what a relationship should look like.
People who have witnessed harmful relationships in the past may simply expect, and therefore, recreate problematic relationship patterns.
They stay because of the familiarity and predictability
People sometimes stay in these relationships because they’re familiar. People seek familiarity and predictability. Paradoxically, people can feel a sort of comfort in being treated poorly if that’s all they’ve ever known.
If they’re not used to being treated well, they may feel thrown off or skeptical.
They don’t believe they deserve more
If people have negative beliefs about themselves, they may not believe they’re capable of finding a partner who treats them well. If you don’t believe you’re good enough, you may settle for a partner who doesn’t treat you good enough.
People hold on to hope that their partner will change
As well-meaning as it is, people sometimes stay in these relationships because they want to believe the best about others.
As a therapist, I constantly witness how people grow, evolve, and change. But I know people have to want to change. I see many clients who hold on to hope for partners who show no indication of wanting to change.
It’s important to be honest with yourself about your partner’s desire and capacity for change. And remember that you cannot change another person. You can only change yourself.
Adolescent Psychologist and Parenting Teenagers Expert | Founder, Raising Remarkable Teenagers
Toxic relationships are the most soul-destroying relationships human beings can be involved in. They are:
- draining and depressing,
- lacking in trust,
- characterized by disrespect,
- immense negative energy,
- and constantly bringing the worst out of each other among other negative characteristics
The pull to be connected with another is stronger than the decision to be separated
If they are this damaging, why do people stay in toxic relationships?
Human beings are relational beings. Evolutionally, we have needed the company of others for physical, biological, social, and psychological well-being. Thus, the pull to be connected with another is stronger than the decision to be separate, alone, or apart.
The choice to not be in a toxic relationship requires the use of our decision-making and executive function, which is the smaller frontal lobe brain contesting against the bigger emotional brain, the limbic system.
So here we have a contest between the frontal brain and the limbic brain. The limbic system is the bigger part of the brain made of habits and instinctive needs that span for eons – since the beginning of human life.
One of the most important questions as human beings we can ask ourselves is “Who am I?” and how we answer this question determines:
- How we treat ourselves
- How others treat us
- How we treat others
This question requires the use of our rational part of the brain.
Here’s the problem! Because many people have never adequately answered the question, “Who am I?” their lives and relationships are by default driven from:
- Unhealthy beliefs
- Lack of knowledge
- Learned helplessness
- Lack of self-awareness and esteem
Which are all the reasons why people stay in toxic relationships.
Human beings are relational and social beings. In the past, people stayed together against all odds because it was safer to be with others than alone in a world infested with wild animals or warring tribes.
In today’s world though, that is no longer relevant. It is possible to be alone and still do ok.
Unfortunately, these unhelpful and irrelevant norms, cultures, and beliefs are so ingrained in our limbic brain that people unconsciously stay in toxic relationships even when there’s absolutely no rational reason they should be in relationships that are harmful.
Lack of knowledge
Most people grew up in a similar toxic environment, they don’t know anything else, and they think this is normal.
They don’t know that it is possible to have healthy relationships where both people know who they really are as worthy human beings and therefore couple up with others on the same level and demand the level of treatment that represents the partner as an esteemed worthy human being.
Lack of self-awareness and self-esteem
A lack of understanding about own magnificence and worth makes people accept ill-treatment. They feel they deserve ill-treatment as they are not worthy of being treated well.
When people enter relationships, most relationships are sweet and lovely to begin with, and most will ignore any toxicity that exists in the early days.
It’s during this time that conditioning of toxicity happens, and they get used to it, and once they’ve been subjected to this so long, this leads to learned helplessness.
People in toxic relationships are aware they are in unhealthy relationships; they have gotten used to the toxic dance and are addicted to the toxicity.
In other words, the brain has developed neural circuits that even demand, seek, or even crave the toxic treatment – more like a drug addict seeks the same fix even though it’s detrimental to them.
Fear that stems from many factors
As mentioned above, the fear of being alone about social beliefs plus “what will people say” fear of judgment from others and self for being alone can create a shame and guilt so debilitating that someone resigns to toxicity as their fate.
It’s really important that people understand that by staying in toxic relationships, they are missing out on:
- feeling good
- expressing themselves authentically
- opportunities to be lifted higher
- grow and bloom
Trauma-Informed Therapist | Co-Author, “What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship“
The more we invest, the more difficult it can be to leave
Most toxic relationships do not start out that way. At some point, there was enough positivity in the relationship to make an investment in the other person.
The more we invest, the more difficult it can be to leave. Investment can come in the form of:
- or even our own beliefs of what our life should look like
There may even be instances where people stay in toxic relationships due to:
- social or family pressure,
- religious guilt,
- or the fear of being alone
Because of the amount of apprehension
Listening to your inner voice and doing things to help regain a positive self-esteem is crucial for leaving a toxic relationship. Most people who struggle to leave toxic relationships suffer from some level of insecurity that can negatively impact their self-esteem.
Insecurity about what it may look like after leaving the relationship can also prevent someone from taking a step away from their toxic partner. There may be fears about never finding love again.
The negative behaviors are overlooked and romanticized
Cognitive distortions where the toxic partner’s negative behaviors are overlooked and their repair methods are romanticized may lead the person to think that no one will ever love them the way that this person does.
If the toxic partner has done their job effectively, they have likely used tactics such as love-bombing, gaslighting, and future-faking to lure their partner in and secure the relationship with an imbalance of power.
When this occurs, the toxic relationship itself becomes part of what makes it difficult to leave. The abuse cycle always begins with reconciliation before it escalates to more toxic behaviors, and it can be easy to hold out hope for things to become “the way they once were.”
Shame about the experience makes it hard to leave
Shame about these experiences also feeds the longevity of these relationships. Most toxic relationships involve isolation of some form. Not reaching out and asking for support from others outside of the relationship makes the toxic relationship more likely to persist.
Knowing that those outside the relationship will listen non-judgmentally and provide safety and support is crucial when trying to leave these types of relationships.
That is why judging someone for not leaving “soon enough” makes it less likely they will leave in the first place.
Juan Santos M.S., CRC, LCMHC
Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor | Owner, Santos Counseling PLLC
Unresolved past traumas
At times living a past trauma can directly impact how a person chooses a partner and stays in a relationship. Consider if you experienced trauma as a child where you were exposed to domestic violence. The life experience can lead to being in a toxic relationship such as one that has abuse and struggling to leave.
The struggle to leave is connected to the person potentially not seeing the relationship as abusive or not having prior knowledge on how to exit a toxic relationship.
Low self-esteem and insecurity
You may stay in the relationship due to low self-esteem and feeling insecure in your future.
Consider if you feel that you are not worth loving and that no one will love you. This can lead to being in a toxic relationship and not leaving because of how you feel about yourself. The very feelings that you hold for yourself are what can bind you to the toxic relationship and make it challenging to exit.
At times people engage in what is called self-sabotaging behaviors. These are behaviors that negatively impact a person’s growth in life. An example of this is seen in toxic relationships.
A person may remain in a toxic relationship because they do not feel they deserve anything better or are fearful of what life would be like outside of the relationship. The fear is directly connected to the person’s self-worth and self-confidence.
A common example of this is staying in a toxic relationship by giving your partner another chance. You give them another chance after experiencing ongoing trauma. You hear a voice inside that is your intuition. It reminds you that it will happen again. Yet, you silence it and agree.
The agreement to remain in the toxic relationship is due to the action of self-sabotage. This action, in essence, is your way of making it impossible to get out.
Carrie Krawiec, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Birmingham Maple Clinic
The perceived costs of leaving outweigh the costs of staying
People stay in toxic relationships when the perceived costs of leaving outweigh the costs of staying. These costs can be social, emotional, or financial.
For example, people may fear the disruption to their children’s lives, being alone forever, not being able to make it on their own financially or otherwise, or not being believed by others how bad the relationship truly was.
The threat of isolation and rejection or the stress associated with managing a family and household singly may cause people to decide that tolerating the unpleasant toxic relationship is somehow the “easier choice.“
This is further complicated when the toxic relationship partner has eroded their confidence by gaslighting, verbal abuse, control, threats, or other tactics that make a person question their reality, worthiness, identity, skills, and abilities.
Low self-esteem causes a person to idolize their partner
Low self-esteem is one of the most frequent contributors to entering and staying in a toxic relationship and one of the most common consequences of having been in one.
Low self-esteem may cause a person to idolize a partner because they strive for their own self-acceptance by gaining the acceptance or approval of valued others.
These people experience their own unworthiness in contrast with others’ superiority.
This pattern may even serve to intensify the behaviors of a toxic partner who protects themselves against their own feelings of insecurity by being dismissive and not vulnerable.
A person with an unpleasant self-image may believe they need any relationship or this specific relationship to be accepted and feel even “lucky” to have it.
Likewise, the toxic partner may believe their partner needs them and cannot do life sufficiently without them and in general may have a more positive view of themselves and a more negative view of others.
Mary Joye, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Winter Haven Counseling
Childhood maladaptive attachment issues carried into adulthood
They stay because they feel like they are in love, but it is a trauma bond. Trauma bonds are created by a tool of manipulation called intermittent reinforcement.
It is when someone is kind and cruel in calculated ways to get a person “addicted” to them, and they are chemically hooked. When someone love-bombs, to borrow from a narcissist abuse term, they are putting you on an emotional pedestal. You get dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin which is the trust hormone and these all feel good.
However, pedestals are lonely and precarious, and the toxic person knows this.
When they tear the pedestal down with criticism or cruelty, or they put you through isolation and annihilate you emotionally, you get stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and the mechanism of the trauma bond sets the target into fawning behaviors.
The intense anxiety of rejection creates a feeling of abandonment, and the fear causes an addictive reactivity. This is much how a pimp or pedophile grooms a person and it is literally toxic in body, mind, and spirit.
This brings us to the root cause of why people stay in toxic relationships. This is due to childhood maladaptive attachment issues carried into adulthood by the phenomenon of reenactment.
This is a compulsion to repeat trauma in futile attempts to gain mastery over what happened in the past in adulthood. The brain seeks the familiar, and the root word of familiar is family.
If a person had a cold or abusive parent, they may find themselves attracted to and by emotionally unavailable or abusive relationships.
This can translate into other relationships beyond partners or spouses. You can’t recognize a pattern until there is one and you can’t break it until you understand how it is operating.
Learning to deconstruct past programming and reconstructing self-awareness with self-respect will help a person in a toxic relationship develop an exit strategy.
They get conditioned to a trauma bond by repetition of intermittent reinforcement and they get reconditioned by repetition of self-care and not accepting toxic relationships to continue.
Because it is like addiction, reducing the amount of tolerance to bad behavior while increasing self-esteem will help you detox from relationships that don’t serve you on to ones you really deserve.
Kimberly Panganiban, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist | Writer, Choosing Therapy
People stay due to the challenges of leaving and separation
People stay in a toxic relationship for various reasons, including hardships if they leave the relationship, difficulty detaching, or both.
For some, the decision to stay in a toxic relationship is out of necessity (or what feels like a necessity). For some people, they are reliant on their partner financially or in other ways and it feels too daunting to leave. They fear the ability to care for themself and/or their children if they were to leave.
For others, the decision to stay is about their attachment to their partner and their relationship. If they grew up in a toxic environment, as much as they don’t like the toxicity in their relationship, they may stay because it is familiar.
As humans, we are attracted to things we know, even when they are painful. A toxic relationship may feel ‘normal’ to them. They may also have developed negative beliefs about themself that keep them in the relationship.
They may feel that they are to blame for the toxicity (which their partner may reinforce if there is emotional abuse), or they may feel that they can’t do any better or aren’t worthy of a healthy relationship.
Sometimes people go through therapy to increase their self-awareness and decrease their negative self-talk but still decide to stay. For some, the positives in their relationship will still outweigh the negatives, despite the toxicity. They have figured out how to live with it and have made their decision.
In the end, we all choose what we can live with and what we can’t in a relationship.
For most, it will be a blend of various factors listed above that keep people in toxic relationships. It is always advisable to seek counseling if in a toxic relationship to help sort through reasons for staying and what it might be like to leave. Having clarity and acceptance around one’s decisions is key.
Prianca Naik, MD
Board Certified Internal Medicine Physician and Certified Life Coach, StressCleanse MD
People stay in toxic relationships because they feel trapped
They believe they have no control over their own life and they’re afraid to be alone. They may have had a toxic childhood, so the toxicity feels like home for them. Without active therapy, coaching, or a desire for self-help, it can be difficult to move past this.
Our brains are wired to gravitate towards what’s safe, which often masquerades itself as the familiar. Making a change often feels scary. Change we often interpret as moving into the unknown when actually every day is unknown. We assume we will live to see tomorrow but that’s an assumption, not a fact.
Others have a difficult time leaving toxic marriages because of their culture and upbringing. They are raised to believe divorce isn’t an option and that it’s better to stay in an unhealthy situation than leave.
Sometimes people in a toxic relationship don’t want to leave because they don’t want to lose the structure in front of others or are afraid of judgment.
They may also believe that the known evil of toxicity is better than getting into another relationship. Some may feel they’ll lose their status in society from their partnership or financial stability.
The hope of positive change keeps people hanging in the relationship for years.
Particularly type A personalities tend to put a lot of hard work into everything and fix everything and everyone. In doing so, they put themselves in harm’s way in toxic relationships.
They are not allowed to use their voice
People stay in toxic relationships for many reasons; one of the primary reasons is not knowing they have options; many are not allowed to use their voice.
Their voice was never developed or turned down through time due to ongoing and repeated:
- any other dysfunctional behavior
It is essential to know that some situations are originated from relationships that stay in a loop of the “Karpman drama triangle” and others due to pathological conditions described on the “Dark Triad.“
Let’s say you never developed a voice due to the developing environment; most likely, you don’t know the signs of a healthy relationship. Most likely, you will be looking for relationships similar to the typical setting.
A model of balance, give and take, is in place within the healthy relationship; the opposite happens in toxic relationships. Unless you find allies accompanied by an inner will to help you break the poisonous patterns, you will be in the negative cycle one time after another.
Otherwise, a significant turning point will need to leave the toxic relationship.
The need to feel belong
Now let’s say that you are in a toxic relationship and experienced healthy relationships as you grew up; the perpetrator feeds itself from the constant damage to their victim. Therefore, the victim’s self-worth and self-awareness start to weaken time after time to the point that the person begins to believe that they are losing their mind.
When the perpetrator is giving a smidge of attention to their victim, it is similar to the highs related to playing video games or slot machines.
Such toxic relationships make the victim feel similar to the mentioned activities as they have been developed to provide players with exhilarating highs and waves of bliss.
Because the stakes are so high, the person’s brain is flooded with Dopamine when they get positive attention from their perpetrator.
People frequently remain in toxic relationships, hoping they will get attention and love even when constantly sabotaged or hurt because they look for the Dopamine surge that only a win can provide.
The brain begins to link a small reward with these tremendous feelings of pleasure every time this happens. Enabling the perpetrator to continue or increase the damaging behavior. Often it turns out to be a never-ending toxic cycle.
The bottom line is that we all need to belong; if we want to be accepted by others and part of a social group. To satisfy their desire for a sense of community, people must build a specific number of long-term ties.
When it comes to interpersonal connections, it is preferable if they are more favorable than bad and have significance for the individuals involved. Due to such a need to belong, it is even more difficult to exit a toxic relationship.
Tiffany Schneider Raff
Certified Life Coach and Certified Process Therapist, Life Change Advice
Lack of self-knowledge
Many people stay in toxic relationships because they are incapable of checking in with themselves and reading their cues emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Often, the signs are there, you’re unhappy, you have health ailments, and you’re not thriving.
However, if you have never learned to value yourself and to put your needs first, you may ignore these signs. Putting others’ needs before your own can make you more vulnerable to toxic relationships, particularly if you do this routinely.
If you ignore your ailments or don’t put your needs first, you won’t set up proper boundaries in your relationships. Saying “no” when something is not healthy, desirable, or right for you is key to setting healthy boundaries. Often, people in toxic relationships are unable to voice their “no.“
Sometimes this is shyness, other times this can be fear. Regardless, healthy relationships start with being able to say no. If you don’t feel safe to say no, your relationship may be toxic.
Setting boundaries can be particularly difficult for people who are empaths and care more about others’ needs than their own. It’s important to learn that no one will take care of you if you don’t take care of yourself first and that your no doesn’t have to be understood by anyone but yourself.
Poor role models
If you’ve spent time around poor role models, your concept of a normal relationship is skewed.
This puts you at a disadvantage as you don’t know what a balanced relationship looks or feels like, and you don’t have the skills to create that for yourself. This can mean you’ll choose relationships based on the wrong priorities, or seek out people that remind you of what you’ve known.
If you grew up with parents that were unstable, treated each other poorly, or had an emotional or psychological disorder like narcissism or bipolar disorder, you may be condemned to repeat the past.
Breaking the cycle
The way to break this cycle is by learning to cue into your needs:
This can be a process if you’re not used to it or if you’re in an abusive relationship. A caring support system is a key to breaking the cycle.
People who can all help you with this path:
- Professional counselors
- Life coaches
- Spiritual advisors
- Trusted friends or family
- Domestic abuse specialists
Remember that anyone who isn’t willing to listen to your feelings, puts you down, or labels you when you express your feelings is the problem, not you!
Komal Ramlagun McOptom
Lecturer and PhD Researcher, os.me
Most people usually enter relationships because they seek something, whether that is emotional, physical, mental, or financial fulfillment. And it’s not a bad thing if the relationship works.
In toxic relationships, however, one party feels trapped. They try their best to make it work, but it all goes in vain, as the same situation keeps repeating itself.
They seek a sense of belonging in the other person
The reason is simple: People in toxic relationships seek a sense of belonging in the other person.
Over time, as they keep giving their partner love and bearing their abuse, they secretly hope that one day they will change.
When things go well, due to their big and wounded hearts, they forgive all the bad things which happened to them, but unfortunately, this joy is short-lived. When the other person shows them some care, it boosts their self-esteem.
And naturally, we cling to anyone who makes us feel good about ourselves and oversee the bad.
Why? Because this is the only person who somewhat values us, or at least this person has proven that they have cared, no matter how far back in the past that was. Is there a deeper reason for staying, and is there a way out? Yes and yes.
People stay in toxic relationships because they do not value themselves and feel inadequate from within. They rely on the other person to remind them of their value. They haven’t learned to love themselves yet, therefore cling on to the varying amount of love they receive from others.
The good in the relationship outweighs the bad, so they stay in.
They refuse to stand up for themselves because they still have hope that things will get better, and if they give more love, the other person will change someday. They keep holding on to the feeling of worthiness they once received from them.
Alas, things never change until those in toxic relationships learn to value themselves, move on and invest their energy into something creative. So what’s the solution? Self-love and seeking value within ourselves while we become our own biggest fan.
Lynn Catalano, Esq.
Licensed Attorney | Founder and CEO, Lynn Catalano Speaks
Why do people stay in toxic relationships?
It’s a very complicated question. I don’t think relationships are easy. You have to work to keep them mutually good, but relationships shouldn’t ever be painful.
It’s like the difference between someone making a mistake and someone who has a pattern of behavior hurting you. A mistake can be forgiven, but a pattern of behavior is just painful. No one deserves it.
Psychology explains that Trauma Bonding happens in relationships with emotional abuse, physical abuse, or both.
Trauma Bonding is the intense, deep emotional connection that occurs between a victim and their abuser. Trauma bonding occurs after repeated cycles of emotional abuse, devaluation, and then positive reinforcement.
Immediately, we think of Stockholm Syndrome, which is one type of trauma bond where people held captive develop a relationship with their captors. Stockholm Syndrome is also found in narcissistic relationships. Narcissists make every relationship toxic. They are known as emotional vampires.
They want to make the relationship work, even if it’s toxic
Empaths want to make the relationship work, even if it’s a toxic relationship. Empaths don’t want to give up: not on the relationship, not on the person. Empaths are devoted to positive thinking and believing other people can change.
We are dedicated to salvaging the relationship and making it work. But sometimes relationships don’t work. Narcissists are categorically unable to change. At some point, even empaths can’t stay in a toxic relationship.
Narcissists have three basic faces they wear. It’s like being on the old game show “The Price is Right” and seeing if you’re going to get:
- Door #1 The Charming Narcissist
- Door #2 The Victim Narcissist
- Door #3 The Raging Narcissist
I’m being facetious about the different doors, but these are the only three faces or phases you’ll ever get from a narcissist. Seeing who they are, understanding they won’t change, and moving on is how you heal.
How do you break from the bond?
Not all relationships with emotional abuse include physical abuse. But all relationships where there is physical abuse begin with emotional abuse. Understanding that narcissists aren’t capable of change, empathy, even love and that they’re mentally ill is very hard.
But the feeling of no contact is pure freedom. Freedom from the drama, the hurt, the walking on eggshells. Walking on eggshells is being very careful not to offend or upset someone.
When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s how you live every day of your life. You know the narcissist’s triggers and you walk on eggshells to avoid them.
It’s exhausting. It causes immense stress for you. It’s a wrecking ball relationship. But in it, you will find yourself again, breathe. It’s not your fault.
CEO and Founder, Unsilenced Voices
Here are just three of the many reasons why people might stay in toxic, or even abusive, relationships. (I sometimes use gendered language below, not to stereotype or accuse, but to reflect the overwhelming statistical majority of domestic abusers who are male and victims who are female.)
These data points are confirmed by the Duluth Model of Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, considered one of the most evidence-based and forward-thinking models of intimate partner violence.
One reason people stay in toxic partnerships is psychological manipulation or emotional co-dependence,
Victims of abuse are usually worn down over time through continual messages from their partners that they’re stupid, worthless, unlovable, will never be desired or loved by anyone else, etc., until they deeply, internally believe it’s true.
An abuser often controls every aspect of his victim’s life and “gaslights” her (convinces her not to trust her own perceptions of reality), gradually making the victim feel completely dependent upon the abuser to make decisions.
Another reason is financial dependence, which is sometimes the result of economic abuse. A domestic abuser may prohibit his victim from having a job, keeping personal bank accounts, or having access to the family finances. These losses of independence usually happen gradually over time, rather than all at once.
When a person has no financial means of her own and long gaps in her work history, it becomes increasingly difficult over time to leave the situation and live on her own, especially when the couple has children to support.
The threat of physical harm or death
If a relationship is toxic to the point of emotional or physical abuse.
In that case, the victim is likely terrified to leave, and rightfully so because: Of the total domestic violence homicides [in a given year in America], about 75% of the victims were killed as they attempted to leave the relationship or after the relationship had ended.
It’s their new normal
Toxic partners and toxic relationships aren’t as easy to spot as one would think, especially at the time. However, in retrospect, you might pick up on a few traits that help you understand what the situation is like.
Are they gaslighting you? Manipulating you? Not looking out for your best interest? Not pushing you to be your better self?
All these become so normal that you forget what a real partner and relationship look like, so lack of identification is the first step.
When you’ve been stuck in a toxic relationship for so long, it’s easy to sink into the Stockholm Syndrome. You slowly lose your self-worth and spiral into a depressive state unlike any other. This lack of self-esteem pushes people to think that this relationship is their only chance at ‘love’. Otherwise, they’ll end up dying alone.
This disbelief in finding love pulls people into believing they need to do all they can to make it work and end up staying in the relationship.
They’re afraid to break patterns
You must’ve heard, “Once a habit, always a habit“— which rings true for relationships, just as much as it does for lifestyle changes.
If you’ve been specifically finetuned a certain way for any long period of time, it can be hard to break out of the existing pattern. I’ve often seen people leave toxic relationships, only to continue those toxic patterns in their next relationships.
Without a lot of self-awareness and therapy, it’s hard to break out into a healthier version of yourself.
Relationship Expert | Co-Owner, Platinum Poire
They fear the unknown
No matter how poor the treatment is, they may be afraid of the future. It’s much easier to sit by and accept disrespectful behavior than move on toward the blank unknown. As humans, we easily fall into a routine, including our relationships—toxic or the likes.
They’re afraid and embarrassed to ask for help
Even in the midst of a toxic relationship, it can be debilitating to tell your friends, family, or therapist about your less than ideal personal life. If they find out, those loved ones may even try to take matters into their own hands, causing disruptions in those relationships.
Their partner is threatening them
When a partner instills fear in them, they will be slow to retreat from the situation. When your self-esteem has plummeted, it will be far more difficult to leave a toxic relationship—especially if the partner barks threats.
They mistake toxicity for love
Relationships are very complicated. We all show our love in different ways, though it doesn’t always make it right. People in toxic relationships can easily misinterpret what love actually is.
Mindset Expert, Millionaire Mind Events
Our brains are wired for survival, not happiness
It is important to remember that hurt people hurt people as they perpetuate the harm or damage inflicted upon them. These negative experiences create specific neural pathways, and the behaviors are embedded in the subconscious, making nastiness or defensiveness a default response.
The root remains the same whether you’re the aggressor or the recipient of deplorable behavior. Fear.
Fear leads to stress, panic, confusion, and self-doubt, which diminishes confidence and adversely impacts your sense of self-worth and ultimately, your quality of life.
You need to get out of your head because if you believe being treated like trash is why you’re here, you need a reality check.
Whether the poison is from a significant other, family member, employer, colleague, neighbor, the public, social media trolls. The recipe for treating toxicity remains the same.
How to leave a toxic situation?
Of course, our responses generally stem from our conditioned subconscious so the first thing to do is to become self-aware. Know thyself. And with particular relevance to this query, know what triggers you.
Once you know what sets you off, hurts your feelings, or eats away at your soul, you take the first step towards reprogramming your subconscious.
Observe how you interact and notice your own predatory or prey behaviors without judgment. Notice what you would like to change about it, and gauge how you feel if the scenario played out differently.
Practice your responses without giving an ounce of emotion. Understand that nothing anyone says or does is a reflection of you. Only your own words and actions can betray your actual character. Make your own subconscious conscious so you may consciously change your unconscious.
Master your mind, and don’t believe everything you think as most of your life, you’ve been in default mode. While you’re practicing to retrain your brain to think in terms of your happiness rather than sole survival, you’re creating new patterns, but they don’t manifest immediately.
You might think when someone approaches you with a fast gait, they’re being aggressive when in fact, they’re just in a rush to get to a meeting.
Don’t take others personally. Their attacks and the love they give speak only to who they are and is none of your business. Use your time and energy for optimizing your own life.
Thank them for sharing an experience, their input, opinion, life, or time with you. I’m not saying that if you were assaulted, don’t get justice. I’m saying be grateful for the opportunity to grow as you have now learned what you no longer wish to be a part of.
If the toxic encounter is in a conversation, acknowledge their opinion and move on.
If the toxic moment is a violent outburst where you are scolded and called all the unholy names under the sun, take a deep breath, acknowledge their remarks in gratitude that they are showing you who they are, and move beyond it without emotionally investing at that moment.
We invest in what we believe in, and when we believe lies, we will always fall victim to the poison of others. Simply don’t accept their poison.
Become aware, observe your responses and reprogram yourself.
Do this consistently, and you will transform your thinking over time, and your unpleasant encounters with the uncouth will reduce as you discover the difference between what is true and what is not.
They stay due to not knowing they’re in a toxic relationship
People stay in toxic relationships due to not knowing they’re in one or
lack of belief in themselves. If they don’t realize they’re in one, they probably don’t realize that something is wrong. So they don’t know how to fix it.
Many of them can’t recognize it due to their upbringing. If they are conditioned to similar behaviors by a caretaker, they’ll think maltreatment and dysfunction are normal.
If they realize they’re in a toxic relationship, they may not have the confidence to leave. Either they think they can’t do better, or they don’t deserve better. They think they deserve bad treatment.
Often, the toxicity of the relationship is a big reason their self-esteem is so low.
Some think they can’t survive on their own. A toxic person conditions
you to a state of lack. That way, you fear you won’t have your basic
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this means you can’t reach the highest level of self-actualization. If you reached this level, you would leave. The toxic person knows this, so they continually put you down. This keeps you in a mental state of lack.
Nancy Ruth Deen
Conscious Breakup Coach and Relationship Expert, Hello Breakup
Their fear of the future surpasses their courage to let go of something harmful
Through working with clients over the last seven years, I’ve learned that many stay in toxic relationships because of issues around their self-worth.
Many clients admit that they don’t leave their toxic relationships because they feel they won’t get anyone “better.” Their fear of what lies ahead is stronger than their courage to leave something that is harming them.
This fear is a mirror of the low self-esteem, self-love, or self-worth that person is experiencing.
When we have a strong sense of self-worth, we tap into our courage to leave difficult situations. We tune into our resilience that tells us that even though it will be a process of healing and change, it’s okay. We trust ourselves to make decisions. We don’t allow ourselves to stay stuck in situations that don’t serve us.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I safely leave a toxic relationship?
Leaving a toxic relationship can be difficult and dangerous, especially if your partner is abusive or violent. Here are some tips on how you can safely leave a toxic relationship:
Make a plan: Before you leave, make a plan for where you will go, how you’ll get there, and what you’ll take with you.
Get support: Reach out to friends, family, or a therapist for emotional support and practical help.
Contact a domestic violence hotline: Domestic violence hotlines can provide you with information, resources, and support to help you leave safely.
Stay safe: If you feel you’re in immediate danger, call 911 or your local emergency services. Make sure you can reach someone to help you, such as a cell phone or a friend who can pick you up.
How can therapy help someone in a toxic relationship?
Therapy can be very helpful for someone in a toxic relationship because it provides a safe and supportive space for them to explore their feelings, work through their issues, and develop strategies to deal with the toxic dynamics in their relationship.
A therapist can also help the person develop a plan to safely leave the relationship if they choose to do so. Some common forms of therapy that can be helpful for people in toxic relationships are:
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help the person identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to the toxic dynamic in their relationship.
Trauma-focused therapy: If the person has experienced trauma as a result of the toxic relationship, trauma-focused therapy can help them process their experience and develop coping strategies.
Couples therapy: If both partners are willing to work on their problems, couples therapy can help them identify and change the behavior patterns contributing to the toxicity in their relationship.
Support groups: Support groups can provide the person with a sense of community and validation, as well as practical advice and resources for getting out of the relationship safely.
How can you recognize the signs of a toxic relationship?
It’s not always easy to spot the signs of a toxic relationship, especially if you’re in the middle of one. However, there are some common signs of a toxic relationship:
Verbal abuse: Your partner may regularly yell at you, insult you, criticize you, or badmouth you.
Physical abuse: Your partner may hit, shove, or otherwise physically hurt you.
Control and manipulation: Your partner may try to control your behavior, isolate you from friends and family, or use guilt, threats, or other manipulative tactics to get what they want.
Constant criticism: Your partner may criticize everything you do, from your appearance to your job to your hobbies.
Jealousy and possessiveness: Your partner may be overly jealous or possessive, trying to control who you spend time with or what you do.
Gaslighting: Your partner may try to make you doubt your own perception of reality by denying things that they said or done or by telling you that you’re imagining things.
How can anyone muster the strength to leave a toxic relationship?
Leaving a toxic relationship can be very difficult, especially if you’re emotionally or financially dependent on your partner. However, there are some things you can do to build your strength and confidence:
Seek support: Talk to friends, your family, or a therapist who can give you emotional support and practical help.
Identify your goals: Think about what you want to accomplish in your life and how staying in a toxic relationship might keep you from those goals.
Practice self-care: Take care of yourself – physically, emotionally, and mentally – by eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, and doing things that make you feel good.
Set boundaries: If your partner is abusive or controlling, it’s important to set clear boundaries and protect yourself from harm.
Build your self-esteem: Work to build your self-esteem by focusing on your strengths and accomplishments and realizing that you deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.
Create a safety plan: If you plan to leave a toxic relationship, you should create a safety plan outlining where you’ll go, who you’ll ask for help, and what you’ll take with you.
Is it possible to heal after leaving a toxic relationship?
Yes, it’s possible to heal after a toxic relationship, although it may take time and effort. Here are some things you can do to help your healing process:
Practice self-care: Take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health by eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, and doing things that make you feel good.
Seek support: Talk to friends, family, or a therapist who can offer emotional support and practical help.
Practice forgiveness: Forgiving yourself and your ex-partner can be an important step toward healing. In doing so, it’s important to recognize that forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing or condoning abusive behavior.
Reflect on what you’ve learned: Use your experience in the toxic relationship as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your desires for future relationships.
Set boundaries: Set clear boundaries with yourself and others to protect yourself from future toxic relationships.
Be patient: Recognize that healing takes time and that you may experience ups and downs along the way.
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