Why Do People Stay In Toxic Relationships? (28 Reasons)

We’ve all seen it—friends, family members, maybe even ourselves, staying in relationships that seem to do more harm than good. Often, when we look from the outside, the solution seems simple: just leave.

But it’s often not that straightforward. When it comes to matters of the heart, things get complicated, tangled in a web of emotions, fears, and conflicting desires.

So, what’s really going on beneath the surface of these toxic ties that make leaving seem like an impossible task? Let’s explore the depths together and find out why breaking free isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Disclaimer: This article provides general information about toxic relationships and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. If you or someone you know is in a toxic or abusive relationship, I encourage seeking help from qualified professionals or contacting local support services.

Fear of Being Alone

The thought of being alone can feel like standing at the edge of a cliff, and for many, staying in a toxic relationship seems safer than jumping into the unknown. The fear of solitude often convinces individuals that any companionship, no matter how harmful, is better than none. 

That’s because humans are naturally social creatures; we crave connection and often fear isolation. I mean, it’s not just about coming home to someone; it’s about having that person to talk to, to share your day with, and to feel like you’re a part of something. 

"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."

— Angela Karanja | Adolescent Psychologist and Parenting Teenagers Expert | Founder, Raising Remarkable Teenagers

Low Self-Esteem

When someone believe they aren’t worth the good stuff, they often settle for much less than they deserve. This may stem from earlier life experiences where individuals were consistently undervalued or criticized, leading to an internal belief that this is all that life has to offer.

People with low self-esteem might often think:

  • I’m not good enough for anyone else.
  • Who else would put up with me?
  • I’m lucky even to have someone.

Financial Dependence

Sadly, not everyone who wants to leave a toxic relationship can simply pack up and go. Imagine you’re sharing an apartment, bills, or maybe there’s a joint business venture. Walking away isn’t just emotional now; it’s also about who pays for groceries next week or keeps the lights on.

The key here is to create a plan. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but starting is crucial.

  1. Take baby steps. Look for job opportunities or consider skill-development courses.
  2. Know your worth and understand that financial independence is attainable.
  3. Seek support—there are often local resources and organizations that can help.

Emotional Attachment

Relationships, even toxic ones, are a blend of shared memories, inside jokes, and mutual friends. All these create bonds not easily broken. So, it’s not surprising that leaving feels like leaving a part of yourself behind.

The heart doesn’t always follow logic, and when it clings to the love shared in the good times, it can make someone overlook the bad.

Think about it. Your partner was there for the big moments, like when you got that promotion or lost someone you loved. Those shared experiences are tough to just erase and walk away from. It pulls at the heart with questions like, “How can I leave when we’ve been through so much?” or “What if I never find a connection like this again?” 

"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."

— Dr. John F. Tholen, PhD | Retired Psychologist | Author, “Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind

Fear of Retaliation or Violence

The threat of physical harm or extreme emotional abuse, if they even think about leaving, can keep someone stuck in a toxic relationship. It’s one of the darkest sides of such relationships and can make the person feel like they’re walking on eggshells.

In these situations, the toxic partner may have previously shown a willingness to use threats or actual violence to maintain control, and the very thought of what might happen if they try to leave can be paralyzing.

  • What might happen to me if I leave?
  • Will my family be safe?
  • “Can I go anywhere without looking over my shoulder?

Hope for Change

The belief that a partner will change often keeps people hanging on, hoping for a turnaround in behavior. It’s this hope that maybe, just maybe, things will go back to how they were in the happy days that can delay important decisions.

Holding onto hope that things will get better can be both a blessing and a trap. It’s perfectly human to hope that a loved one will change for the better, especially when they’ve shown glimpses of goodness. However, when hope keeps you chained to a cycle of disappointment, it may be time to question its validity.

Children in the Relationship

Parents often worry about the impact of a breakup on their kids. No one wants to make a move that might upset their children’s lives or happiness. This concern is not just about the immediate disruption—school changes or missing the other parent—but also about long-term effects on their wellbeing.

Here’s how to handle this complex scenario:

  • Open communication: It’s helpful to talk to your kids (in age-appropriate ways), letting them know that both parents love them, regardless of the situation.
  • Professional guidance: Getting advice from child psychologists can provide insights on the best approaches for minimizing impact on children.
  • Shared parenting plans: Discussing and setting clear plans for parenting can reassure both partners about future arrangements.

Lack of Support Systems

Having a shoulder to lean on or an ear that’s ready to listen can mean the world, especially when you’re thinking of walking away from a relationship. But when there’s no one around to offer that kind of support, the idea of leaving can feel like preparing to walk a tightrope without a safety net.

Building a support system might look like:

  • Reconnecting with old friends: Sometimes, we drift away from people who care about us. Reaching out can rekindle these supportive relationships.
  • Finding community resources: Many communities have support groups and resources for people facing similar challenges.
  • Using online platforms: There are numerous forums and social media groups that can offer support and guidance.
"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."

— Rori Sassoon | Relationship Expert | Co-Owner, Platinum Poire

Social Stigma Around Breaking Up

In many communities and cultures, there’s a bit of a taboo about ending relationships, especially marriages. Sticking it out, for better or worse, is often seen as the noble path.

Here’s a little breakdown of what people might face:

  • Whispers behind their back about “not trying hard enough.”
  • Judgment for not sticking to traditional family values.
  • The label of being a “homebreaker” or “giving up too easily.”

Denial About the Toxicity

Admitting that a relationship has turned toxic can be tough. It’s not just about acknowledging the bad stuff; it’s about admitting that things might need to end. For many, this realization is too painful, especially after investing a lot of emotional energy and time into the relationship.

Because of this, many people in toxic relationships may ignore the signs and tell themselves things like:

  • Every relationship has its ups and downs.
  • It’s not that bad; maybe I’m just overreacting.”
  • This is just a rough patch; it’ll get better soon.”

Guilt Over Leaving

Leaving someone, especially in a toxic relationship, can, oddly enough, make someone feel guilty. You might think, ‘Am I giving up too soon?’ or ‘Could I have done more to make it work?

Overcoming this guilt is all about perspective. It’s important to remember that self-care isn’t selfish; it’s necessary. Being gentle with oneself and understanding that leaving can be the most caring act for both oneself and the partner is essential. 

Pressure from Family or Friends

When family or friends pressure us to stay in a relationship because it looks good on the outside or because it aligns with their expectations, it’s tough. There’s this unspoken rule that you should stick it out, no matter what, especially if everyone else thinks your partner is wonderful or if there are kids involved.

It’s like this:

  • Your parents might have an old-school “stick it out” mindset.
  • Your friends remember your partner from the good ol’ days and can’t see what’s changed.
  • Everyone seems to offer advice, but you’re the one who has to live with your choices.

Intermittent Reinforcement of Affection

Intermittent reinforcement of affection means the relationship isn’t all bad, all the time. Imagine getting just enough positivity—sweet moments, apologies after arguments, occasional loving gestures—that sprinkle just enough hope to keep you hanging on.

Because the warmth and affection are so rewarding when they do occur, the person on the receiving end often finds themselves waiting and hoping for the next positive interaction, even if it’s sandwiched between many negative ones.

"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."

Heather Kent, MC, RP, CCC | Registered Psychotherapist

History of Trauma

Sometimes, the roots of why we stay in toxic relationships run deep, tangled up with earlier experiences in our lives. It’s not just about what’s happening now—it’s about how the past has shaped how we see ourselves and our expectations from relationships.

Let’s have an honest moment here:

  • Growing up with parents who argued might make you think constant conflict is normal.
  • Past emotional wounds could make you more tolerant of negative treatment, thinking it’s all you deserve.
  • Previous abandonment could instill a fear of being alone so intense that staying in a toxic relationship seems like the better option.
"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."

— Rebecca Phillips, MS, LPC | Licensed Professional Counselor, Mend Modern Therapy

Cultural or Religious Reasons

In many cultures or religious communities, the idea of breaking up or divorce can carry a heavy stigma. There’s often a strong emphasis on staying together, no matter what challenges arise.

This can make it really tough for someone to step away from a toxic relationship, as they might fear being judged or ostracized by their community. It’s not just about their personal happiness anymore but also about meeting the expectations set by their cultural or religious background.

Here’s how it goes:

  • Some cultures embrace the idea of staying together no matter what.
  • Certain religious teachings may discourage or outright forbid divorce or separation.
  • There’s often a community element where everyone knows everyone, and they all have expectations.

Comfort in Familiarity

Sticking to what we know—even if it’s not ideal—is a common human trait. The known, even if painful, often seems safer than the unknown. This comfort in familiarity can make staying in a toxic relationship feel easier than facing the uncertainty of leaving. You know the routines, the moods, even the arguments, and there’s a strange comfort in that predictability.

Breaking out of this comfort zone requires a certain bravery. It starts with small steps, perhaps establishing new routines independently or finding hobbies that build confidence and introduce new experiences. Over time, these new patterns can make the idea of change feel less frightening and more like a path to a better life.

Feelings of Obligation

When you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s normal to feel like you owe them something. Maybe you’ve been through a lot together, or they’ve supported you during tough times. This can make you feel like you must stick around, even when things are going badly. 

Breaking free from a feeling of obligation takes guts because it means putting yourself first, and sometimes, that can feel a whole lot like selfishness, even when, really, it’s a form of self-care.

Addiction to the Highs and Lows

Believe it or not, the rollercoaster of emotions in a toxic relationship can be addictive. The intense ups and downs create a kind of emotional excitement that can be hard to let go of.

  • After a big fight, the reconciliation feels so intense and intimate; it’s intoxicating.
  • The unpredictability of not knowing what’ll happen next can be strangely exhilarating.
  • When things are good, they’re amazing; and that can make the bad times seem tolerable.

Lack of Confidence in Decision-Making

It’s not unusual to doubt your ability to make the right choices, especially if a toxic relationship has worn down your confidence. For many, this lack of trust in their own decision-making abilities can tether them to a bad situation simply because they fear making a move might lead to something worse.

It’s tough when your confidence has been chipped away for so long. Still, that little voice whispering words of doubt isn’t the boss of you. With some solid self-reflection and maybe a little bit of external support, it’s possible to rebuild that self-trust and start making choices that are right for you.

Influence of Past Positive Memories

When a relationship starts to turn sour, happy memories can act as anchors that keep people rooted in place, hoping to relive those better moments. They often think, “Remember how good it used to be?

This belief is often that if things were good once, they can be good again, making it harder to acknowledge the toxic patterns that have come to dominate the relationship. This impact of positive recollections can also maintain an individual’s attachment to their partner, delaying or preventing them from making the potentially healthier decision to leave.

Identity and Self-Worth Tied to Relationship

When you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s almost like being part of a duo becomes a piece of your identity—you’re a team, a package deal. Now imagine trying to untangle yourself from that.

For some, the thought alone can bring about a real identity crisis. It’s as if the relationship becomes a mirror reflecting who they are, and without it, they’re not sure what they’re looking at anymore.

Here’s the thing:

  • Their social circle knows them as part of a couple, not as an individual.
  • They may have sacrificed personal interests or career opportunities for the relationship.
  • Their partner’s personality or reputation might overshadow their own.

Love for Their Partner Despite Issues

When you deeply care about someone, it’s natural to focus on their good qualities and the love you share, hoping that these positives can outweigh the negatives. This kind of dedication is commendable but can also be a double-edged sword if it means enduring a harmful situation.

But love shouldn’t be painful, and it definitely shouldn’t cost your well-being. It’s a tough pill to swallow, realizing that love by itself might not be enough to fix a relationship filled with negativity.

"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."

Dr. Amelia Kelley | Trauma-Informed Therapist | Co-Author, "What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship"

Time and Energy Invested in Relationship

Think of all the time and effort you’ve put into building a relationship. Maybe years of shared experiences, overcoming challenges together, or building a life in tandem.

It’s natural to value this investment and to feel like walking away might mean all that time and energy was wasted.

However, looking forward, not backward, is crucial. It’s helpful to think about whether staying will genuinely improve your well-being or if it’s just an attempt not to let go of past efforts.

Hope for Future Happiness

Many people stay in rough relationships because they believe that change is just around the corner. You might think:

  • What if things get better down the road?
  • We could be happy again if we just overcome this rough patch.
  • I’ve seen it happen for others; why not us?

It’s this optimism that often keeps the boat afloat in stormy waters.

But it’s important to set realistic expectations. If there are consistent efforts from both sides, like active participation in counseling or positive adjustments in behavior, then there’s a tangible reason to stay hopeful. However, if you’re the only one making an effort or if past promises of change have been broken, it might be time to rethink where this hope is leading you.

Confusion Between Love and Abuse

Sometimes, the line between love and mistreatment can get really blurry. If love is often expressed through intense jealousy, possessiveness, or even aggression, it might start to feel like these behaviors are signs of deep love rather than red flags of an unhealthy dynamic.

You could find yourself thinking, “They only act this way because they love me so much,” or “It’s just their way of showing they care.” This confusion can make it pretty tough to see the relationship clearly.

Waiting for a ‘Right’ Time to Leave

Everyone wants to choose the perfect moment for big life changes, but when it comes to leaving a toxic relationship, waiting for that ‘right time‘ can be a form of procrastination. It’s understandable, though, as it often feels like there’s too much at stake to make a hasty move.

For example, you might be waiting for:

  • The kids to be a bit older.
  • Financial stability.
  • A sign that now’s the moment to make a break for it.

Need to Help / Fix the Partner

It’s pretty common to see something broken and want to fix it, right? In relationships, this can mean feeling the need to help or change a partner who’s facing difficulties, maybe from personal issues or behaviors that are harmful.

People with this mindset may see their partner’s shortcomings or toxic traits as challenges to overcome rather than as indicators of an unhealthy relationship. They might feel it’s their duty to stay and provide assistance, equating leaving with giving up on or failing their partner. 

Manipulation and Entrapment

People in toxic relationships often stay because they’re manipulated into thinking they have no other choice. It’s a web of emotional, psychological, or even practical entanglements that make leaving seem impossible.

This manipulation can take many forms:

  • Gaslighting, making you doubt your own memories and thoughts.
  • Guilting you into staying by suggesting you owe it to them.
  • Limiting your access to money, friends, or outside help.

More Insights from the Experts:

“Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals… The emotional instability they develop from an unhealthy/abusive childhood causes them to desperately need narcissistic supply… 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.”

— Elijah Akin | Founder, Unfilteredd LLC

“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.”

— Tiffany Schneider Raff | Certified Life Coach and Certified Process Therapist, Life Change Advice

“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.”

Joanne Ketch, LPC-S, LMFT-S, LCDC | Licensed Professional Counselor | Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Final Thoughts

Many factors, from fear and financial dependency to deep emotional ties and societal pressures, play a significant role. It’s crucial to approach this topic with empathy and understanding, recognizing that leaving such relationships often requires more than just the desire to leave.

Remember, if you or someone you know is in this tough spot, it’s okay to ask for help. There’s strength in reaching out, and sometimes, the first step toward a happier life is realizing you don’t have to walk the path alone.

Let’s carry this new knowledge with compassion and kindness as we support ourselves and others in the journey towards healthier relationships.

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Bea is an editor and writer with a passion for literature and self-improvement. Her ability to combine these two interests enables her to write informative and thought-provoking articles that positively impact society. She enjoys reading stories and listening to music in her spare time.