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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

10 Reasons Why We Stay in Toxic Relationships

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

a person behind a wired fence

Abusive and toxic relationships are something quite puzzling to the outsider. When the abuse is so evident, you may wonder, why would someone stay?

You may try to explain it with logic and even convince the victim of abuse that it is completely incomprehensible that they still stay in a relationship that is so obviously flawed and damaging to their self-worth, emotional well-being and even physical health at times- when physical abuse is also involved.

Yet there are many fundamental reasons that someone would stay in a bad relationship- a relationship that is damaging and unhealthy. If you are in such a relationship, this post may help you realize your own reasons. If you are not in a toxic relationship, this post is aimed to raise awareness in you, and be more compassionate in your judgement of those who stay.

1. Intermittent Reinforcement

(Hot-Cold or Pull-Push in simpler words)

The most prominent reason that someone would stay is that those relationships are highly addictive. Actually addictive, because of intermittent reinforcement (inconsistent rewarding).

Intermittent reinforcement is a conditioning schedule in which a reward or punishment is not administered every time the desired response is performed, but is instead inconsistent and irregular.

This type of conditioning has been extensively studied on animals in the labs. It is the opposite of continuous reinforcement, where reward is given every time after a specific action is performed- but it all starts from there. Rats would have to push a lever, and then food would be administered to them. So first they learn that every time they push the lever, they get food (positive reward in continuous reinforcement).

Eventually though, food doesn’t come out when they push the lever; only really rarely. Would you expect that this would result in the rat actually giving up from pushing the lever?

Wrong! The opposite happens: since the rat has learned that food was given when pushing the lever in the past, it actually becomes frantically involved with repeatedly pushing the lever in despair, until food is provided once again. It develops an anxious obsession with the lever.

Now replace the lever with the abusive partner in your mind, and you understand intermittent reinforcement in abusive relationships.

Intermittent reinforcement actually causes biochemical changes in the reward system of our brain. It is the basis of gambling and other forms of addiction in humans. If the reward always follows the conditioned cue, then the cue can quickly become less dopamine-inducing. Instead, the dopamine response is much more prominent and intense when the reward is inconsistent.

The rush is so much higher then, the “high” is so satisfying when the reward does come in the end- it becomes long awaited for, and precious. This is a great explanation about why so many people actually get bored of a good and caring partner; their brain does not anymore produce as much dopamine anymore, as a response to the nice things that partner does for them.

But the more infrequent the positive reward, the more addicted the individual becomes. Intermittent reinforcement is the foundation of the trauma bond that maintains abusive relationships.

Trauma bonding is defined as the strong emotional attachment between an abused person and their abuser, formed as a result of the circle of violence interchanging fear and love.

The Circle of Violence is the application of Intermittent Reinforcement in abusive relationships. Tension buildup results in acute explosions, that are further followed by a Honeymoon period of love and affection- that feeds the denial of the victim that everything will turn out just fine this time.

Fear is the opposite of love. The abuser essentially creates fear of losing the relationship in the victim, and then alternates this fear with irregular episodes of love and affection. The good and the bad sides of the abuser create confusion to the victim, who cannot predict any more how to maintain the good moments, but deeply cherishes them when they do come- because they are so few and far between. This inconsistent cycle of reward causes the individual to invest more in the hope for that ever elusive “high” of affection and love.

Intermittent reinforcement is the most insidious manipulation there is, bringing the victim into the absolute control of the abuser, who throws breadcrumbs of love and affection sporadically, just to keep them hooked there and occasionally satisfy their emotional starvation.

The victim’s deprivation of affection can soon be forgiven and forgotten, once they receive fragments of attention, affection and appreciation again. Suddenly then, all the painful moments are simply gone, and the victim gets fuzzy blissful feelings as their hope in the restoration of the relationship and the experience of “true love” is reignited… and that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

The circle is endless, unless:

1. The abuser eventually changes (which is difficult unless conscious effort and commitment is invested in this change)

2. The victim finally breaks free of this toxic grip.

Questions to Consider:

  • Can you identify how intermittent reinforcement manifests in your own relationship?

  • Do you recognize the different phases of the Circle of Violence?

  • Do you feel you would like to be able to walk away, but simply can't, as if you are really addicted to your partner?

2. Low Self-Esteem

There is a bidirectional relationship between self-esteem and abuse: people with low self-esteem tend to get in abusive relationships, and the abuse further deteriorates their self-esteem and self-worth.

If you do not think you are worthy enough and do not value yourself much, then it makes sense why you may get involved with someone who feeds these beliefs more. Maybe you believe you cannot get any better anyway, or that you are permanently damaged and broken and only toxic love can come your way. Maybe you think that you don’t deserve love or that’s the best partner who could ever stay close to you anyway.

People with low self-esteem also have low expectations, and low comparison levels. They do not expect many benefits from a relationship, but instead problems- so their low expectations are fulfilled and they stay in the relationship.

Alternatively, they may compare their situation with one that would be worse, for instance “At least he doesn’t hit me” or“At least she comes back to her sweet self quickly”. By minimizing the impact of the negative traits of their partner, they normalize the situation and don’t regard it as “too bad”. This creates an illusion that the abuse is sustainable.

As mentioned before, we learn to love in familiar ways.

Any form of abuse or neglect during childhood increases the possibility of getting involved in abusive relationships in adulthood, because that’s the kind of love that one has known. When you form the idea that love is supposed to hurt, then you are more inclined to stay in an unhealthy relationship because it confirms that belief.

3. Focus on the Positives and Disconnection from the Negatives

One important factor of relationship maintenance is perceiving our partner in a positive way. The more positive view we have of our partner, the more satisfied we will be with them. Research shows that we tend to attenuate the positive traits of our partner in order to sustain and strengthen our bond to them.

In abusive relationships though, despite the undeniable presence of negative aspects of our partner, these seem to be disregarded, even forgotten.

Trauma causes dissociation from unpleasant and distressing experiences. We can easily disconnect emotionally from something that hurts us, in order to not hurt any more.

In abusive relationships, that is indeed what happens: the victim detaches from the negative aspects and focuses on the positive ones instead, which in turn become even more favorable in their perception.

Questions to Consider:

  • What are the benefits you perceive from staying in this relationship?

  • Are these benefits more valuable than the negative aspects of the relationship?

  • What negative aspects are you detaching from, in order to amplify the positive aspects of your partner?

  • How is this situation sustainable in the long run?

  • What are the lessons you have learnt and those you still need to learn out of it?

4. Fear of Loneliness

A bad relationship is better than no relationship at all for many individuals that stay in toxic relationships. When we make decisions, we evaluate each of our options in order to choose the best possible one. So, if you stay in a toxic relationship, this means that it is preferable to any of the alternative options.

This belief reflects impaired judgement skills and low self-esteem, since fear prevents you from staying alone. Not only that, but you also deprive yourself from the opportunity to meet someone who is actually good for you.

Questions to Consider:

  • What would happen to you if you would stay alone?

  • How can being alone hurt you more than the abuse you are sustaining?

  • What are the pro's and con's of staying in this relationship VS of being alone?

  • Where / how did you first experience this fear of being alone or when was it first taught to you?

5. Investment

The more someone invests in a relationship, the harder it is to let go. Therefore, if you have invested lots of time, effort, energy and resources to a relationship, it is more likely to stay in it even if it becomes unhealthy.

6. Illusions of Control

Many people involved in toxic relationship are convinced that they have control of the situation or they have managed to find ways to handle the abuse, for example disregard it, escape it, ignore it or minimize it. Developing coping mechanisms is indeed necessary, if you are determined to stay in a relationship that is characterized by episodes of abuse every now and then. But are you really in control, or are you maintaining an illusion...?

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you really have control of the situation, by choosing to ignore it or to wait it out?

  • Is this the relationship you really want to be in, one that urges you to turn a blind eye to what is going on?

  • Does ignoring the abuse make it non-existent or insignificant?

  • Even if you can control the bad moments, why are you really involved with someone who occasionally treats you so badly?

7. Need to Help / Fix the Partner

Many people choose to stay in unhealthy relationships out of an inherent need to help or fix their partner. Being in a caregiver role has likely been a pattern since childhood for those individuals, and breaking free of old patterns is very hard. For example, this is the case for children that grew up with a parent who suffers from mental or physical illness, when they often had to look after them and assume caregiver’s responsibility.

The caregiver may deeply hope that their partner could change, against all odds. If that would happen, then this would translate in raising their own self-worth too (“He changed for me! Then I must be quite special to him”)

If that’s the case for you, remember that the only person you can really change, is You. It is not your responsibility nor obligation to help anyone else change, even more so when they treat you wrongly and constantly devalue you. This reflects low self-worth: it seems you may value them more than you do yourself.

8. Family and Children

Maintaining a toxic relationship for the sake of the children was much more common in the past than now, but unfortunately it still happens quite a lot.

However, the belief that children would be affected more negatively by separation of their parents, than by witnessing abuse taking place between their parents, is somewhat twisted.

If you are staying because of the children, be aware that you, as their parent, give them vivid examples of what love is supposed to look like. You are therefore teaching them that it is preferable to endure pain and abuse, than let go and walk away.

9. Guilt

One of the most vicious manifestations of abuse is called “blame the victim”. The abuser may have convinced the victim that they are actually responsible for their bad behavior, accusing them that they brought it upon themselves. Although this may seem illogical to the outsider, guilt and manipulation has a really potent effect for people staying in toxic relationships.

It is not hard to gradually form the belief that the abuse happens because of what you do. Indeed any relationship comprises of interactions, which is why it is useful to consider your own contribution to its pattern. Yet abuse is not justified and it is therefore not your fault that it happens.

If that is the case for you, breaking out of the dysfunctional pattern of the relationship becomes even more difficult.

You feel guilty for wanting to leave, because if you would try just a bit harder, everything would fall back into place.

10. Manipulation and Entrapment

Manipulation is a hallmark of emotional abuse within toxic relationships. Many individuals in unhealthy relationships are continuously manipulated in order to believe that it is not even an option to leave the relationship. Quite often, they may feel isolated, distanced from their support network. They may be afraid to leave the relationship because their partner may have threatened them about worse outcomes, should they even attempt to. A sense of entrapment may be prominent, as if there are no viable alternatives available.

Common Beliefs about Self, Love and Relationships

Our choices are guided by our belief system. People that are in bad relationships often have dysfunctional beliefs about love, relationships and themselves. Check the beliefs below and evaluate which ones may apply to you:

  • All relationships are doomed to cause pain

  • Any relationship will turn sour at some point

  • Love is supposed to hurt

  • It is ok to endure pain in the name of love

  • I don’t deserve love

  • I don't deserve happiness

  • I am damaged

  • A bad relationship is still better than nothing

  • I cannot be alone

  • He/she loves me in his own way

  • I am not worthy of good things

  • I should endure pain at all costs

  • I cannot have a satisfying relationship

How to Proceed?

If you are dissatisfied with your relationship and suspect it may be toxic for you, there are things to consider and do in order to move further.

A good relationship is characterized by Attention, Affection, Appreciation, Acceptance and Allowing.

Do you feel these five important factors are fulfilled for you in your current relationship?

  • Realize your own role and contribution in the dynamic of the relationship

What you allow is what will continue. Be accountable of your own role in the patterns that play out. By realizing you do have an active part, you actually gain a sense of control about your ability to improve your situation.

It may be difficult to assert your boundaries in a relationship that is already established, but being aware of what your boundaries are and under which circumstances they are being crossed is a first step. Knowing what you can and cannot tolerate will increase your self-worth and self-awareness, and will prepare you for a healthier relationship in the future (be it with this partner or not).

  • Regard the opinion of those who care about you

If many people close to you seem concerned about you, you may be tempted to shut them out. Instead, evaluate their opinions carefully from now on and keep in mind that they would not be worried about you, if you had not given them reason to. Think of them as mirrors that reflect back to you what you show them.

  • Seek support

A toxic relationship can be intensely traumatizing. Empower yourself by seeking support both social and professional, if necessary. Surrounding yourself with people that care about you can greatly help in you feeling less lonely, while therapy can be a powerful assistance to put your pieces back together and embark on a journey of healing.

...It all comes down to this...

We accept the love we think we deserve.

Low self-worth is most of the times the foundation of all the above-mentioned reasons people stay in unhealthy relationships.

Focus on the ideas you hold about yourself and the quality of relationships you would like your Future Self to attract.

Challenge your beliefs and realize You Are Worthy of nourishing love and affection.

Question yourself:

  • What are your own reasons for staying?

  • Do you believe you deserve to be loved in a fulfilling way?

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