The Psychology Behind Remaining in Toxic Relationships
Have you ever known someone — a friend, a family member, or an acquaintance — who’s essentially stuck in a romantic relationship that’s unhealthy? And when I say unhealthy, I’m not referencing circumstantial discord and bumps in the road; it’s more of an inherent lack of compatibility where troubling, or even disturbing, issues ensue. Chances are, many of us have heard accounts of toxic relationships that continue to persist.
Granted, as an outsider, we never truly know what another’s relationship is like on a day-to-day basis, nor are we privy to their emotional intimacies on a deeper level; however, the ‘outsider perspective’ also allows us to listen and observe from a clean slate; from a place of clarity.
Whether it’s a sad and unfortunate case of emotional abuse, or whether you consistently hear (from one or both parties) that there’s fundamental differences and real chronic problems, these romantic relationships don’t necessarily dissolve. In fact, they may propel further and further along, deeper and deeper into an abyss, making the mere act of moving on quite challenging as time passes.
As far as the why — why does he/she remain in a relationship that seems to foster misery and create immense strain and stress — well, there’s various psychological reasons behind staying put and not opting to break-up.
I tend to find that fear is frequently a big component for remaining in an unhealthy relationship. (Whether the person in the unhealthy relationship speaks openly about this or sweeps it under the rug.) More often than not, there’s deep-seated emotional issues that have to be confronted. Some individuals have a really difficult time being alone with themselves and not having the company of a significant other; therefore, even a troubling situation outweighs the fears and discomfort of not being in a relationship at all. Only the individual involved can confront their fears and anxieties and examine why they’re there in the first place, in the hopes they can overcome such setbacks and patterns.
Low self-esteem is another compelling factor in these situations, and the famous line from Perks of Being a Wallflower (a great film and powerful coming-of-age story) immediately comes to mind: “we accept the love we think we deserve.” Many become stagnant in these troubling scenarios when they don’t stand up for themselves; when they don’t sincerely believe that they deserve more than what they are given.
“Recent research shows that perceiving poor alternatives to the relationship enhances the likelihood of staying with an undesirable partner,” writes Madeleine A. Fugère, PhD, in a 2017 article. “Women with low self esteem perceive fewer desirable alternatives to their current relationships.”
Investment and love are other reasons, according to Fugère. The more time a person invests emotionally in a relationship (even an overall negative one), the more a person will persevere to try to make it work (even though it hasn’t been working, resulting in a tricky cycle). And because there is still basic attachment and love in such relationships, any self-awareness, any intellectual truths, are pushed to the side, and their choices become heavily ruled by their emotions.
I’d also like to personally address another side to toxic relationships, and that’s the side that can affect the outsider, that can affect you or me. As much as we would like to be there for those we know in toxic relationships, we may also need to create barriers for ourselves, too.
And while I’m not suggesting that we shut anyone out entirely, I do think it’s important to take a step back, sometimes. If we’ve been a soundboard for years, if we’ve been listening to disturbing facets for hours at a time, offering insights, only to realize that nothing seems to be changing, that the other person is intellectually self-aware but still justifying the relationship, then it very well can become a bit taxing on us, the listener. As uncomfortable as it might be, there may come a time when we have to let the person know that we have to put the subject matter aside in order to reduce our own stress regarding the troubling relationship. (After all, self-care is pretty pivotal.)
We may come across people who are in toxic relationships, people who are stuck in deeply negative situations, but who remain in them due to fears, self-esteem issues, and complicated emotional trajectories. Unfortunately, the listener on the other end may have to establish boundaries if such situations become highly draining.
Fugère, M.A. (2017, May 14). 6 Reason Why We Stay in Bad Relationships [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dating-and-mating/201705/6-reasons-why-we-stay-in-bad-relationships
Suval, L. (2019). The Psychology Behind Remaining in Toxic Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-psychology-behind-remaining-in-toxic-relationships/