Why People Stay in Toxic Relationships

Why People Stay in Toxic Relationships

By Chareessa Chee, Licensed Professional Counselor

Why People Stay in Bad Relationships

Sometimes we stay in bad, even toxic relationships longer than we really want to. It’s not because we’re addicted to the chaos, nor because we want to be treated badly. Most likely, every once in a while, we see a tiny glimmer of hope that things are going to get better. We may miss warning signs in our relationship which are obvious to others, perhaps because we’re looking through a lens of compassion and hope at our partner and the relationship dynamics in the relationship. 

The Impact of Our Beliefs

We believe all kinds of things about ourselves and others that affect these choices. We may believe that the right help or support can help our partner reach their potential – and that we are supposed to supply that help and support. We may be afraid that we would hurt them if we left, that our partner might spiral without our influence. Our dreams can be closely tied to our commitment to this person, and a break up would mean those dreams must die. Maybe we believe our primary role is to heal and care for others, even when it means losing ourselves. Maybe we’re afraid of being selfish, finding the idea of leaving a relationship because of our own unmet needs and desires unthinkable. 

New Information and How We Deal with It

When we are in a toxic relationship, we experience what we call cognitive dissonance. When we learn something that contradicts our beliefs, values, and opinions, we have a few options: 

  1. Ignore the new, contradictory information. (“I’m sure he didn’t mean to gaslight you.” “I don’t remember them doing what you said.”) 
  2. Fight against the information. (“How dare you insinuate that he is cheating on me? I don’t care what you thought you saw.”) 
  3. Justify the information (“She hits me, but it’s not really abuse, and besides, I deserve it.”) 
  4. Modify our beliefs and values to accommodate this new information. (“I thought he was kind to animals, but now I’ve seen him beat his dog, so I must have been wrong.”) 

Cognitive dissonance can express itself as any of the first three options – in each case, we’re trying to make our brains hold contradictory ideas at the same time. The fourth option requires that we change our minds in light of something new, and this is often a scary prospect – especially in a toxic relationship – because it opens the door to definitive action, like ending the relationship

On the Outside Looking in: When Your Friend Is in a Bad Relationship

Most of us have wondered why a friend doesn’t just leave a relationship that’s bad for them. In many cases, it’s because this relationship is defining in their life; it’s the only thing that they know to be true. Often, this is accompanied by the belief that they will be the one who will change this person. 

It’s helpful to remember that bad relationships aren’t usually bad all the time. Everyone who’s been in a toxic relationship knows that it’s not always so black and white from the inside. There are moments of happiness, moments where you catch a glimpse of the change you hoped for, or moments you think are the turning point. Potential can be a blessing and a curse. We don’t really have control over other people; the person we really have control over is ourselves. Unfortunately, the potential you see, the hope you have for who someone else can be, only goes so far. The other person has to see and strive for that potential too. They have to be invested in the relationship as well. 

From the Inside: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

How to Talk to Yourself

As you think through your relationship, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “What might I tell a friend going through this same situation?” We tend to be both more direct and more compassionate about our friends’ situations than our own. It’s always a good rule of thumb to speak to yourself the way you would speak to a beloved friend. Looking at your own situation with your friend-goggles on can help you identify what is going on, what is wishful thinking, and what problems demand action. 

How to Tell if Your Partner Is Really Ready to Change

So how can you tell if someone is committed to growth? They take action. They do what they say they are going to do = their words match their actions. They also recognize and acknowledge their own problems. They are committed to taking action towards a solution. They are willing to have conversations about the problem and work together with you as a team to solve the problem and not against each other. They recognize that there is something to be fixed. If you’re in a mentally or emotionally toxic relationship, change will not happen until your partner recognizes what they are doing is wrong and stop. 

How to Evaluate Your Situation

I know it’s hard to decide what to do in these relationships when hope is clouding everything. I think the best course of action is to bring yourself back into alignment with your values or wishes and goals, then ask yourself, “Is this person going to get me where I want to go? Am I really able to be who I am and want to be with this person? Do we share the same values?” Once you can identify what’s important to you, you can hopefully make the right choice in a relationship.

Values clarification can help you chart a path forward in relationships and many other decision points in your life. To find a therapist in your area who can help, click here to search your area, then filter your results by Common Specialties>All other issues>Values Clarification.

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