If you’re unhappy with your relationship and suspect it might be toxic for you, there are several factors you should consider. The most prevalent reason for staying in toxic relationships is high levels of addiction. Having an intermittent reward system – inconsistent reward, or in simple terms, hot-cold or pull-push, makes the behaviour addictive. Intermittent reinforcement causes biochemical changes in our reward system.
A toxic relationship is most often caused by addiction
These changes are the root cause of human addictions like gambling, for example. A conditioned cue can become less dopamine-inducing if the reward always follows the cue. In contrast, the dopamine response is much stronger and more intense when the reward is inconsistent.
When the reward does come in the end, the rush is so much greater, as the high is so satisfying and enthralling. Interestingly, this is a great explanation for why people sometimes become bored with a good and caring partner; their brains stop producing as much dopamine as a response to the good things the person does for them.
It’s the most insidious manipulation, bringing the victim under the total control of the abuser, who feeds them love and affection intermittently to keep them hooked and occasionally satisfy their emotional needs.
However, the more infrequent the positive reward, the greater the chances of addiction. Intermittent reinforcement forms the basis of the trauma bond that sustains abusive relationships.
The root cause of toxic relationships is trauma bonding
As a result of a cycle of violence, trauma bonding is defined as the strong emotional attachment between an abused person and their abuser. Depriving the victim of affection can soon be forgotten when they receive attention, affection, and appreciation.
So suddenly all the painful moments are gone, and the victim feels a sense of bliss, and hopes for the restoration of the relationship are reignited. That’s how you got stuck in the cycle of a toxic relationship.
The question I would ask myself is: What are my reasons for staying and what is the payoff?
Here are some additional questions to explore: Do you feel worthy of loving and being loved in a fulfilling way?
The relationship between low self-esteem and abuse is bidirectional: people with low self-esteem often get involved in abusive relationships, and the abuse further deteriorates their self-esteem and self-worth. Low self-esteem leads to low expectations, as well as low comparisons.
If you do not think you are worthy or value yourself very much, it makes sense that you might get involved with someone who feeds those beliefs more. You might believe that you cannot improve, that you are permanently damaged and broken and only toxic love can make things better.
Perhaps you think that you are unworthy of love or that your relationship with that partner is the closest you will ever have. Relationships do not bring you many benefits, but rather problems, which fulfill your low expectations and keep you in the relationship.
You may also compare your situation to one that would be worse, such as “At least he doesn’t hit me” or “At least he gets back to his sweet self quickly”. You normalize the situation by minimizing the impact of the negative characteristics of your partner. This gives the illusion that the abuse is sustainable. As a result, becomes acceptable.
Additional question: Have you ever been neglected or abused as a child?
Our ways of loving develop in familiar ways. Abuse or neglect experienced during childhood may lead to abusive relationships in adulthood because it is the kind of love one has experienced.
Whenever you believe that love is supposed to hurt, you are more likely to stay in a toxic relationship, since it confirms what you believe about love. It is hard to change due to our comfort zone of suffering. We seem to want to change, but do we really want to? We are comforted by holding on to our trauma because it is familiar. And so we stay.
Do you fear being alone?
Most people who remain in toxic relationships prefer a bad relationship to no relationship at all. Our decisions are cantered around evaluating each of our options to determine which is best. In other words, staying in a toxic relationship is preferable to any of the alternatives.
This belief stems from poor judgement and low self-esteem, as fear keeps you from being alone. On top of that, you also miss out on the chance to meet someone who is a good fit for you.
Take a moment to think about these questions: What would happen if you stay alone? Could being alone hurt you more than the abuse you are receiving? How does staying in this relationship compare to being alone? Do you remember when or where you first learned of this fear of being alone or when you first experienced it for yourself?
One more thought. Have you ever been accused of being responsible for your partner’s behaviour?
Victim-blaming is one of the most vicious manifestations of abuse. Often, an abuser will convince the victim that their behaviour is their fault, claiming that they brought it upon themselves. From the outside, this may seem illogical, but guilt and manipulation have a very powerful effect on those who remain in toxic relationships.
The belief that the abuse occurs as a result of your actions is not hard to develop over time. In fact, any relationship contains interactions, which is why it is useful to consider how you contribute to it.
Nonetheless, abuse is unjustified, and it is not your fault that it occurs. Then ending the dysfunctional pattern of your relationship becomes even more difficult. As you are finally ready to leave, the abuser makes you feel guilty for wanting to leave, saying that if you tried just a bit harder, everything would fall into place. Do you recognize this scenario?
By examining this questions, you ca take the power back and have the opportunity to heal
An acknowledgement of responsibility and taking it upon oneself is paramount to healing. It is important for you to recognize and accept that you have an active role and contribution to the dynamic of the relationship, and to take ownership of that role.
Taking responsibility does not mean blaming ourselves. If you wish you had done something differently, accept responsibility without blaming yourself.
Remember, 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?