Why We Stay: The Truth Behind The Science of Toxic Relationships
Probably 95% of my clients come to me because they are in toxic relationships. Thousands more read my blogs about toxic relationships every day and reach out, wondering how to get out of theirs.
Without exception, they all believe that they should be able to get out of the relationship. I mean, they know, for the most part, that they are unhappy, but they just find themselves unable to let go.
As a result, they feel terrible about themselves.
After years of study, I have come to see that, in fact, the ability to get out of a toxic relationship is not the result of some character flaw. In fact, it is often the result of chemistry in our brain and instincts in our body that make it impossible to let go of a love, even if it’s sucking us dry.
To that end, let me tell you why we stay – the truth behind the science of toxic relationships.
If you can understand the science, you will understand more about what you are dealing with and, perhaps, learn how to shift things.
#1 – What happened in our childhood.
According to Robert Winston at the National Library of Medicine, “neglect, parental inconsistency and a lack of love can lead to long-term mental health problems as well as to reduce overall potential and happiness…Indeed, longitudinal studies have reported that a child’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships throughout life may be significantly impaired by having an insecure attachment to a primary caregiver.”
When their kids are born, parents are not handed a manual on how to raise kids. Instead, they are forced to wing it. Imagine driving a car without any driver’s ed – the potential for destruction is huge.
As a result, many parents make lots of mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are the result of their own parents. Sometimes those mistakes are based on mental health issues. Sometimes those mistakes are the result of substance abuse. And sometimes they are the result of the parent just being fallible.
Whatever the reason, if a child is neglected, not touched and talked to, during their formative years, it can lead to lasting damage to their emotional wellbeing and an inability to form healthy relationships.
As a result, these people will enter relationships with the hope that they will find the love and affection that they didn’t get in their childhood. Unlike people who are healthily bonded, these people, when they don’t get the love they seek, will stay anyway because it’s all they really know.
#2 – Brain chemicals.
According to Kaia Roman in her article for mbgmindfulness, “when we ask ourselves what makes us happy, we often think of the circumstances, possessions, or people in our lives. In reality, happiness is largely a chemical experience.”
When we are happy or loved or felt taken care of, our brain emits one (or more) of the “feel good” chemicals: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine or oxytocin.
These chemicals, the result of external stimuli, are things that we, as humans, get addicted to. Life is hard – these rushes of chemicals in our brain make it not so difficult, at least for a while.
This is a key piece of the science of toxic relationships.
When we first get into a relationship, these “feel good” chemicals abound. Falling in love, especially, leads our brain to get flooded with these chemicals and we feel like we will never be unhappy again.
When a relationship turns toxic, our brain has a hard time understanding that this person who made us feel so good now makes us feel so bad. As a result, it (and you) look to this person to help produce those chemicals.
And the brain never gives up – and neither do you. You stay in the relationship, believing that, somehow, you will receive those “feel good” chemicals again.
#3 – State of mental health.
Many people who are depressed, anxious, or otherwise struggling mentally health-wise, are often people who get into, and stay in, toxic relationships.
People who are struggling with mental health issues tend to get into relationships that are unhealthy. Because they feel so bad about themselves and have no hope for the future, they are willing to settle into relationships that are bad.
On the other hand, people who are in toxic relationships can be happy at the beginning and then find themselves sinking into depression or anxiety as a result of its toxicity.
Both of these things lead to the same outcome – staying in a toxic relationship because we just don’t believe that we can be happy in the world, whether in this relationship or not.
#4 – Lack of self-esteem.
Another side effect of mental health issues is a lack of healthy self-esteem.
When someone is in a toxic relationship, the “feel good” chemicals in our brain dry up completely. In combination with lack of primary bonding or events that happen in our lives, this absence of “feel good” chemicals lead to low self-esteem.
And, when we are struggling with low self-esteem, we don’t believe that we deserve any more in a relationship than we are getting.
We believe it when our partner tells us that everything is our fault. We tell ourselves that we don’t deserve anyone better. We don’t believe that anything will ever change. And so we stay.
Unfortunately, the longer the toxic relationship lasts, the worse one’s self-esteem gets and the more likely someone is to stay!
#5 – We are addicted to love.
As I noted before, those “feel good” chemicals that flood our brain when we are falling in love are addictive. As a result, we seek love where ever we can so that we can get those juices flowing and be happy.
We are also addicted to love because of the society we live in.
For women, we are told at birth that the pinnacle of one’s life is falling in love and getting married. On TV and in movies, the quest for love is a common topic, a quest that usually ends well.
Social media and reality TV flood us with what ideal loves looks like and how to get it!
Unfortunately, these things set us up to be addicted to love – to seek it at all costs and to hold onto it when we have it, even if it’s not healthy.
#6 – Subconscious need for drama.
I am a Pisces and what I have learned about being a Pisces over the years is that we crave drama.
Yes, we yearn for stability and consistency but, counterintuitively, we also need drama to keep us interested. And this doesn’t always have the best consequences.
It’s not only Pisces who seek drama – most of us do.
According to Nicole Roberts in Forbes Magazine, human beings need attention and we actively seek it. “To do this, we instinctively seek more drama. This is because the pituitary gland and hypothalamus secrete endorphins – also known as the pain-suppressing and pleasure-inducing compounds mimicked by opioids and heroin.”
Some drama can be good – like watching “White Lotus” – but most drama isn’t healthy. Either way, our brains release endorphins, the pleasure-inducing compound and/or the pain-suppressing compounds.
Toxic relationships are full of drama – usually bad – and that gets the endorphins going. And this is why the make-up sex is so good – because of those “feel good” chemicals coursing through your body after a fight.
#7 – The need to be linear and efficient.
Are you one of those people who sets a goal on something and does whatever they can to get it?
Or are you one of those people who makes a list and then checks everything off?
Or perhaps the kind of person who never gives up, no matter what obstacles are in front of you?
All of these attributes can serve us well in life but they can sometimes be counterproductive in relationships, especially toxic ones.
So many of my clients stay in their toxic relationships because they have so much time invested. They think that, if they have to start again, all of their time will have been wasted.
Even worse, some clients stay because they don’t believe in quitting. And this, I always say, is self-destructive. If your partner treats you badly or your relationship is toxic and there is very little likelihood of change, not quitting will only make you unhappier.
So, know that, the things that serve us in the real world are things that can sabotage us in love. This is an important think to note when considering the science of toxic relationships.
#8 – Fear.
According to the University of Minnesota, “Fear is a human emotion that is triggered by a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism that signals our bodies to respond to danger with a fight or flight response. As such, it is an essential part of keeping us safe.
However, when people live in constant fear, whether from physical dangers in their environment or threats they perceive, they can experience negative impacts in all areas of their lives and even become incapacitated.”
When we are in toxic relationships, we are afraid that if we leave them, we will perish.
That we can’t live without our person or that we will never love or be loved again. And, so, we stay, fearful that if we leave, we will literally die.
Is fear, for whatever reason, keeping you in this toxic relationship? Don’t let it. You have overcome fear before and you can do it again!
#9 – Our heart and our brain don’t agree.
One of the things that sabotages us most is the disconnect between our brain and our heart. Our brain tells us one thing, and our hearts tell us another.
You know the saying, “The heart wants what the heart wants?” It’s a lovely sentiment, but it doesn’t always lead to a healthy income.
Imagine if you were looking to buy a house. You found the house of your dreams, but it cost substantially more than you can afford. Your heart tells you to go for it, your brain says walk away.
So, which organ do you follow here? Your heart and get yourself in too deep financially? Or your brain, which, if you listen to, you might always regret walking away.
Do you see the paradox? Yep, I bet you do.
So, it is in love. Your brain might be seeing all of those red flags and tell you to run. It might recognize that you aren’t happy and that it’s time to do something about it.
But your heart is telling you to believe that this relationship will work. That your person will change back into the person that they were in the beginning. That if you just stay, things will work out.
And, so, you struggle, trying to choose which organ to listen to, and you stay.
The science of toxic relationships is quite fascinating.
While we might think that our failure to walk away from a toxic relationship is because of a personal deficiency, in reality, our bodies are wired, in many ways, to make it hard for us to do so.
Between the childhood bonding, “feel good” chemicals, and the constant brain/heart battle, it’s no wonder why we stay in toxic relationships longer then we might otherwise do.
All of this being said, while the science of toxic relationships is real, you do have free will. You can choose to work to overcome these biological factors and make changes in your relationship.
It might seem hard, but people do it every day. They walk away from toxic relationships and find the happiness that they seek.
You can do it too!