As a clinical psychotherapist, I see couples who do not belong together. There are individuals who tolerate being screamed at or insulted by their partner. Yet when it’s suggested that they should take a break or separate from each other, they vehemently decline. They protect their partner in public when they go off on a rage and even attack family members who voice their concerns. Understanding why people stay in toxic relationships is the first step to helping them leave. Below are five reasons that people stay in toxic relationships.
- People who stay in bad relationships are satisfied. In a recent study that explored women’s decisions about staying in or leaving a relationship, the single most important determinant was relationship satisfaction. If you grew up in a home where there was chaos or abuse, you may equate love with chaos and abuse. Therefore, your perspective of what is “normal” or “satisfactory” will be different than if you grew up in a healthy loving family.
- Lower self-esteem locks you in. If people feel like they have an appealing alternative to a toxic relationship, they’ll be more likely to get professional help or leave. However, if you have low self-esteem or your partner is constantly belittling you, you may doubt your self-worth and see less options available. Unless you have a great support system, you may begin to believe the insults your partner hurls your way.
- Standards have been lowered. Individuals who stay in toxic relationships may lower their standards. For example, they minimize the insensitive things their partner does and overexaggerate even the smallest positive actions. They delude themselves into thinking the relationship isn’t that bad. Denial is a defense mechanism used somewhat in all relationships but excessively so in toxic relationships.
- The partner is controlling or manipulative. Manipulative partners can expertly use emotional abuse to make their partner feel guilty, ashamed, insane, stupid, and inferior. They may make threats of physical abuse, taking custody of the child, or simply leaving the relationship. Many people stay in toxic relationships because they’re afraid of what their partner will do to them or their children if they leave.
- Investments have been made. If you have shared income and years of emotional investment with a partner, you’re more likely to stay locked into a relationship. When you’ve experienced years of emotional abuse, it’s very hard to think logically or long-term. At this point, you’re in survival mode and not making decisions that are based on what you should do, but rather what you need to do to survive.
What can you do to help yourself? First of all, talk to your family and at least one friend. You need emotional support. Professional help can help navigate you to a place of healing. They can also help you make a plan and execute the plan to keep everyone safe. Admitting you need help is the first and biggest step in recovery from a bad relationship.
If you’re a friend of someone in a toxic relationship, keep the conversation focused on your friend, not their partner; they will defend their partner. Gently point out why you don’t think the two of them are good for each other by pointing out the differences in their values. With this approach people are less defensive and more likely to heed your warnings or comments. Encourage them to get counseling and a plan to get them out of the relationship.
There is no perfect relationship, and all relationships have ups and downs. But when the person you share your life with leaves you feeling deflated, discouraged, and worthless that’s not normal. The first step is always the hardest. Be honest with yourself, confide in at least one person, and begin freeing yourself and your children from a toxic situation.