Understanding Why We Stay in Toxic Relationships

Meet PB, a woman in her late thirties who finds herself trapped in a relationship that has grown increasingly toxic over the years. She wakes up every day with a heavy heart, battling a whirlwind of emotions, from anger to sadness, but above all, guilt.

Guilt for not walking away when her friends urge her to do so. Guilt for being manipulated and controlled. Guilt for wanting someone who does not treat her well.

Countless individuals face the same emotions, caught in the web of a toxic relationship that seems impossible to escape.

Unraveling the Stigma & Shame of Staying

In a world that often emphasizes the importance of self-preservation, staying in a toxic relationship is unfairly stigmatized. This stigma only deepens the feelings of isolation, guilt, and shame that individuals in toxic relationships often grapple with. They often ask, “Why am I still here? Why can’t I just leave?”

These questions, driven by societal expectations and self-blame, are relentless tormentors:

  • Societal Expectations: Society often imposes expectations on relationships, fostering the belief that love should conquer all and loyalty should be selfless. The pressure to maintain the appearance of a perfect partnership (especially on social media) can lead to guilt when the reality doesn’t align with the idealized image.
  • Self-Blame: People may internalize their abusive partner’s criticisms, believing they deserve mistreatment or are somehow responsible for their partner’s behavior. This self-blame perpetuates stigma, making it even harder to break free.

Navigating the Complex Web of Manipulation

To understand why people find it challenging to leave, we must unravel the complex web of manipulation that shrouds their reality. Manipulation can take on many forms, but below are three common tactics:

  • Gaslighting: where one person systematically invalidates the other’s feelings and experiences, making them question their perception, reality, and/or sanity.
  • Intimidation: Overt threats and intimidation force compliance through fear.
  • Isolation: Tactics isolating the individual from friends and family to erode their support system. This often happens over the course of time and many survivors report not realizing it was occurring until much later. This tactic can also be presented by the abusive partner as “helping” or “protecting,” making it even more difficult to identify.

Manipulation gradually erodes an individual’s confidence and self-esteem. It’s like living in a distorted reality where the lines between right and wrong, love and control, become blurred.

Recognizing The Brain’s Role

Our biology also plays a role in keeping us tethered to the ones who may cause us harm, particularly two neurotransmitters that influence our emotions and behaviors:

  • Oxytocin releases when we engage in activities promoting social bonding. It floods our system during moments of intimacy and trust. This chemical response creates a powerful emotional connection, making it challenging to sever ties.
  • Dopamine surges when we experience pleasure, or reward. In an unhealthy relationship, the intermittent reinforcement of positive moments—moments when the toxicity temporarily recedes—can lead to dopamine spikes. It’s like a rollercoaster ride where the highs are exhilarating, even when devastating lows follow.

Understanding these chemical processes shouldn’t diminish any feelings or experiences; instead, it sheds light on the biological underpinnings of attachment.

Acknowledging the Practical Barriers

While toxic relationships’ emotional and psychological aspects play a significant role in why people stay, there are also practical barriers, such as:

  • Financial Dependence: Toxic relationships often involve power imbalances extending to financial control. When one partner controls the money, it can leave the other feeling trapped, without the means to support themselves.
  • Concerns About Children: Another barrier can be the worry about the impact of divorce or separation on children and believing that staying will protect them. It is a heartbreaking decision highlighting the sacrifices parents are willing to make to protect their family.
  • Paralyzing Fear: Toxic relationships can escalate dangerously, and the fear of what might happen if one tries to escape can be paralyzing. This fear can be compounded by the belief instilled by the abusive partner that the survivor cannot have a successful life without them. Acknowledging this fear and the profound courage required to confront it is essential.
  • Genuine Love: Many individuals in toxic relationships still feel genuine love for their partners. Leaving an abusive relationship is still a painful breakup, filled with the anguish of severing a deep emotional bond. This love, often intertwined with guilt for “abandoning” the other person, adds another layer of complexity to the decision-making process.

Embracing Change and Seeking Support

All of this comes down to a simple truth: the choice to leave or to stay in a toxic relationship is far from simple. It’s a complex issue entangled with a myriad of valid reasons for both. But, if you’re facing these impossible challenges, you are not alone.

If you need support, don’t wait to reach out. There is no shame in seeking understanding, asking for help, and wanting change. Your well-being and your future are worth the steps you take today.