Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

3 Mindsets That Enable Toxic Relationships

Leaving isn't always easy, but there are ways you can help yourself.

Key points

  • We think of people as being motivated by gain, but the impulse to avoid loss is much stronger, even in relationships.
  • The ability to leave a relationship is affected by the sunk-cost fallacy, intermittent reinforcement, and the habit of second-guessing yourself.
  • There are specific strategies you can use to motivate and empower yourself into leaving an unsatisfying or even toxic relationship.
 Einar Storsul/Unsplash
Source: Einar Storsul/Unsplash

For all the mumbling about heading off to greener pastures and how the grass is always greener on the other side, the truth is that humans are, psychologically speaking, a conservative lot and much more likely to stay put than move on—even when it’s detrimental to our psychological and emotional health. Many of us, in fact, will be spending more time worrying that if we leave where we are now, the grass will be browner or utterly non-existent. Keep in mind that noting the power of loss aversion won psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel prize in Economics.

If you’re inclined to disagree, just think about every story you’ve ever heard about a bad relationship and note how many adults confessed that they ended it too early; my guess is that you’re hard put to even come up with one.

Not surprisingly, if the relationship you’re trying to disengage from consistently puts you in the line of fire—if there’s active verbal abuse, such as marginalizing, stonewalling, gaslighting, or undermining your sense of self—you may find it even more difficult to head for the door. The sad truth is that these relationships are founded on an imbalance of power and put you in the position of trying to wrest something from the other person that he or she is either unwilling or unable to give you.

There are actually psychological reasons we tend to overstay even when the red flags are waving in the wind, and we know rationally that the best and only strategy is to head for the exit pronto. So what, precisely, keeps us stuck?

Looking for the super-glue that holds us back

Here are three mindsets you may not even be aware of, even though you know better in moments of clarity or in the quiet of your therapist’s office.

1. Introducing the Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Yes, the tip-off here is the word “fallacy,” and the reality is that humans do this all the time, whether they’re fretting about the money they invested in something or the time or energy they’ve put into a relationship. The thought process looks like this: If I leave now, I’ll lose all the time or money I’ve already invested.

The painful truth is that the investment—whether it’s time or money or energy—is already long gone, and there’s no way of getting it back, and hanging around will only increase the investment you’ve already made. So, basically, you’ve got to take the loss on the chin—yes, the 5 or 10 years you spent trying to make this relationship work might have been better spent, ditto the money you poured into an endeavor—and figure out where you’re going next. Think spilled milk.

2. The Power of Intermittent Reinforcement

It was B.F. Skinner who gave us this insight with his study of three hungry rats, and yes, it applies to humans too. The first rat was in a cage with a lever that delivered food pellets every time it was pushed, and that rat went about his business, knowing that when he was hungry, he could eat. The second rat was in a cage where pushing the lever produced nothing, and having discovered that, he forgot about the lever. But the third rat got thoroughly hooked because the lever delivered food intermittently, and he basically couldn’t stop pushing it. The cycle of occasional reward is intoxicating, and yes, that’s also the lure of the slot machine.

It also happens in a bad relationship when we get a glimpse of what we want from our partner once in a while; like the rat, we focus on the positive, not the many times we were denied what we wanted. This spurs on all manner of wishful thinking—“See, we’ve turned the corner!” or “He/she is changing before my very eyes!”—and we find ourselves newly energized by a hopefulness that is, alas, based on nothing at all. (Yes, you are just like that rat, pacing in front of that lever, hopeful that this push will be a rousing success!) That hopefulness, especially when combined with active verbal abuse, amps up the volume on another unhelpful mindset.

3. The spiral of second-guessing yourself

Yes, this is the merry-go-round of “Maybe this relationship isn’t so bad because all relationships have issues,” or “Maybe I’m overly sensitive like he/she says,” or “Maybe he/she didn’t mean it,” or “Things could be way worse, and maybe I’m lucky.” In these moments of cascading self-doubt, the degree to which your inner self has been torn down floats to the surface, though you may not even see the cause-and-effect.

It’s at this moment that you have to reach for the reset panel.

How to countermand the mindsets and reboot

Much of what needs to be done has to do with becoming consciously aware of why you are reverting to these ways of thinking and actively combat them.

1. Tackle the thought patterns.

This requires being quite literal and actually talking back to the thoughts you have in your head, reminding yourself that staying doesn’t help you retrieve time or anything, and yes, things are as bad as you think they are. Working with a gifted therapist is the best option, but self-talk does help. Asking yourself which part of you is showing up at this moment—is this your empowered self, or the one who’s scared of being on her own? The one who can be confident, or the one who’s terrified of making a mistake?—should be part of your strategy.

Literally talking back—yes, out loud—sounds silly, but it increases your chances of actually getting your voice back. If you are parroting what’s been said to you, call that out too.

2. Make a plan for your exit (and write it down).

Studies show that setting a goal and writing it down, along with the steps you plan on taking to achieve it, motivates people much more than simply thinking about a goal they want to achieve. Obviously, if you are in a relationship that could end with contentiousness, you should make every effort to keep your plans private. But if you’ve been unable to make a move for a considerable length of time, this may be the push you need. Tackling some of your more negative thought processes in writing can also be enormously helpful.

3. Practice self-talk.

Becoming your own inner cheerleader isn’t about being relentlessly optimistic or being a Pollyanna; it’s an antidote to the habit of self-blame and self-criticism. What is self-criticism? It’s the habit of mind that attributes every mistake, every setback, every failure to a fixed character flaw, and it’s usually an echo of something that was said to you and about you in your life and which you internalized as truth. Which it isn’t.

Learning to accept a setback without skinning yourself alive is part and parcel of moving forward, and self-talk can become a part of that process. Again, self-talk isn’t telling yourself how wonderful you are but appreciating your efforts and the personal qualities that drove them even when those efforts fell short. Let’s say you had a confrontation with your partner that didn’t end well, but, at least this time, you held your own and voiced your opinion. Yes, you can criticize yourself for folding at the end, but at the same time, appreciate the progress you made by speaking your truth.

Leaving where we’ve been, even when it makes us unhappy, can be complicated. But it can be done.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2021

The ideas in this post are drawn from my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and my forthcoming book on verbal abuse.

Facebook image: kittirat roekburi/Shutterstock

advertisement