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Relationships

Why It Can Be So Hard to Break Free From a Toxic Relationship

In love, or just hooked on the ride?

Key points

  • Being in toxic relationships can be a pattern. Understanding why you repeat the pattern and how to break it is essential.
  • If you repeat the pattern, it may be because you feel familiar with it, like helping people in need, or are trauma bonded with your partner.
  • To break the pattern, begin by not judging yourself, talking to someone you trust, joining a support group, or working with a therapist.
 weerapatkiadumrong/iStock
Source: weerapatkiadumrong/iStock

You’re cuddling on the couch with your partner on a Sunday night; your preferred Netflix series is on the television as you share a bowl of popcorn. You marvel at how good it is to feel so close to someone, to have a person with whom you can share experiences. Simply put, you feel connected.

In fact, you’re so connected that you can sense when something is bothering your loved one. You’re trying to stay focused on the Netflix show, but there’s this other feeling you can’t put your finger on, an intensity that is hard to ignore. Your partner, who seemed to be fine earlier in the day, is now sullen and withdrawn, and although you can sense it, you have no idea why their mood shifted, and this puts you on edge.

You’ve already asked them a few times, “Hey, are you okay?” Each time, they answered with the same two words. “I’m fine.”

But you know they’re not fine, and you try to lighten the mood. In between bites of popcorn, you say, “I can’t believe we’re already into fall. I love watching the leaves change, but I can’t help feeling like it went so fast. We had so much fun this summer! I just wish we’d done more things outdoors while the weather was good.”

Boom.

Your partner’s reaction both catches you off guard and also doesn’t surprise you because this is familiar territory, a roller coaster you’ve been on before. They remove the arm that was wrapped around you and pull away. “Well, I’m sorry I didn’t do enough for you this summer. I thought we had a great time.” Your heart starts to race, and your stomach does a somersault. “We did, babe!” you say. “We totally did. I was just saying that I wish we-“

Their voice goes up a notch, and their tone becomes aggressive. “You’re never happy! It’s like nothing I do is ever enough. I’m sorry I’m not like your ex-partner.”

“Wait, what? I never even said anything about them. That's not what I meant at all. I was just saying that I-"

“You always do this; it’s like you’re just waiting for the opportunity to make me feel bad and ruin a good moment. There’s something wrong with you like you can never be satisfied.”

From here, it escalates even further; they hurl accusations at you, and you try desperately to defend yourself. They storm off and slam the door to their bedroom after they tell you to leave. “Get out,” they say. “I don’t even want to look at you.”

Overwhelmed with emotions and trembling from head to toe, there’s a lump in your throat, and your stomach is tied up in knots as you walk out the door. Luckily for you, anger is the emotion you feel the strongest, and it serves to protect you from what you’re really feeling: fear and hurt.

When the anger subsides, as it always does, doubts creep into your mind, and now guilt takes over. Was I wrong? You think. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe they’re right; I’m never happy. I shouldn’t complain. This happened with my ex-partner, so maybe I’m the one who needs to make some changes.

Guilt becomes despair, and you check your phone non-stop to see if they’ve reached out. For days, all you can think about is what they might be feeling or thinking, and your level of anxiety is at an all-time high. You hesitate to reach out because they might still be upset, and you don’t want to risk another argument.

Finally, they send you a text message: “Can we talk?” Instantly, you feel hopeful.

What follows is an epic reconciliation, one that always results in the same thing: your apology. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” you say. “I shouldn’t have said that.” The reality is that you’re not 100 percent convinced that you did anything wrong, but it doesn’t matter because you feel like you did something wrong, so it must be true.

The emotional high that follows is intoxicating. Relief courses through your body as everything returns to normal, and you go back to a state of euphoria. The incredible make-up sex helps you forget the terror you felt during your last argument, and you tell yourself it won’t happen again.

But it does happen, over and over. The situations that spark the explosive arguments are not always the same, but the pattern is consistent. Things between you are great for a few days or even for as long as a week, and you’re in a state of euphoria (the high).

Until there’s a noticeable downward shift in their mood, and suddenly you feel uneasy and anxious. Something causes them to snap and be upset with you, and then they shut you out, and you slip into despair and fear (the withdrawal). You hope that things will go back to normal, and when they do, you’re back on that high.

A consistent pattern of ups and downs fuels a toxic relationship. Before you can break it, it may be helpful to understand why you gravitate to that pattern in the first place.

Why does this keep happening?

Perhaps you’ve noticed this same pattern in all of your intimate relationships, and it worries you. Let’s make a few things abundantly clear: there’s nothing “wrong” with you. You are not broken. You are not the problem. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way let’s explore a few possible reasons why this pattern keeps repeating and why it may be hard to break the cycle.

“I love helping people." When you first meet them, they seem guarded and mysterious, and for whatever reason, this is something that attracts you even more. When they finally open up to you and share the details of their traumatic experiences and pain, you feel honored that they trust you, and it brings you closer. The depth of their wounds tugs at your heartstrings, and maybe you start to believe that you can heal them by loving them fiercely and unconditionally. You can be the person that changes their life.

“The pattern feels familiar.” Maybe you grew up in an environment where one or both of your parents had unpredictable moods, and you always felt like you were walking on eggshells. It is terrifying as a child to see your parent become explosively angry and upset, especially because, as a child, you simply do not have the brain development as of yet to fully process and understand that their scary moods and explosiveness have nothing to do with you.

Instead, you may be more inclined to develop a belief that it’s your fault, that you did something wrong. So you do whatever it takes to get them back to happy, which means that maybe you adhere to whatever rules they’ve laid down, and you apologize for things you didn’t do.

Once your parent’s mood passes, and they go back to being the loving parent you need, it reinforces what you believe: their happiness is your responsibility. This dynamic can then play out in your adult relationships. You approach your partner’s mood swings with the same belief: it's your responsibility to make it better.

“There's a trauma bond.” Not only has your partner trusted you with the deeply traumatic experiences they’ve had, but you can relate to them because you’ve had similar experiences. Maybe you were both physically and/or sexually abused, or you experienced extreme poverty and hunger. Perhaps the trauma bond is a shared experience of bullying or childhood in which you both witnessed repeated domestic violence.

Sometimes the trauma bond is the experience of parental abandonment: both of you were left in the care of a family member because one or both of your parents left your home country and moved to the United States.

Any number of traumatic experiences can bring you together. This bond is strong because you believe that another person who’s never been through the same things could ever understand you and, more importantly, love you.

Why is it so hard to walk away?

“I feel guilty.” If you believe it’s your responsibility to “heal them,” and there’s a part of you that feels sorry for them because of everything they’ve been through, it’s likely you will develop strong feelings of guilt for leaving the relationship. You worry they will hurt themselves or do something drastic, and then it will be your fault. You may interpret wanting to leave as “I’m not a good person,” which holds you hostage in the relationship.

“It’s not physical abuse.” You get into explosive arguments, and you’re always feeling scared, on edge, and anxious, but because they never physically hit you, you tell yourself that it’s not that bad. This kind of rationalization/justification can blind you to the reality that emotional manipulation and verbal abuse are indeed serious forms of abuse, and both are catastrophic for your mental, emotional and physical health.

“The sex is incredible.” The volatility of your partner’s mood and the up-and-down nature of your relationship may intensify the sexual connection. This, too, can make it difficult to walk away. Finding a partner with whom a sexual connection is strong may have been difficult for you in the past, and you’re worried you won’t ever find that again.

“If they really love me, they will change.” Maybe you have fallen into the trap of thinking that if they really love you and you’re worth it, they will change. This is a dangerous path to travel because you are equating their efforts to change with your sense of self-worth, which will make it tough for you to walk away.

Do people change? Yes, absolutely. But can we change them? No, we cannot. People change themselves if and only they are motivated to work on their issues independent of the relationship and how they feel about you.

“What is everyone going to think?” You used to have an active social life, lots of friends, and plenty of time with family, and perhaps you were more invested in your job. But once you got into the relationship, it became your primary focus; you stopped hanging out with friends and family, stopped investing mental energy into your job, and now your world feels very small. You might be afraid to leave because of how lonely it will be, and you may be worried about what your friends and family will say because they saw the toxicity before you did and tried to warn you.

So what do you do?

Stop judging yourself. Judging yourself for being in an unhealthy pattern will never make you feel better, not even a little bit. Recognize that the reality of a toxic relationship is painful all on its own, and when you judge yourself, you are adding a layer of suffering to that pain.

Talk to someone you trust. When things aren’t going well, and we don’t share it with anyone, everything can feel super overwhelming and scary. Opening up to a friend or a family member will not necessarily resolve the problem, but it can serve to make you feel less alone and isolated. Talking to someone who can make the space for you is important because a heavy load is lighter when it is shared.

Join a support group. Maybe you’re not 100 percent ready to walk away, which is 100 percent okay. Ending a volatile, toxic relationship is not an overnight endeavor for everyone. It’s a process that requires some level of awareness, understanding, and acceptance. A support group can provide encouragement and consolation and may also help you find the solution that will work for you.

Find a therapist. Therapy can help you develop awareness and get a better understanding of the reasons why this pattern continues to play out for you in relationships. It may also help you process the trauma of your current and past relationships and help you move on from the relationship with insight, perspective, and, most importantly, peace.

Conclusion.

Intimate relationships are not the only relationships in which there can be toxicity. These patterns can develop with a family member or with a supervisor at work. They can be detrimental to our mental and physical health, and if we’re not paying attention, they can rob us of all the things that bring us joy. If you are in a toxic relationship and don’t think you can walk away because you still care, just know that leaving a relationship doesn’t mean you have to stop caring. It just means you need to care from a safe distance.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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