13 Reasons People Stay In Toxic Relationships, From A Psychologist
I've received the entire gamut of questions about why I was in an abusive relationship, even as a psychologist, from the curious to the compassionate to the sanctimonious. When I was younger, I'd give the excuse that I was practically a child, and I didn't know better.
But the truth is, anyone at any age, at any level of professional success or education accomplishments, could find themselves there. From double board-certified physicians to CEOs to lawyers, people have found themselves trapped. And the shame is suffocating.
If you are someone mired in such a relationship, or you are struggling to understand what's going on for someone you love, then I wrote this for you.
Note: This is written from the context of a heterosexual relationship, where the man is an abuser, and the woman is the victim, for the ease of word flow. Importantly, women can absolutely be abusers, men can absolutely be victims, and all sorts of relationships can run the risk of being toxic.
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They're available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
She'd tasted the good times and knew it wasn't just a pipe dream.
The beginning of most toxic relationships plays out like this: He bombards her with so much affection and attention, it feels out-of-this-world. For anyone who's been neglected or bullied, this can feel like you've finally met your soul mate. He may play up your similarities—or even create similarities—and tell you he's never met someone as amazing as you before. Or he could tell her about how the whole world's been horrible to him, and he's so grateful he finally found her.
But what this love bombing is really designed to do is to prevent her from having the personal space and clarity of mind to reflect on what's really going on. She gets swept away in this avalanche, and if she has a tendency to rescue or caretake someone, then all the more she may feel wedded to this relationship.
Of course, things eventually change. He does little things, and then bigger things, to erode her boundaries and lower her standards while making her feel bad. He may get moody—and flip among the roles of victim, savior, and persecutor, so she never knows which person she is dealing with, and she's always walking on eggshells. He will even blame her, so she's trained to always be on her best behavior. And because she's tasted the magical fairy-tale beginning, she knows she wasn't dreaming. Instead, she's been told that it's her fault that things have changed, so she will bend over backward and work hard to bring those good times back.
She got suckered back in.
It takes a woman an average of seven attempts to leave a domestic violence situation for good, during which she may be killed or in severe danger.
Why is she hoovered back so many times, you ask? It's simple. The toxic person knows which buttons to push and when to play nice.
It could be a message like "I would like to meet you to apologize and/or thank you for all the good times," where she feels that maybe she owes him that chance to be decent. Or it could be a birthday or holiday message, where he appeals to nostalgia and sentiment, from which he spins his web to seduce her back in. If only to punish her for having the audacity to leave, and to break her.
She mistook trauma bonding for destiny.
The thing about trauma is that your nervous system is blunted most of the time, and it only comes alive when you're experiencing danger. What this means is your feelings of pleasure and pain get confused, and even though a part of you is horrified, the other part of you feels like a zombie come alive. If you've been abused before as a child or in previous relationships, then this becomes even more ingrained. The brain tends to unconsciously draw us back to similar situations to try to repair what went wrong in what's known as "repetition compulsion." Except that with toxic people, you can never repair it because they cannot and will not change.
Repeat this across multiple relationships, and you literally feel beaten down—as if this type of relationship is your destiny. And having such a belief coupled with such a nervous system makes you feel as if you have no other alternative.
She thought it was "just a domestic."
If that's what the police are saying, if that's what everyone dismisses it as, then it's hard for her not to doubt herself. After all, she's already been trained to blame herself for everything she did and did not do.
And then I remember the words of Sir Patrick Stewart: "There's no such thing as ''just a domestic.'"
She didn't want to abandon him.
Many toxic people compare themselves to abandoned animals, should they be left. They might even talk about how if they failed in their current relationship with you, that was evidence that they were just failures in life. Plenty of drama like that, cinematographically orchestrated within a context of them drinking their sorrows away, looking at you with puppy dog eyes.
And somewhere along the lines with his sob stories, persecutory accusations, and while also claiming to be wiser than her, she became his caretaker. She became afraid of provoking him, watching her behavior just in case it would trigger him. And she also learned that if she called him out for his bad behavior, or simply needed time off to recalibrate after an abusive episode, those very acts would trigger worse behaviors because she made him feel bad.
Everything she did was potentially hurting him. And if she walked away, she'd be really letting him down.
She didn't see that, in what she was doing, she had abandoned herself.
She blamed herself.
That self-critical voice in her head, whether it was about the relationship or anything else, grew louder and louder. But really, it was his voice masquerading as hers, akin to that line in The Phantom of the Opera that goes "I am the mask you wear, it's me they hear."
He recites a litany of her misdeeds and terrible traits, from her instability to how difficult she is. Except it's projection, where he tars her with that very brush that's really his.
Even if she realized he was toxic, the blame game was way too strong by then.
She'd blame herself for not seeing that in the first place. For being abused. For not pushing back enough. For being with him. For not being able to love it away. For always triggering it. For staying. For going back. For being with him.
He became more sophisticated at his craft with time, and she got more beaten down.
The more information you tell a toxic type with regards to their behavior, the more they learn to tick the boxes of "correct behavior" and even appear to have empathy. And as she got more and more exhausted, often, anything goes.
And what does one do when they reach this point? You feel like a gambler, desperate at the table. All logic and knowledge about odds hurl out of the window. You tell yourself, "One more, one more and it will all turn around," while you reference platitudes from the fairy tales you grew up with. Love wins it all, eternal salvation after a life of martyrdom, and they lived happily ever after.
She was isolated and alone.
The deal with gaslighting isn't just about someone lying to you. Really, it is someone consistently screwing with your sense of reality, such that black becomes white, and white becomes pink—if they say so. You become disconnected from your own gut, moral compass, and values. Part of this is orchestrated systematically to beat you down; another part is also an autopilot mechanism in which you survive because questioning too much can drive you mad.
And not only are you isolated from yourself; you are also isolated from the people you love.
He may not have told her overtly, "I don't like your friends and family; don't hang out with them," and he could even say out loud "I really like them," entertaining them like the biggest charmer in the world. But when asleep, he could whisper in her ears about them, denigrate them, anything to subliminally influence her. Or he could indirectly "train" her to avoid them, for instance by having a paranoid fit every time she sees them, so she implicitly learns to associate "going out with others" with "dangerous for my relationship."
And the longer she is disconnected from her loved ones, the harder it feels to reach out again. How does she even find the words to explain her absence, without sounding stupid? Or how does she delicately dance around the fact that he has been displaying some disturbing behaviors, even if "he doesn't mean it, he's had a traumatic past, I'm the one triggering it"?
Some toxic types even play that "us against the world" card, planting these seeds, especially during that dizzying whirlwind of the love-bombing phase. Because you both are twin-flame soul mates in a mad world, you're the only person who truly gets him, so why not run away to some alternative lifestyle or new place where you can start a whole new life together?
And at the heart of it all, it all feels romantic, doesn't it?
She had no resources.
A common modus operandi is to live together quickly, and then she gets pregnant, following which he tells her to quit her job. She becomes totally dependent on him; she may have even signed her bank account over to him jointly, and he might have wiped it clean due to some addiction he claims he cannot help. And as time passes, she doesn't quite know how to reenter the commercial world.
More disturbing, however, is the phenomenon where women are held beholden to the abuser because they are immigrants whose visa has been sponsored. A Cambridge study found that the threat of deportation—coupled with being alone in a new country, sometimes without the familiarity of speaking the official language—is another factor used to keep her silent.
And if her abuser is a charming, giving person within the community, then nobody would believe her. He may even orchestrate situations where he pushes her buttons in public, then makes her look unstable so people eventually think she's the crazy one.
The scene has been set. She has zero social capital and much less financial capital.
She's been told it's too late.
Maybe she's a shadow of her old self. Her youth is gone, and her body is no longer as lithe as when they first met because who has the head space to really take care of themselves in a relationship like this?
He might even tell her all too often about how she should be grateful he's still with her. No one would ever want to be with her again. People would laugh at her if she tried to look for a relationship again; after all, she's the unstable one, she's damaged goods. She's nothing without him, she has nothing without him.
He is her only option.
She doesn't know how to deal with the danger.
If you live on tenterhooks everyday, you are exhausted. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, cognitively, everything. You have no capacity to deal with more. It's easier to knuckle under.
She knows—from the indirect and direct threats he's made—she is in danger. The dog might die. The kids might be taken away. He'll fight her to the last cent and discredit her. He might have strangled her, slapped her, or kicked her on multiple occasions, and she knows that's just a taste of what will happen if she even dares to leave.
Because a person in an abusive relationship is in the most danger as they're preparing to leave.
She wanted to (help) keep him accountable.
Dark personality types are the acme of those who promise to change. The sophisticated ones even tell you that they know all about their toxic behavior while situating it in an old pattern like a difficult childhood, exes hurting them, or their battles with substances. They may even ask you to hold them accountable.
And what does she do if she's the kind of person who always works harder to be a better version of herself? She automatically assumes that everyone else is capable of growth and willing to grow.
Mistakenly attributing such a mindset and determination to the toxic person is what keeps her hooked. Even if he may sometimes laugh it off and pretend he never said that, or say he can't promise he will be successful in changing.
She suffered from positivity bias.
The human brain is wired to remember losses and negative memories because that keeps us from repeating the same mistakes so we stay alive. In the case of toxic relationships, I have observed a curious case of the exact opposite, which I call positivity bias.
She will remember the piecemeal times that he's changed, even lauding his efforts. And she will dismiss the times he regressed even more than his changes, explaining it away with any excuse possible. She will also selectively remember and replay the good times, over the bad times. And more importantly, she will say, he's not 100% bad. Or he doesn't tick all the boxes for being a "full-blown" psychopath, narcissist, or sociopath.
Part of this is because of what we call confirmation bias—we discard evidence that contradicts what we (want to) believe, and strongly replay those times that align with our perspectives. In neuroscience terms, keep rehearsing that memory and going over it, and that becomes stronger and stronger.
And what's worse is, she could even have false memories because he gaslit her over and over again.
So many years later, I no longer fall back on the excuse of "I was young then, in a foreign land."
It can happen to anyone.
The dynamics of such a relationship are set up to get people hoodwinked and trapped. Add that to personal vulnerabilities that make us attracted, desperate to please, or feel responsible for their bad behavior, as well as the sophisticated machinations of dark personality types who've spent their entire life perfecting their craft, and it is a Molotov cocktail of danger.
As a society that's learning to embrace the gravity of mental health, perhaps we should evolve the question "Why did you stay?" to "Why do they abuse?"
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.