man and woman sitting on opposite park bench sides breaking up

The question always arises whenever anyone sees a woman in a toxic relationship: why do you stay in a toxic relationship if you are unhappy? Unfortunately, the answer to the question of why we stay in toxic relationships is not as clear cut. Women remain in harmful, toxic relationships for a variety of reasons including fear or their partner, fear of the unknown, a desire to protect their children, and learned helplessness.

Mental health professionals often try to address both the fear and the self-worth issues a woman faces when trying to break free of a toxic relationship. Friends work hard to not only empower someone to leave, but provide a sense of safety. However, many women stuck in a toxic relationship feel isolated and alone, unsure about what the first step is and the resources available to them.

Toxic relationships can be mentally and physically abusive or could be something that holds a person back from finding true happiness, leading to despair or depression. Toxic relationships can happen with any friend or family member but are most damaging when they are a significant other who you have built a life with. Toxic relationship rob you of the emotional energy and strength to tackle life’s little problems let alone the major things that inevitably occur in life.

Here are nine reasons we stay in toxic relationships:

1. We Are Afraid Our Partner will retaliate

Fear of retaliation is a big reason women stay in a toxic and even abusive relationship. Women fear not just for their own safety, but for the safety of their children and other loved ones. Someone in an abusive relationship often protects their abuser even after being admitted in an emergency room to get treatment from wounds they received from them.

Threats and abusive actions give many women enough reason to think that they have no other choice but to stay and appease their abuser. The hope is to keep them at bay and not antagonize the situations to a point where the abuser will snap and go far more extreme than they already have. If you are in this type of a situation, there is help. Organizations such as Doorways in Virginia will help you find a safe place to stay and regain control of your life.

2. Being With Someone is Better Than Being Alone

No one wants to be alone and this can mean that we sometimes choose a bad situation rather than be alone. This was certainly a big factor to how I got into a bad relationship; 9-11 had just happened and I realized that there was more to life than career ambition and monetary goals. Because I was coming from a fearful state, I found myself easily swayed into a relationship by someone I previously rejected.

If you don’t feel that there is anyone else out there for you or anyone better than what you have, staying put seems like a good option. After all, why not wait until you have better prospects before venturing out on your own. However, your relationship isn’t a job that you should keep until you get a better offer. Staying in a toxic relationship because you are afraid to be alone or don’t have better prospects saps your energy and often your identity preventing you from finding your next better prospect.  

3. The Unknown Is Scarier

The fear of the unknown is enough to keep many people stuck in life paralysis. There is no fight or flight activity but instead sitting to wait for someone to rescue you or God to take you. Seriously, the fear of the unknown means that things could be worse after you leave and this might have indeed been the “best you could ever hope for.”

Our brain is hardwired to protect us and if it can’t perceive something as being a better alternative, it will choose the survival mode for the current situation. You must find a way to override your mind to see that there is something bigger and better out there waiting.

purple image of brain

4. Protecting Our Children is the Priority

Staying together for the kids is a big component of why women stay in a toxic relationship. Most of us look at our children and remember the promise we made to them when they were born (maybe even in our womb). A promise to do right by them and protect them is a common promise moms make and fear that they are breaking it if they leave.

The truth is that by staying in a toxic relationship, we encourage our children to continue the negative cycle of a dysfunctional relationship. They see us stay and start to believe that toxic is normal. Sons will develop unhealthy relationships with women and men. Daughters will not know that they can expect to be treated with love, respect, and kindness by men. Remaining in an unhealthy relationship teaches by example without any other input.

Realize that you can change how you keep that promise to do right by your children and protect them. Taking a leap to break out on your own and rebuild your life is a lesson sons and daughters can take many positive things from.

5.  We Are Accustomed To Being Treated Badly

Learned helplessness is often one of the primary reasons women can get themselves to make a move out of a toxic or unhealthy relationship. Learned helplessness is a psychological condition created through trauma that leaves a person feeling powerless. It often leads to depression and low self-esteem.

Trauma in a relationship could come from a variety of situations such as physical abuse, the death of a loved one, unexpected pregnancy, an abortion, or another emotionally scarring event. Even if your partner is not responsible for the traumatic event, say for example if a woman has a miscarriage, his attitude and perhaps even manipulation of the situation compounds negative feelings. Learned helplessness can happen over extended periods of time but doesn’t always.

6. Unworthiness Overrides Our Desires for Joy

If we don’t see ourselves as worthy or having value, being confident or courageous to leave will be difficult. Women with worthiness issues are likely to be drawn into a toxic relationship that only sucks what little confidence and worth they have. When you are already criticizing yourself and allowing your self-talk to beat you down, taking it from someone else is a pretty simple transition.

Ultimately, until we can believe that we are worth someone being kind and caring to us, giving us compliments and doing nice things for us, we are not going to leave. It starts with changing our own self-talk.

7. Memories of Earlier Loving Ways

For many who were once deeply in love with their toxic partner, you may still have strong emotional feelings about that person. You think about the times early in the relationship when you became conditioned to associate this person with great feelings. There is a dissociation that happens between your current negative thoughts that should lead to negative feelings.

It’s understandable. You want the person you fell in love back or maybe you see moments that are glimmers of the way it used to be. If you still love your toxic partner, it will be hard to rationalize the negative things as being toxic. Often, women will justify things by saying, “No one is perfect. It’s just his way but he loves me.”

8. Manipulation of Our Emotions

When a toxic partner senses or is told that you are leaving, many types of manipulation is often employed to keep you. Manipulation can start with minor things such as emotional manipulation that could include public and private demeaning, belittling, and threatening actions. Your partner may take to social media with a picture that shames you to friends and family. Physical manipulation includes withholding affection or sex.

9. Don’t Know How

It’s a big step to leave a toxic relationship. Many women find themselves not sure what to do first after being with their partner for years, if not decades. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding work or child care. Sometimes women just don’t know how to overcome the emotions of taking that first step.

Moving Day: The Big Step

Having gone through this myself, I remember the day that I left with the million little details that happened. It’s like a movie that will never be erased in my mind. While I had finally gotten myself to a point of action, the entire day was wrought with fear, uncertainty and doubt.

I had one friend who could help me the day before I left to gather things and a friend to watch my son the day of. The actual move was my burden to bear, in part because I couldn’t muster the courage to ask anyone to be in a confrontational situation with me. The day ended with my completed exhausted in every manner: physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.

But, when I got the kitchen unpacked the next day and made my son his first meal in our new home, a new sense of self emerged. There was pride, that no matter how tiny and simple our home was, it was ours. It was the start of me becoming the mother in a new way; being emotionally free to love.

Get Yourself Ready To Get Out

Maybe you want to leave; maybe you know you need to or want to help a friend find security, safety and joy. It starts with doing the work that will help you realize that you are going to be safe and okay. That first step may be the most difficult thing you ever do, but once you are standing on your own two feet in your own space, you will realize just how capable you are.

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2 replies
    • Kimberlee Leonard
      Kimberlee Leonard says:

      Glad you got out and are in a healthy relationship! Probably like you, I thought I was too independent, smart, and self-sufficient to find myself in an abusive relationship and not get out pronto. It’s the little buy-in we do in a relationship that can lead to shifts from healthy to unhealthy if we aren’t aware of what is going on.

      Reply

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