It Isn't a Lack of Confidence or An Inability to Love Yourself: The Real Reason We Return To Toxic Relationships


Why We Return to Toxic Relationships

By Guest Writer, Dr. Jessica McCleese

Did you ever read a “Dear Abby” advice column? Dear Abby was a pseudonym for Pauline Phillips whose advice column became popular because of her witty, sarcastic, and incredibly short answers to people’s tough questions.

While her advice is pretty funny, it probably wasn’t too comforting to the writer. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to seek friend’s advice about a difficult relationship only to hear something along the lines of, “you need to love yourself enough to leave,” then you know exactly what I mean.

It would be great if getting away from a nasty relationship could be solved by smiling in the mirror and saying a mantra, but the truth is, relationships are complicated.

Even so, the real reason we return to toxic relationships is that we’re creatures of habit.


We’ve created a cycle

People don’t stay in relationships that are all bad. If you’ve stayed, there is something fulfilling about the relationship. It may be safety, adoration, affirmation, protection, or even good sex. There’s something that keeps a person going back to a relationship that is painful much of the time. We call that a reward.

We’re intensely relationship-oriented

As women (some of us introverts), and fairly healthy individuals, there is a deep desire within us for relationship. This will never and should never change. Our society functions because of relationship as early as birth and lasts until the day we die. You have hundreds of relationships with others from completely mundane (the clerk at the store ringing up your groceries) to complex (friendships, boss/employee, siblings, parents, and lover). Relationships fill a need for us.

In fact, the reward I talked about earlier in a toxic relationship is sometimes as simple as relating to another person. It just feels good to be connected to someone else.

Our habitual nature keeps our relationships toxic.

Just as we humans are driven to relationship, we’re driven by habit.

Confession time - I rarely get a sweet tooth, but when I do it MUST be satisfied. I try to get away from extra sugars and processed foods, including wheat, but a couple of days ago I decided I needed some carrot cake. I can’t just buy for myself so I was bringing some home to my hubby. There I am, looking in the refrigerator section and realizing that I must make a decision. Do I buy the two small slices of carrot cake for five bucks, or opt for the much larger entire cake for just two dollars more? I decided on the whole cake, and just as my habit would dictate, my husband and I ate the entire thing in one sitting. Way to keep those healthy eating goals, huh?

Habit = trigger event → habit → reward

Carrot cake example:

Buy entire cake (trigger event that sets behavior in motion) → eat entire cake (habit) → sweet tooth temporarily satiated (reward).

In a relationship it may look more like this:

you’re late for our date...again (trigger behavior) → I yell at you saying you never respect my time (habit) → you apologize, say you love me, and promise to never do it again (reward).

In other words, an event occurs which triggers a behavior that has become a habit, which is followed by some type of reward.

Can you make a toxic relationship healthy?

If the other person is willing to work with you to have a healthy relationship, then yes, you absolutely can.

Here’s how. Examine the reward that you are getting from the relationship. What about the relationship do you enjoy? What do you want more of? These things are the rewards.

Determine what stands in the way of the reward you seek. Arguments? Inappropriate boundaries? Communication problems?

Determine what behavior you’ll use instead to get your reward met. So, if I value the friendship of my relationship and I no longer want to have out of control arguments, I may decide that we take a cool-off period of 20 minutes before we discuss a difficult issue.

By the way, if you want to implement changes to your behavior so that your relationship can improve, I encourage you to get your partner on board as well.

Relationships never get toxic because of one person, and they don’t get healthy due to just one person’s hard work either.

Once you’re both on board, make a list of your relationships goals (or desires), what’s standing in the way, and what you can do instead to meet your goals.

With hope for your relationship success,


Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash