All relationships have their mix of good and bad moments. For some, the bad is significantly greater than the good. Even worse, some people are in toxic relationships and are experiencing some form of abuse like physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and more. People who hear about such relationships suggest, “Why not leave? Just ditch the abusive partner and move on.”
While that may seem like sound advice, it’s actually not easy for victims to do as people think. There are physiological, psychological, and emotional factors that come into play that make it extremely difficult for people who are abused to just pick up and leave a toxic environment. If that were so, then abuse wouldn’t be such a pressing issue in today’s world.
Victim-blaming is Dangerous
Other people argue that abused victims like being treated that way and it’s their own fault for staying. First, victim-blaming is a dangerous accusation because it minimizes or ignores the actual abuse. Instead of victims being encouraged to seek help, they are more likely to keep their problems to themselves in fear of judgment and ridicule from others.
Taking all these into consideration, let’s look at the underlying reasons why people who are in toxic relationships choose to stay with their partner starting with the physiological aspect of abuse.
What are the physiological explanations for a toxic relationship?
According to clinical neuropsychologist Rhonda Freeman, our brain has a natural functioning that prevents “walking away” from a toxic relationship from happening. (1) Here are some of the key “ingredients” (chemicals and hormones) that causes someone’s addiction or attachment to their abuser.
Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. While it regulates emotional response, it also causes a person to take action so they move towards a reward. A person in a toxic relationship strives to give their best behavior so they can get rewarded from their abusive partner.
Oxytocin is often called “the love hormone” and is responsible for feelings empathy, generosity, and orgasm. Typically, this hormone’s level increases when you hug or kiss someone you love and is often stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. It’s a hormone that underlies trust and when it comes to a toxic relationship, it causes the victim to trust their abusive partner when they shouldn’t.
3. Corticotrophin-releasing hormone
Corticotrophin-releasing hormone is the central driver of the stress hormone system in the body. It also acts on other areas of the brain such that it suppresses appetite, increases anxiety, improves memory and causes selection attention. Together, they fine-tune the body’s response to stressful experiences.
Serotonin sends signals between your nerve cells and is responsible for impacting your emotions and motor skills. It’s known as a natural mood stabilizer that helps with sleeping, eating and digesting. Normal levels of this chemical make a person feel happier, calmer, more focused and less anxious. Low levels of serotonin cause irrational ways of thinking and poor decision making.
Aside from these physiological factors that partly explain the reasoning behind why abused victims struggle to leave toxic relationships, there are emotional, psychological, and financial factors as well that influence behavior.
Here Are 6 Other Reasons People Stay in Toxic Relationships
A number of these reasons are backed by personal confessions from victims of abusive relationships that shared their story on Twitter with the hashtag #WhyIStayed.
Abused victims are often threatened by physical and emotional harm by their partner if they tried to leave the relationship. This causes terror and possible trauma for the victims. One woman was fearful of her husband’s “threats of hunting me down and harming all my loved ones including our kids while I watched and then killing me.”
Some victims are finally dependent on their perpetrator and it seems that their only option of survival is to stay. Often, victims are also purposely separated from their family and friends, which makes it even more difficult for them to stand on their own two feet if they’re to part ways with their abusive partner. One woman “I had no family, two young children, no money, and guilt because he had brain damage from a car accident.”
Some people face religious or cultural pressures to stay in an abusive relative for fear of shame from their family. One person confessed, “ My mother told me God would disown me if I broke my marriage.” Another pressure can come from the desire to have both parents present in raising their children, even if that means staying in an abusive relationship. One person said, “I wanted my son to have a father.”
4. Low Self-Esteem
Victims of abuse in a relationship experience feelings of confusion, doubt, guilt, and self-blame. One woman shared, “I believed I deserved it” and “I was ashamed, embarrassed, and blamed myself because I thought I triggered him.” A toxic environment can cause such emotions to build and as they start to point the blame on themselves when it should be on the abuser.
5. Love and Desire to be the Savior
They believe that they can influence change in the abuser if they stay in the relationship. Many people have this desire that to help their partner be better. One said, “I believed I could love the abuse out of him.” Others expressed their values of commitment and one said, “I thought I would be the strong one who would never leave him and show him loyalty. I would fix him and teach him love.”
Some people serve as human shields for their children to dodge the abuse. In these cases, victims stay to protect their children even if it means sacrificing their own safety. One person said, “I stayed for 20 years while I protected our children, all while I was being abused.”
How to Escape from a Toxic Situation
Leaving a toxic relationship is not as easy as it seems when you take all these factors into consideration among many others. It’s even more challenging for a person who’s in denial of being in a toxic relationship to come forward and seek help.
If you feel that you’re in a toxic relationship that you need help getting out of, call the national domestic violence hotline:
1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY for Deaf/hard of hearing). This service is 24/7/365 and it will give you comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. Always remember that it’s not fault.
Confide in someone you trust like a friend, a relative, a spiritual leader or elder, a doctor or counsellor who can certainly help in getting you support and even equip you with what you need to leave. You can also contact a transitional home near you or a woman’s shelter so you can find some place safe to go to.