A Therapist Explains Why Certain People Can't Stop Chasing Toxic Relationships
Why do people date people who are bad for them?
By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | November 29, 2022
Many people come to therapy wondering if they have a problem picking romantic partners. They ask questions like:
- "I think 'toxic' has become my type. It's so frustrating. Why can't I find healthy people exciting anymore?"
- "My on-again-off-again partner can be abusive sometimes. I walk on eggshells even when we aren't fighting. I know I should leave for good, but I just can't bring myself to do it. Why am I stuck in this cycle?"
- "I recently met someone who makes me feel like a whole other person. I love being around them and don't want to miss out on us being a thing. But I'm also on the fence because I have a mutual friend who has warned me about their past. How do I know if they are bad for me?"
A toxic relationship is one that is characterized by a lack of trust, respect, and healthy communication. These relationships can be damaging to our mental and physical health, and yet some people find themselves repeatedly drawn to toxic partners.
If this is you, it may be time to take a step back and examine why this pattern exists in your life. This is the first step in breaking a cycle that can lead you down a lonely and self-destructive path.
Here are three reasons why you could be drawn, time after time, to people who do not have your best interests at heart.
#1. Is your love pathological?
The desire for love is built into every human being. It is the bedrock upon which healthy romantic relationships flourish.
But some people may have an obsessive and pathological need for love that could cause problems in how they relate to their romantic partners and dating in general.
One study found that pathological love, which is a behavioral addiction in which a person offers repetitive and compulsive care and attention to another, is linked to impulsivity.
Because such individuals only feel whole when they have someone to love and be loved by, they often impulsively begin romantic relationships without considering whether they are compatible with their partner. According to the study, these people are also more likely to stay in (rather than end) an unhealthy relationship in spite of knowing they are not happy.
#2. Is your attachment style to blame?
A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that if you witnessed your parents fighting often when you were a child, it could affect your attitude toward romantic relationships as an adult.
The study revealed that children who grew up in a conflict-ridden home developed what psychologists call 'insecure attachment styles.' These types of attachment styles make it hard for people to connect with others in meaningful and fulfilling ways.
The two insecure attachment styles that the study linked to fighting between parents were:
- Anxious attachment style, where you are constantly afraid of being left or abandoned
- Avoidant attachment style, where you suppress your true emotions for fear of appearing weak or expressing vulnerability
These suboptimal attachment styles can make it easy for someone to get involved with a person who possesses toxic traits. For instance, if you have an anxious attachment style, you could mistake a partner's controlling behavior for them being 'caring.' Even upon realizing that there is a problem, you may be unable to confront them because you have a fear of being abandoned.
#3. Do you have borderline tendencies?
If your relationship history is overwhelmingly toxic, you may need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
People with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are prone to engage in unstable and risky romantic pursuits. If you have BPD, your relationships may alternate between two phases:
- Idealization, during which you think your partner is 'perfectly perfect'
- Devaluation, during which you think your partner is 'perfectly imperfect'
This is called splitting. It is an unconscious defense mechanism that helps those with BPD protect their all-or-nothing attitude toward just about everything.
A study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that adolescents who reported feeling disgusted with themselves were at risk of developing Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) later in life. Other factors in adolescence that are associated with developing BPD include high impulsivity, uncontrolled anger, being suspicious of others' motives, and emotional instability.
Some of the most common symptoms of BPD are listed below. But remember, do not self-diagnose complex mental health conditions. If you suspect you may have some borderline tendencies, help is available.
- Feelings of abandonment and hyper-reactivity to rejection
- Feelings of emptiness
- A negative self-view often with harsh self-criticism
- Emotional instability
- Risk behaviors, including self-harm
Toxic patterns in your romantic life can be frustrating and painful, but there is hope. By becoming aware of the patterns in your relationships, building self-esteem, and reaching out for help when needed, you can break free from the cycle of toxicity and create lasting love that is healthy and fulfilling.