Why are toxic relationships so addictive, and why do people describe them as similar to a heroin or drug addiction?
It’s a line that feels as though it belongs in a million emotional pop songs, but love is a drug. Indeed, the line itself is almost a cliche, such is its ubiquitousness.
But this is more than just a passing comparison. The effects of being truly, madly, deeply in love are similar to the effect of taking cocaine or heroin. One study found that when an individual is presented with the image of someone they love, the same part of their brain becomes active when a person takes a recreational stimulant such as cocaine.
This chemical effect partly explains why toxic relationships are so addictive — love lifts us up to dizzy heights.
But of course, what goes up, must come down, and ultimately, it comes down to this: we love passion, and toxic partners are often passionate individuals. They wax lyrical about us, say they love us, and tell us what we want to hear — in short, they validate us.
But passion swings both ways. Just as your partner can lift you into heady heights of unbridled joy, so too can they plunge you into dark, harrowing depths.
In this article, we’re going to be looking at toxic relationships, asking why they’re so addictive, and the signs that you may be in one.
What are some signs you’re in a toxic relationship?
One of the most common signs of toxic relationships is weaponised jealousy. For instance, if you are unable to spend time with your partner for an evening because you’re seeing friends, they might arrange to meet up with an ex for an ostensibly innocuous drink.
Toxic partners are great at giving themselves plausible deniability. In this instance, your partner might tell you you’re being paranoid if you get upset that they’re seeing their ex. Ultimately, you’re left with no option but to ditch your friends and stay home with your partner instead.
In the same vein, you might also find yourself apologising to people more often. This is as a result of your partner constantly making you feel guilty, or you might become more apologetic in a bid to placate their wild mood swings. This is often the first sign to your friends and family that you are struggling with a toxic relationship.
What is a trauma bond?
Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse or an abusive relationship, when the abused person forms an unhealthy bond with their abuser. It occurs as a result of cyclical patterns of abuse and remorse/positive reinforcement. You can find out more about trauma bonding here.
One of the most notable, immediate signs you’re in a trauma bond is an intense, complicated, passionate relationship. This is actually one of the most dangerous signs, as that same passion and intensity can be intoxicating and hard to resist.
Another classic sign of trauma bonds is ‘the promise’. Your partner might regularly promise to change, to be better, to do things differently from now on. But it is a promise that never materialises.
Signs of emotional abuse and gaslighting
Toxic partners are adept at turning an argument around so it looks as though you are the one in the wrong. Even when they have clearly wronged you — perhaps they cheated on you, for instance — they will think nothing of lying to your face and making you look like the unfair party.
Your partner might also threaten or hint at suicide or self-harm if you fail to meet certain conditions. This could be overt — ‘if you ever leave me, I’d kill myself’ — or implied — ‘if you ever leave me, I don’t know what I’d do’.
Wild, unpredictable emotional outbursts are also a sign of abuse.
Your partner might be sweet and affectionate one minute, and full of rage the next at the smallest and most innocuous of provocations. This creates a highly toxic environment that leaves you in a constant state of anxiety, terrified that the smallest thing might make them turn on you again.
Such a sustained anxious state has a dramatic toll on your mental health, and people often still feel the effects of this long after they’ve left their toxic partner.
Why is it so difficult to break free from a trauma bond or a toxic relationship?
Part of the difficulty of escaping toxic relationships lies in your partner’s ability to emotionally manipulate.
If you left them, you’re worried that they’ll hurt themselves, paint you as the bad party, or convince you that you’d have no-one else to lean on for support. They make you feel as you are in a room with only one door, a door that leads to them.
But it’s also about self-esteem.
After a prolonged relationship with a partner who slyly and gradually breaks us down, mentally and emotionally, our self-esteem is at its lowest ebb. We do not find ourselves attractive or interesting, and the thought of someone else finding us attractive seems impossible.
As such, we end up staying with someone who does want to be with us — no matter how harmful or damaging or toxic that might be.
How to recover from the addiction of a toxic relationship or trauma bond
One of the best things you can do to recover from a toxic relationship, if you are able to afford it, is therapy.
There are different types of therapy or counselling, and different ways to find a therapist. The important thing is to find someone that you feel comfortable with. The professional guidance of a qualified therapist is important for helping lead you through the myriad complexities of your emotional psych.
Of course, private therapy can be prohibitively expensive. As an alternative, it could be worth sitting down, either by yourself or with an old friend or family member, and breaking down your toxic relationship.
Consider why you were attracted to them in the first place, how they made you feel, and what you felt you were lacking that they provided. For instance, if you had low confidence prior to meeting your ex, they might have increased it by virtue of flattery and praise.
Work on nurturing these missing qualities on your own, as a single individual. Do not date again until you have spent time working on improving your confidence and self-esteem through counselling, exercise, introspection, and so on.
It’s another cliche, but one that is worth remembering: you can’t love anyone until you love yourself.