Why Do We Get Trapped in Toxic Relationships? Research Suggests an Answer

by InnerHour on Mon, 19 Jun 2017

When we talk about abusive relationships, we usually focus on physical and sexual abuse. But is emotional abuse as harmful as physical abuse? Recent studies say that it often is. Psychologists have put forward the concept of ‘C-PTSD’ or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Chronic or long-term exposure to emotional trauma, over which a victim has minimal or no control and from which there is a low chance of escape, can affect a person’s nervous system in the same way physical abuse does. It can also damage the victim’s self-esteem, and make them feel negative, emotionally and physically, long after the abuse has actually occurred.

In the face of all this, why would anyone stay in the relationship? One of the reasons is usually practical, like being financially or socially dependent on your abusive partner, parent or friend. Sometimes, even when the person has enough money or the skills to make money, they may choose to stay because the abuser has taught them that they will not be able to survive on their own. Some may think it is the right thing to remain in such a marriage for their children or simply because leaving your spouse is wrong according to their culture or religion.

When they do work up the courage to try and leave, the abuse may escalate to dangerous proportions. This could take the form of stalking, severe physical violence and other forms of manipulation. If they don't threaten to inflict harm upon the victim, they may threaten to harm themselves, thus guilting the victim into feeling sympathy for them. The toxic combination of lack of self-esteem, repeated abuse, guilt trips, positive attention obtained following the abusive episode and finally, the escalating threats when the victim tries to get away, all keep them coming back to the abusive relationship.

Research has also highlighted two very important theories to explain this. The first is ‘learned helplessness’. It suggests that because of past experience of being unable to escape, victims feel like escape is not possible and stop attempting to escape in the future.

But a new, contrasting theory has recently been developed called 'learned hopefulness’. This reflects a scenario in which people in abusive relationships continuously hope that the situation will improve just because they want it to so badly. Despite the abuse, they continue to believe their partner will be able to change one day. In such cases, their partner continues to promise to change, show affection or repentance after the abuse.

Even people who live with chronic psychological abuse have some minor qualities they love in their abuser. This small glimmer of hope makes them withstand the abuse in the hope that they can one day help their partner change. Rather than accept the reality of the situation, they may believe that by changing their own behaviour, by becoming ‘better’ themselves, they can finally make their abuser happy and the abuse will then stop. They might become more submissive and take on the role of a ‘victim’ suffering for the cause of their love.

Knowing all the above, it’s important to remember that rather than question a survivor of abuse, we must offer patience, support, and understanding. Encourage them to reach out to loved ones or a professional and speak out about their experience. Don’t be afraid to end the cycle. 

If you, or anyone you know, is dealing with an abusive partner, don't hesitate to reach out to us. An InnerHour therapist can help you


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