N.S. Golemi, M.A., LPC
From the outside, the answer to a friend staying in an unhealthy relationship is obvious: get out! Despite the many attempts to convince this person they need to leave, they end up staying. What is going on?
In short, this person is convincing themselves daily that “it isn’t that bad.” Depending on how toxic the relationship is, dynamics such as trauma bonding may be at play. Trauma bonding occurs through variable ratio reinforcement, much like payoffs in gambling. The person randomly “wins” love and affection from the toxic partner, while remaining in a state of general deficit and abuse for the rest of the relationship. The toxic partner may justify abusive behavior towards the target, making it seem like the abuse was the target’s fault. In turn, the target internalizes the justification and accepts it. The pattern is clear:
When you make excuses for someone else’s behavior, you get hurt. When you make excuses for your behavior, others get hurt.
There are still more reasons why this person continues the relationship. They may feel financially trapped, isolated from resources like friends and family, or the toxic partner may be threatening them with suicide or homicide. Pets, children, and personal property may be threatened as well. Again, from the outside, it’s easy to say “that’s crazy! I would just leave!” For the majority of people who find themselves in this situation, it’s not that simple. Abusive people typically do not go from 0 to 100 overnight or else they would just leave. Their targets are slowly beaten down, like Chinese water torture. The slow drip of abuse is barely recognizable at first.
In the beginning, targets become entrapped by love bombing. The toxic partner convinces the target early on in the relationship with things such as:
- an abundance of romantic gestures and gifts
- phrases such as “you’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before,” “I knew the moment I saw you that we’d be together forever,” “you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met,” “you’re the most attractive person I’ve ever seen,” etc.
- spending every available moment with the target
- acting charmingly with the target’s friends and family
- giving the target money or expensive tokens of affection
- prolifically writing love letters and sending texts/messages
- expressing a surprising amount of lust for the target and/or engaging in sexual contact
All of these things culminate in the toxic partner setting the stage for the target becoming completely reliant on them. Taken in isolation, these items may look like they appear in healthy relationships. The key is that they occur all at once and/or very early on in the relationship (hence “love bombing“) and are actually boundary violations, signs of the storm to come. Later on, abuse can be rationalized in the target’s mind through ideas such as:
- “well, he’s obviously not that bad because he gives me _______”
- “my friends and family adore him, so it must be me that’s crazy”
- “I’ve never gotten this type of attention from anyone before”
- “She pays for all of my rent, so really what’s the big deal I have to put up with name calling and my stuff getting broken now and then?”
- “She’s so sweet most of the time. She just has a temper”
…and so on. Eventually, the reliance deepens with the abuse and justifications until the target is nearly completely blinded by the reality of the situation.
This is a brief overview that does not give full justice to the situation, so if you have any questions please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 920-545-HELP(4357). If you feel that you are in this type of relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline now at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) . Their website is https://www.thehotline.org/help/