Why do we stay in toxic relationships and why might our childhoods matter?

Who has been stuck in a toxic relationship and told to walk away by well meaning friends and family? As if it was as easy as that! And whilst you get fed up with them saying it, you sense their irritation when you tell them about yet another incident of your partner’s bad behaviour and they just can’t understand why you put up with it.

Alternatively, you may have friends and family who, through perhaps cultural, traditional or religious views, believe you should put up with it and try harder to make things work. I am not, in this post, discussing the merits of trying to stay together which have value in some circumstances, this is about why we stay in relationships when we really should go. There are also times when we cannot leave through fear of our safety, again another post.

Exploring childhood experiences can help us to gain perspective. I believe my childhood experiences caused me to be stuck in a bad relationship for many years. What counts as toxic behaviour? Cheating, violence, aggression, financial control, coercive behaviour including sexual, refusing to communicate for long periods of time, punishments, isolating behaviour, disrespect in front of others, disrespect to you as a person and lack of care resulting in poor mental and physical wellbeing…

Of course as well as past experience, personality also has a role to play in our difficulties in taking care of ourselves.

My mum and dad were always arguing and their arguments often resulted in violence. Whist I knew my friends’ parents did not behave in such a way, this was all I knew and so it was ‘normal’ to me. Therefore when my partner began to show unreasonably angry behaviour, I wasn’t shocked or suitably concerned. Yet strangely I would never have wanted to replicate the experiences of my childhood.

My mum had extremes of mood and her methods of discipline were inconsistent. I developed a strategy of constantly trying to please her. This was so ingrained in me that as an adult I constantly tried to please people at the extent of my own wellbeing. I felt I had to please people to be of value as a person. Pleasing people is fine if it is appreciated, returned and within reasonable boundaries of time, money, energy and self respect.

As a child, any effort on my part to feel good about myself was seen as ‘cocky’ by my mum. She frequently ‘put me down’. Therefore I grew up believing I didn’t deserve anything better. When my abusive partner told me that if I left him, I was a really horrible person, then partly I believed him. Whilst we shouldn’t be a selfish person, we must take care of our wellbeing and happiness.

Because my mum was controlling but at the same time suffered with anxiety and lacked confidence, I in turn did not have the confidence nor self belief to get myself professional help and to begin to live independently. My partner of course used this to his advantage, monitoring all my emails and post and spending all my money so I had none to get somewhere else to live.

Because my dad had just put up with my mum’s angry and violent behaviour because he wanted a ‘quiet life’ and couldn’t face the issues around divorce and being on his own, and also due to embarrassment around the issue of domestic abuse, I never learned myself how to enforce my own boundaries and deal with bullying behaviour in an assertive, calm way. I had learned that you just put up with it and occasionally shout back when you finally snap.

Due to the impact of my mum’s rages, I would be compliant to my coercive partner in order to avoid an angry outburst. It is a bullying relationship when you are constantly afraid to say or do something for fear of your partner’s reaction (walking on eggshells).

Being a forgiving person and ever hopeful, I would forgive his bad behaviour when he was nice. I would believe that he would change and came to look forward to those times when he was fun and kind as no doubt I did with my mum as a child. He only had to smile at me in a certain way and I would be hooked in again! This becomes an abusive cycle where we are always craving the good mood which follows the bad.

Where there have been problems of lack of love or bonding as a child, some people form strong attachments to people even if that person is bad for them. This makes it emotionally difficult to break away. Often this is made worse by a mistaken belief that their partner needs them.

An abusive partner may take advantage of your self doubt, lack of self esteem and kind nature by telling you that you are the one being horrible, disloyal, cowardly, a bad parent, mentally unstable. That you won’t cope without them, they can’t live without you and that if you leave, you will destroy everyones’ lives and any fallout will be your responsibility. Sometimes we doubt we will ever meet anyone else or succeed on our own and we lose the impetus to create the life we really want.

If a relationship can be worked on to improve, that’s great, but when your relationship is destroying you, you probably know deep down it’s time to go.

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