I know this is a toxic relationship, but I almost go into a panic at the thought of not being with him."
Why do good people find themselves stuck in toxic relationships? Therapists often speak of something called “love addiction,” where a person craves the sense of fulfillment and validation that comes from being in a relationship, no matter how destructive. Although love addiction isn’t an official diagnosis, scientific literature highlights the intricate relationship between the need for love and validation, early childhood trauma and substance use disorders.
Traumatic childhood experiences shape our perception of the world for the rest of our lives. Childhood trauma is not limited to a violent trauma, like sexual abuse, physical abuse or neglect, but could result from having parents who were not loving caregivers, or who failed to give validation at critical moments in a child’s life. This can set up a near-pathological need to seek unconditional love and affection. At one level, this search for love stems from an inability to develop a healthy and internalized sense of self-worth in childhood. Severe and unwarranted criticism over the years is enough to throw off a person’s ability to trust themselves, resulting in internalized messages of powerlessness, not being good enough or not being safe. As a result, any sense of value or worth in adulthood becomes defined solely by the relationship with other people.
Often, people who experience complex trauma in their early familial relationships unconsciously try to recreate that dynamic. They might become involved in relationships that mimic the early negative experiences they had with an unavailable or potentially emotional or physically abusive partner. It’s almost as if they want to recreate the circumstances of the early experience so they can have an opportunity to fix it and experience the unconditional love that was missing in the first relationship.
Love addiction is like gambling addiction.
Some people approach relationship choices at a very conscious level, saying, “Oh, I need a partner who gets my adrenaline going, otherwise it gets boring.” That has a lot to do with familiarity – people who grow up with chaos or emotional instability can develop the experience as their norm, which can impact what they seek in future relationships and leave them possibly self-sabotaging potential healthy relationships as it falls out of what they expect. Ironically, their unhealthy relationships create a feeling of safety. It is not uncommon to have conversations with those in these situations who speak about how although potentially unsafe in reality, a toxic relationship becomes familiar, and something that is familiar is less scary than something that is safe but unknown or not experienced before.
The “high” from “love addiction” is very similar to what we see in gambling addiction, which is built around variable reinforcement. The relationship, which once started in honeymoon-like state, devolves to mostly negative interactions. Then, BAM! there is one good experience that seems to make up for all the destructive ones. It’s like making a lucky pull on a slot machine, a big rush that makes you forget that when you add everything up, you’re losing money. That is one of the strongest types of reinforcements, and it contributes to keeping people in unhealthy relationships, chasing the rush they get from intermittent and unpredictable positive reinforcement.
Our boundaries impact our choices.
Our boundaries with others directly impact how are we treated by others in our relationships. People who suffer from love addiction often never developed a healthy set of boundaries between themselves and others in close, personal relationships. This is especially true If parents or guardians didn’t model healthy boundaries, were always fighting or triangulated their child into the role of mediator, affecting the grown child’s ability to know what should be expected from a healthy relationship.
There are two types of unhealthy boundaries that we often explore in treatment. One type of boundary holds others at a distance, because it helps them feel protected and safe and minimizes the potential for conflict. The cost of this sort of boundary is people don't feel connected in their relationships. They are lonely and lack the support that could come from a warmer, more emotionally intimate relationship.
Simply put, if you're always pushing people away emotionally, it's really challenging to have an intimate relationship. The other person might feel neglected, or they might sense that you’re keeping yourself closed off. When the relationship breaks up, it serves as a reinforcement for all those negative messages that have been internalized: “I'm not lovable, and I have to do what it takes to find love.”
The second type of unhealthy boundary is a fused or codependent boundary, where a person is like a sponge and soaks up their partner’s identity. People who have fused themselves with their partner are more likely to accept poor treatment in a relationship, and fearful of what would happen if they don’t. It might seem like they value their romantic partner above themselves. While they can feel connected, they neglect to care for themselves. They may not even know what they value or prioritize because they have become so enmeshed with the other person.
It’s not uncommon for people to bounce from one boundary style to another. In one relationship, they might hold themselves apart, protecting themselves. Their next relationship might have them moving to the other extreme, becoming completely absorbed by their partner’s identity.
In counseling, we try to help people recognize the pattern of their choices. While remaining distant in a relationship might once have served an adaptive purpose, this response comes at a cost. Likewise, a person enmeshed in a relationship may not realize he/she is experiencing abuse because they’re just so grateful that their partner “loves” them. Often, though, it isn’t until there’s a significant personal toll that people become motivated to look at their relationship patterns.
Trauma, love and substance use
Many people turn to substance use to self-medicate and avoid the mood symptoms that come with trauma. The painful experiences and negative comments that were once said to them play repeatedly in their head. Patients tell me they use substances in order to cope. In substance use disorder treatment, we teach that avoidance gives power to the feelings and thoughts being avoided.
When you try to lock the pain away, it might be out of sight but it’s not out of mind. Using substances to disconnect from the pain doesn’t change the reality that those experiences still happened. Eventually, if left unaddressed, it impacts the way you relate to yourself and others.
Are you in an unhealthy relationship?
Every relationship seeks its own equilibrium, and what works for one couple might seem strange for another. But how can you tell if your relationship is truly unhealthy for you? What can you do?
Awareness is the first step. We can't change something if we don't know it's there. Obviously, nothing's perfect, and any relationship is going to have its ups and downs. However, it's important that people can be their authentic selves in a relationship and that all communication is kind and respectful.
If you evaluate your relationship and find that the difficulties outweigh the positives, I encourage you to take steps to probe this further. You can start by looking at how your past experiences have shaped your current relationship. You may have developed a set of conditioned, automatic responses that interfere with your ability to develop an authentic relationship.
If you’re concerned about relationship choices, I recommend undertaking this evaluation with therapeutic support. A trauma-informed counselor can help you unravel the past in safe way and figure out how it affects your current relationship dynamics. If you attempt to do this on your own, you may get caught up in negative internal dialogue that doesn’t support your growth and could even drive substance use. With the same caution, couples counseling may not be the right choice for you depending on the dynamics of the relationship. If there is current abuse, it may serve you better to seek out a clinician to have initial conversations about the issues and decide how to safely proceed from there.
My years in this field have taught me that trauma doesn’t have to define us. However, it’s critical to invest the time to understand how our past experiences affect our self-love and intimate relationships with others so that we can build a toolbox to cope in a healthy way and develop fulfilling relationships.