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Why you end up in toxic relationships and what you can learn from them

Trusted friends or professionals can help in your journey to healthier relationship choices rooted in self-love rather than hurt or fear

People tend to repeat bad choices, despite numerous experiences of being hurt or broken when they have not processed the depth of cumulative emotion they carry.
People tend to repeat bad choices, despite numerous experiences of being hurt or broken when they have not processed the depth of cumulative emotion they carry. (Pexels)

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While dancing vigorously recently to Meghan Trainor’s No Good For You, I pondered the lyrics describing a familiar attraction to someone whose “kisses are so sweet, and they swept you off your feet” but “they’re no good for you” its themes of infidelity and neglect set to catchy Soca beats. Later, the theme cropped up in one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, Bad Sisters, a dark comedy about five sisters, one of them, Grace, married to an odious man. Her sisters plot his murder in a comical and disturbing string of events to save Grace from his controlling and narcissistic behaviour.

In reality, too, many of us are often attracted to people who are very bad for us. Ritushri Dhankher, a Toronto-based tourism professional, is one of them. The 46-year-old will never forget the four-year-long relationship that made her unrecognizable to herself. “I was losing the things that make me attractive, like my confidence, carefree spirit, and pride in my appearance,” she says, describing the relationship as unquestionably toxic. “He would neglect or cheat on me and compensate me with gifts. I felt inadequate, mentally and physically,” she recalls, adding that the experience made her distrustful for many years in future relationships.

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So, why are we attracted to and endure those who do not treat us well?

Examining our past could provide some answers. Our childhood connections with our family and caretakers shape this initial understanding and influence, often subconsciously, our future relationship choices. 27-year-old Gurgaon-based musician Abhishek Gogna developed coping mechanisms, like people-pleasing, anxiety, and co-dependent traits during his difficult childhood, subconsciously recreating similar dynamics in later relationships because they felt familiar. “I protected myself during childhood by “fixing” problems, often before they even started (hyper-vigilance). Subconsciously, I sought people I could “fix” and therefore have more control over my life,” says Gogna, who is now learning how to build better boundaries and make healthier choices.

Gogna credits each relationship with insight into what suited him better and the boundaries he needed to work on. Like a long-unrequited-self-worth-destroying-crush which helped him realize some self-truths that were worked on in therapy. “Ultimately, the crush was a conduit for healing some childhood traumas, where I understood why I sought these dynamics repeatedly and was able to make healthier choices.” 

While admittedly, it is often difficult to initially gauge if a partner is no good for us, constantly choosing someone thoughtlessly out of fear or insecurity may end up resulting in toxic relationship patterns. A Delhi-based 43-year-old financial and investment consultant, who chooses to stay anonymous, for instance, admits that he tended to constantly choose partners who were troubled. Looking back, he realized that he was in love with the idea of a passionate, sweeping romance. The consultant was possibly experiencing limerence, a mental state of profound infatuation, which makes it difficult to distinguish between seeing a person clearly or as an ideal shaped by our hopes and dreams. He remembers how he even chose to overlook his partner’s one-time infidelity because “I was madly in love with her,” a pattern he repeated in another relationship, where his partner flitted between him and an ex-boyfriend, who treated her terribly. “I held on, confident that she would realize that the other guy was no-good for her. She always said I treated her so well. But she eventually married the other guy,” remembers the consultant, now single. He says that he has taken time to reflect on his tendency to overwhelm and become intense quickly in relationships. “I am calmer than earlier. I’ve also tried to become less intense or intimidating.”

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Delhi-based psychotherapist Gloria Burrett believes that people tend to repeat bad choices, despite numerous experiences of being hurt or broken when they have not processed the depth of cumulative emotion they carry. For many of us, a partnership is seen as a desired state of being; the social pressure of being in a relationship makes singlehood undesirable, she adds. Or diminished self-worth or fear, which leads us to people we think we deserve, scared that this may be the only person who will love us. Sometimes we deny ourselves our “shadow aspects”, parts that bring us shame or rejection, which could lead us to partners who hold these rough, aggressive or abusive aspects that we have buried.

The impact of these choices, however, is often tremendous. A 34-year-old social development professional, a reserved introvert, talks about a long-standing crush on a person that turned out to be terrible for her mental health. She was initially attracted to him because of the attention he gave her and the ease with which they got along. But over time, he took her for granted, and her attempts for his attention became demoralizing and exhausting. It took her a while to step away. “I saw our chats and realized how many messages I was sending and how many I was getting in return. I had changed so much and became so "doormat-ish" that I ignored and justified being disrespected and ghosted,” she says. “I forgot my self-worth and needed indirect reassurances from other amazing people in my life on how wonderful I am and that I don't need anyone's acceptance to like myself.”

The objective perspective that loving others offer, challenging our subjective, clouded view, does help to a large extent, says Burrett. But while loved ones can help you realize and recover from a toxic relationship, Burrett advises professional help earlier, rather than as a last resort, before serious symptoms emerge like panic; sadness; eating disorders; persistent unexplained physical illnesses; substance misuse; or self-harming. “In the course of time, therapy can help discover the personal wound beneath the dysfunctional relationship.” She also believes that making things different is possible only if we are willing to work on ourselves. “Insight and changing our internal story takes time,” she says, adding that therapy could help people relook at notions of self. “With good enough awareness, we can identify our patterns, be aware of repeats, and use these as red flags,” she says. “What is crucial is compassion for self with each experience,” she says.

Dhankher has managed to work on herself enough to start loving and trusting again. She credits her difficult relationships with helping her eventually find love, trust, and partnership with her husband, a close friend, for many years before they became romantically involved. “When you’re young, you barely understand yourself, let alone what you want from another person. "I believe different relationships give you that understanding and appreciation of the people you want in your life,” she says.

Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.

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