If you’ve never been in a toxic relationship, you probably know someone who has. Scratch that, you likely know multiple people who have because they are becoming more common and normalized in our culture.
Despite knowing the negative effects of toxic relationships, many young women are attracted to them. The question remains, why? The answer isn’t simple. In the first place, it requires us to look at how toxic relationships are portrayed in the media.
Toxic Relationships and the Media
Unhealthy relationships are all over the media we consume, especially in movies and TV shows. There are the obvious examples, like Kelly and Ryan from The Office or Harley Quinn and The Joker from Suicide Squad, but there are plenty of less obvious examples in couples we love to root for.
As we get older, we realize that couples like Chuck and Blair from Gossip Girl or Edward and Bella from Twilight are pretty unhealthy, but we all loved them as teenagers. Teen brains are still developing, and watching these relationships without knowing how unhealthy they are can be damaging to our perceptions of romantic relationships. Even some of the most beloved relationships in pop-culture like Ross and Rachel from Friends have toxic tendencies. Seeing these behaviors so often normalizes them, making it harder for us to recognize unhealthy relationships.
Health Risks of Toxic Relationships
It’s no surprise that toxic relationships can lead to mental health problems like depression and anxiety, but there are physical health risks as well. Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D, says, “In a long-term study that followed more than 10,000 subjects for an average of 12.2 years, researchers discovered that subjects in negative relationships were at a greater risk for developing heart problems, including a fatal cardiac event, than counterparts whose close relationships were not negative.”
The data may be scary, but it goes to show that investing in healthy relationships is just as important for your physical health as your mental health.
Why Are Young Women Attracted to Toxic Relationships?
If toxic relationships are so harmful to our mental and physical health, why are young women so attracted to them? There are multiple explanations, but two reasons are the belief that women can change toxic men if they love them enough and that these kinds of relationships are addictive.
Women who see the best in people can fall into the “I can fix him” trap, which draws them into toxic relationships. Columnist and breakup coach Chelsea Leigh Trescott says, "For someone who suffers from rescuer syndrome or savior complex, nothing engages their heart more than a person who is toxic and could use some...help."
Think about it. We’ve all had that one friend (or have been that friend, guilty as charged) who sees a guy she’s way too good for but is determined to change or “fix” him. Although it can make an entertaining romantic comedy, that’s not what love is about. It’s also not what healthy relationships are about. Looking at someone and wanting to change them isn’t love. Healthy relationships are about bringing out the best in each other, but they’re also about loving someone despite their flaws.
Two reasons are the belief that women can change toxic men if they love them enough and that these kinds of relationships are addictive.
Additionally, toxic relationships can be addicting, as relationship coach Cherlyn Chong says, "We get so addicted, in fact, that we become willing to sacrifice an entire lifetime for five minutes of exhilaration. Dr. Helen Fisher, a leading behavioral expert, calls this the 'frustration-attraction' phenomenon, where the unpredictability heightens those feelings of romantic love instead of hindering them."
Toxic men tend to reward women for what they deem as “good behavior” with the affection the woman craves, filling her brain with dopamine (a neurotransmitter that releases feel-good hormones). She often becomes addicted to the rush of dopamine (similar to a drug addiction) and crashes when he returns to toxic behavior, only to get another “high” the next time her “good behavior” is rewarded with his affection.
This, unfortunately, turns toxic relationships into a habit. Luckily, it’s a breakable habit.
Breaking the Habit
The habit of toxic relationships is usually difficult to break because the brain of the victim often becomes desensitized by and to toxic behavior. Shahida Arabi, author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, writes, “Our brains can become masochists, seeking the very people that hurt them. They become so accustomed to good behavior from nice guys that they stop releasing as much dopamine. That’s why even in a healthy relationship, we can become so “used to” the safety and security of a gentle partner that we find him or her less exciting over time.”
The best way to break the habit of being in toxic relationships is by developing a healthy relationship with yourself. It’s important that you come to know your own dignity and worth. Get to know yourself and be able to set boundaries. Take time to take care of yourself, even if it’s something simple like meditating every night or doing a weekly face mask. If you love yourself and are confident, you are more likely to attract good men who don’t have toxic tendencies.
It’s important that you come to know your own dignity and worth. Get to know yourself and be able to set boundaries.
It’s also important to know the signs of a toxic relationship and to guard your heart to keep yourself from ending up in one. The traits of a toxic relationship include “abuse of power and control, demandingness, selfishness, insecurity, self-centeredness, criticism, negativity, dishonesty, distrust, demeaning comments and attitudes, and jealousy.” Most toxic relationships start blissfully, making it more difficult to leave when things get rough because you hold on to what used to be.
It’s no secret that toxic relationships have been normalized in our culture, turning them into a habit that many young women find difficult to break. Focusing on loving yourself and developing good relationship habits is hard work, but it’s worth it in the end to have a healthy relationship.