Are You Addicted To Toxic Relationships?
Love & Relationships

Are You Addicted To Toxic Relationships?

Have you ever kept returning to a relationship you knew wasn’t good for you? Although you experience brief highs, the relationship continuously spirals out of control. Unfortunately, you’re in a toxic relationship. And despite how media nowadays glorifies unhealthy attachments, you’re only traveling down a path of destruction.

Very Well Mind describes a toxic relationship as making you feel unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned, or attacked.

And continuously returning to a toxic relationship is like sipping a slow poison that taints every aspect of one's being. Like the insidious pull of drug or alcohol addictions, these relationships wield a baffling power. Many stand on the sidelines, wondering why women don't just "walk away." The truth is the grip of a toxic relationship is often tight, anchored in deep emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical ties.

“I think that we have to understand societally that, number one, we tend to thrive in the idea of the toxic relationship just in general,” said Dr. Donna Oriowo, LICSW, M. ED, CST.

Dr. Donna Oriowo

Photo courtesy of Dr. Donna Oriowo

“We don't exactly revere, support, or uplift people who have a good relationship with themselves. And we often think of relationships as being proprietary, so someone that you would own or someone who would own your body and soul,” she added.

Dr. Oriowo is a sex and relationship therapist in the Washington DC metro area and the owner of AnnodRight. She primarily works with African-American women on issues related to sexuality, relationships, self-esteem, colorism, and texturism. Dr. Oriowo sat down with xoNecole to help us understand the addiction to a toxic relationship and person and the reasons behind it.

Are You Addicted to the Person or Relationship, or Both? 

According to Banyan Mental Health, people can experience an addiction to another person. Their presence becomes a powerful draw, an overwhelming attraction that dominates your thoughts and actions. It's a tumultuous mix of emotions, where peaks of joy are intertwined with the pain they deliver. The same individual causing the pain transforms into the source of relief, a distorted dependency masquerading as comfort.

“A person can fall into a pattern of familiarity and seek out the type of relationships that would give them that same level of familiarity, something that you're used to, not necessarily that you're addicted to but something that you know,” Dr. Oriowo shared.

Breaking free feels daunting, like severing an invisible thread that tethers you to an emotional rollercoaster, especially if a couple is in the honeymoon phase.

The honeymoon phase of a toxic relationship can be deceivingly enchanting. At the outset, everything seems picture-perfect: intense affection, deep conversations, and overwhelming attention paint a facade of ideal love. This period often masks the lurking issues, as the involved individuals are deeply engrossed in the intoxicating whirlwind of passion. However, beneath this rosy surface lies a foundation not of trust and mutual respect but of manipulation and control, which soon surfaces once the initial euphoria fades.

“The honeymoon phase feels so great and so good, and then you feel so connected and so loved and so seen that everything else feels like a hiccup,” she explained.

Dr. Oriowo continued, “A hiccup that is avoided if you do something different or if they do something different or if you try something different so you may want to try different things but the tension building and thus the explosions. They often are not lessening as they're often getting worse. But that means we tend to cling to the parts we like.”

Delmaine Donson/ Getty Images

Thriving in the Chaos of a Toxic Relationship 

The chaos of a toxic relationship exerts a compelling allure for some. This attraction is not about a love for dysfunction; rather, it's deeply intertwined with the dynamics of addiction.

For instance, some individuals cling to the sporadic positive moments. Amid the pervasive conflict and hurt, these rare episodes of affection or reconciliation act as a powerful anchor. The pursuit of these fleeting instances of happiness often justifies enduring extended periods of pain.

In a toxic relationship, sexual intimacy can often play a significant role in keeping individuals tethered. The incredibly intense or fulfilling physical connection can be misconstrued as a sign of genuine affection or deep emotional bonding. In the context of behavioral psychology, such intimate moments can indeed be considered "intermittent rewards." The individual may then endure prolonged periods of distress, holding onto the hope for the next rewarding intimate moment, mistaking it as a sign that the relationship is salvageable or improving. This cyclical pattern of highs and lows can make breaking free from a toxic relationship even more challenging.

“When we're having sex with someone else, certain chemicals are released in the brain that help us to feel intimate and close with that person. So, it can make you feel like all the world is good,” Dr. Oriowo revealed. “Emily Nagurski’s book ‘Come As You Are’ also talks about how people talk about how great the sex is. When there is a level of emotional disconnect or uncertainty, the sex can feel like a connecting factor, so the sex feels even like it is the best sex ever. And it is enough to keep you there and keep you going [forward] and keep you staying there even though the relationship in and of itself is actually not that great and certainly not good for you.”

Another instance that keeps a woman in a toxic relationship is self-esteem. A woman's self-esteem profoundly influences her choice of partners and the dynamics she may unconsciously gravitate towards. When a woman views herself through a lens of doubt or inadequacy, she may find herself drawn to partners who echo or amplify these sentiments, thinking that's what she "deserves."

“Self-esteem greatly impacts partner choice, and I am writing a book about this. Our self-esteem is informed by what we know about ourselves; thus, how we feel about what we know, right? When you know yourself and like yourself, you are more likely to seek out people who want to be in a relationship with you, which also mimics how you are in a relationship with yourself. You're looking for people to be in concert with you, not people who will be in opposition to you,” Dr. Oriowo said.

“Women with higher self-esteem are less likely to choose partners they do not want. They're more likely to speak up for themselves. They're more likely to exit relationships that feel like they don't meet their desires, their wants, their needs,” she added.

Dr. Oriowo also noted that “self-esteem is on a spectrum.”

“It’s not you have it, or you don't. You may level up how you feel about yourself, that the current relationships you hold are no longer feeding you in the way that you need for it to feel like a reciprocal relationship,” she added.

Over time, this tolerance for harmful behavior can entrench her further in detrimental relationship patterns, making it challenging to recognize or seek healthier dynamics.

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The Fear of Being Alone 

The fear of being single is a powerful force that can bind a woman to a toxic relationship. In a society that often equates partnership with success, validation, or completeness, the idea of solitude can seem daunting. This fear and societal pressure might push a woman to cling to a harmful relationship, choosing the familiarity of toxicity over the uncertainty of being alone.

“Many women often are in communities where it is so-called better to be in any relationship than be single. And so, the tolerance level for toxicity in relationships is greatly increased. Just because we are thinking about it may be perfectly sanguine and acceptable to be in a toxic relationship,” she stated.

“But I would also like to note that it seems that we are turning a corner where more women are perfectly sanguine, especially Black women, who seem to be leading the charge in this. They're perfectly sanguine and happy to remain single. If it means that they will not be in a subpar relationship,” Dr. Oriowo explained.

In understanding the intricate web of addiction to toxic relationships, Dr. Oriowo unraveled layers of emotional complexity, deeply rooted fears, and societal pressures. Though marred with dysfunction, these relationships mirror our vulnerabilities and the lengths an individual might go to seek validation or avoid pain. Recognizing the patterns can be the first step toward seeking healthier connections, breaking the addictive cycle, and finding genuine stability.

As you navigate our relational world, it's essential to prioritize emotional well-being, self-worth, and genuine connection over-familiar yet damaging cycles. Only then can someone break free and pave the way for healthier, fulfilling relationships they deserve.

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