This Is Your Brain on Toxic Relationships—Which Are, Indeed, Super-Addictive

Photo: Getty Images/lechatnoir
Maybe the toxic relationship you can't quit is the old friend with exhausting drama, whose texts you always answer. Or, perhaps it’s the person you’re kind-of-sort-of dating, who feels like your soul mate (when they’re not ignoring your texts for three days straight). Or is it that cousin who emotionally Jekyll-and-Hydes you, treating you like a sibling one second and demanding that you be left out of Grandma’s will the next? No matter the specifics of your toxic relationship(s), the basic song and dance is pretty standard for everyone: This person brings chaos and pain into your life, and you know you should break away. But even when you try, you get drawn back into their unpredictable sphere of bad behavior again and again, and you can't explain why.

While factors like guilt and low self-esteem certainly play into a difficulty in building boundaries and sticking to them regarding these types of relationships, there's another big-deal reason so many of us struggle to leave a toxic relationship: We’re subconsciously hooked on their very unpredictability.

It's not that healthy relationships are totally predictable, but generally, you know what to expect as a result of a straightforward action or event. If you're having trouble with your manager, your friend will give you sage advice; if you're hungry and don't feel like cooking, your partner will order your favorite pizza; if you're home for the holidays, your cousin will show everyone photos of your terrible 1999 Halloween costume as Britney Spears. We get used to these patterns of relative predictability, which then allow for happiness and happy memories as a result of "hedonic adaptation." Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, further explains the term as the process through which we get used to anything in our life, be it positive or negative.

Hedonic adaptation is a basic survival strategy for our brains, because if we never adapted to good or bad circumstances, we would struggle to take in any new information or have any new experiences. So, whether good (like coming down from the high of a honeymoon or a promotion) or not so good (like navigating a breakup or losing a job), being able to roll with the punches via hedonic adaptation is key for successfully functioning in the world.

When someone doesn’t act predictably, our brain might never get used to the behavior, allowing the behavior to register as an exciting novelty rather than toxic.

That said, when someone doesn’t act predictably, hedonic adaptation never kicks in, so our brain might never get used to the behavior, allowing the behavior to register as an exciting novelty rather than toxic. And that, friends, can be addicting. “Novelty can be rewarding or compelling in and of itself, even when it’s negative,” Dr. Lyubomirksy says. “Of course, it’s a lot more rewarding in the positive domain,” but some people “seek out novelty of the negative kind…because their need for novelty is so strong.”

Beyond novelty, a history of drama and tumult can contribute to us feeling hooked on toxic relationships. For instance, growing up in a home where emotional unpredictability is the norm can give way to emotionally unpredictable relationships in adulthood feeling happily familiar—though totally toxic. “It's the subconscious draw that makes these types of toxic relationships so difficult to break away from,” says psychologist Erika Martinez, PsyD.

None of this is to say that we should blame ourselves when we feel stuck in a toxic relationship. Rather, understanding how the situations can come to be can help us understand how to better deal with them—and end them. According to Dr. Martinez, though, breaking away is easier said than done and requires strong doses of self-awareness and introspection. To facilitate that, she recommends turning to activities like journaling about past and current relationships, exploring your triggers, speaking to a therapist or another trusted listener, and making a conscious effort to do things differently than what feels like habit.

And in order to stick to the boundaries you set, therapist Nicole Richardson, LMFT, suggests limiting all possible interactions. That means block your toxic friend or family member on every platform possible—your phone, your Instagram, your Facebook account that you haven’t looked at since 2017. Furthermore, make sure your schedule is full of fun items to look forward to, because when you're busy doing things that fulfill you, you're less likely to lapse back into any kind of unhealthy relationship.

Beyond getting specific with your technology permissions to limit who can contact you, your boundaries need to extend to you because you'll need to exercise some restraint when you second-guess yourself (which you almost certainly will). When you're feeling a bit lonely, sad, or bored, you may start to glamorize the past and think, "Hey, it wouldn't be so bad to see this person." To avoid this, Richardson suggests creating a list of everything about the relationship that hurts or has hurt you and then refer back it to when you start to consider letting the person back into your life.

None of this is a magic solution though, and unlearning whatever draws you to the toxic people in your sphere can be a lifelong endeavor requiring ongoing check-ins with yourself. Still, even just considering toxic-leaning relationships from a different, new angle is a step in the right direction. Especially when your old friend decides it’s time to text you again.

Here's how to deal with a toxic-narcissist boss. And, surprise! Even positivity can be toxic—here's how to spot that situation.

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