How Do Smart People Get Themselves Into Toxic Relationships?

Shannon Ashley

What happened to me can happen to you. In fact, it happens all of the time. by Linh Pham on Unsplash

Six years ago, when news spread that I’d not only had an affair with a married man, but that he’d also left me pregnant just six months after leaving his wife, people didn’t understand me.

“How could you be so stupid?” Inquiring minds wanted to know. “Shannon… I thought you were so much smarter than that!”

Back then, I was the pitiful punchline. A duh moment. Of course the guy who left his wife for me also left… me. Isn’t that what cheaters do?

It wasn’t easy to admit what happened. I was ashamed and embarrassed, and frankly, I once thought I was much smarter than that too. Before I ever got involved with the guy.

The worst part was when people found out that I was suicidal after he left me. People called me crazy, assumed I must just be a manipulator, or once again questioned how I could be so dumb. The overall vibe from most folks was that they could never be as stupid as me.

That I was on a path so far beneath the rest of them.

And they wanted me to “get over” the whole thing sooner rather than later.

To their chagrin, it took me a very long time to move past the whole feeling of abandoment. You know how people often say it takes about half the duration of a relationship to finally get over it?

That was not the case for me.

It took so much longer, and nobody seemed to understand why.

Looking back on that time in my life and how it took me a few years to heal, what’s truly crazy to me is that nobody ever said anything about the addictive nature of toxic relationships. Seriously, not one person came out and said that what I was going through was a common or even understandable phenomenon.

And it is.

Our culture severely drops the ball when it comes to toxic relationships. First of all, we encourage toxic tropes about love as if they’re not harmful to our emotional health.

There is still a strong cultural belief in love like a fairytale, love at first sight, “soulmates,” and the notion that romantic love conquers all. As if romantic love trumps all.

Most of us are at least in one part guilty or complicit. We set ourselves and each other up for the belief that true love is an indescribable feeling, and then we gasp in shock when our friends wind up addicted to bad love. As if it could never happen to us.

But it’s not hard to trace the pathology of our addiction. It’s found in nearly every rom-com or romantic drama. It’s right there in our most beloved books.

Collectively, we don’t immortalize healthy romantic relationships. We immortalize the messed up ones. Romeo and Juliet. Edward and Bella. Buffy and Spike or Buffy and Angel.

Part of that is simply because we have strong hormonal drives to create bonds with other people. While it’s in humanity’s best interest to create the bonds of friendship, family, and romantic love, it gets murky and dangerous when we tout romantic love above all else.

But culturally, that’s exactly what we do it and we rarely see a problem with it because there’s such a strong bias for monogamous romance, marriage, and children. Often, we base much of our identities upon that path.

Our bias for romance, “forever,” and monogamy also leads to a bias against anything and everybody else: especially asexual and polyamorous people.

As a result, most of us won’t develop ourselves as individuals. Not completely. Instead, we’ll look toward our dreams of future happiness in the form of some fairytale romance. We will wait for love.

Or, at least, our idea of love.

People want to know how I could be so stupid. So, let’s get real. Even intelligent people can find themselves caught up in a toxic relationship.

Here’s how.

People get lonely.

Practically everybody on the planet gets lonely and makes poor choices when they do. It’s human nature. Being lonely is not a crime. Other people, however, sometimes treat loneliness in others like a disease.

We might say that loneliness is an epidemic, but it’s still looked down upon as an undesirable trait. Like we’ve just brought our loneliness upon ourselves when that’s not always the case.

The weirdest thing about loneliness is the way it makes us think we need to fill that void with other people. Especially in the form of a romantic or sexual relationship. The reality, of course, is that we don’t.

Often, the best cure for loneliness is a more solid sense of ourselves.

They want to be loved.

Say hello to the human condition. Everybody wants to be loved in some way for something. The desire to be loved is powerful, even when we say it isn’t.

Once we get a taste of being loved, or, once we observe some other #relationshipgoals, it can be very hard to put that desire down.

It often reminds me of that delicious quote from John Green: “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

That line is so relatable because that’s often how we fall in love with love. Our conditioning is slow. We grow up hearing adults rehash their most romantic memories. We watch the movies and read the books.

We dream.

When we finally experience feelings of romantic love ourselves, it often feels fast. Like we just fell into it. The reality, though, is that we were falling into the notion of needing such love for years.

Everybody loves a fairytale (including the folks who say they don’t).

Again, this love for fairytales is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche. That’s why we’ve got Anakin Skywalker and Padme. Or, why we root for Leah and Han Solo even when Han’s being a dick.

We love fairytales and romantic tropes. No matter how much we say we know nobody can complete us, we still swoon at Jerry Maguire.

You complete me.

You had me at hello.

No matter how much we insist that we can separate the fairytale from real life, our actual actions suggest we can’t do it very well at all.

People think romantic love is everything.

Our culture behaves like you’re broken if you’re forty and unmarried. Alone on Valentine’s Day? The horror.

We’ve been conditioned from a young age to seek out romantic love like it’s the most important thing in the world. Frankly, we often don’t even know if that’s what we want. But we’re raised to believe that it is.

We’re compelled to believe that finding our partner is this huge puzzle piece for our lives. And we’re conditioned to believe that it’s going to make us happy. Because ultimately happiness is everything and we equate happiness to romantic love.

Until, of course, it blows up in our face and “we should have known better.”

Most of us are trying to repair old wounds with new love.

How’s your relationship with your parents? Got any attachment issues? Fear of abandoment? Baggage from old exes? Join the club.

The honest truth is that everybody has something. Some trauma. Some pain from the past. And our natural impulse to remedy that pain is to look for love.

No, it’s not the answer. But we’ve also got that tired trope that says “love heals.” Now, it’s not that love doesn’t bring healing. It often does. The problem is when we rely upon someone else to heal or fix us. Or, when we think that romantic love is the only healer.

Happiness and peace… these are inside jobs. They take a lot of self-work. But that’s independent self-work. And that’s not something our culture truly encourages. Certainly not on the level we encourage romantic love and marriage.

Some of us are overly forgiving.

Highly sensitive people are often forgiving to a fault. It’s not like they’re doing anything wrong. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. They do, however, need better boundaries to protect themselves.

The funny thing about boundaries in relationships is that most of us have to learn about them the hard way. Most people aren’t raised to have helpful boundaries, and our cultural views on love are sorely lacking in lessons about where or how to draw the line.

Like Fifty Shades of Grey, folks who fall in love (lust, attraction, and attachment) often find that the experience encourages them to let down their guard. Most notably, we allow love to encroach upon our boundaries. As if that’s what it’s supposed to do.

Pushing us further away from any rational line.

The hormones are intoxicating.

According to researchers, testosterone and estrogen drive lust while dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are the hormones working behind the scenes of attraction. Oxytocin and vasopressin further attachment.

In other words, the feelings we have about lust, attraction, and attachment cause real physiological changes in our bodies. This should be a true lightbulb moment for those of us who have been shamed for our addiction to bad love.

Dopamine is the main hormone involved with addictive (and pleasurable) activity, but when it comes to feelings of love, there is a lot happening inside the mind and body.

It’s only natural when we get addicted to those feelings, even when the relationship is toxic. Disengaging from that kind of thing requires more than willpower. It takes a concentrated effort, and typically multiple approaches to be well.

Not so different from any other type of addict, you might need a combination of therapies to truly heal.

I did.

It’s easy to mistake intensity for intimacy.

This is among the most overlooked reasons why people get addicted to bad love. Some people naturally seek out more intensity than others. If you’re one of those people, it will usually take repeat heartbreaks before you finally understand that the intensity you feel is not true intimacy.

This is especially true for folks like me who have borderline personality disorder, or on the spectrum of autism. It might also be an issue if you’re a hopeless romantic.

It’s easy to overlook how powerful intense feelings like lust, attraction, and attachment can be when they’re not our feelings. You think you’d “never be so stupid” but there’s no way to know how that intensity of emotion will affect you until it does its job.

We treat romantic relationships like accomplishments.

Congratulations, you’re getting married! Wow, you must have done something right to get that ring or land that girl. Honestly, we collectively treat the act of getting engaged as if it proves a person’s worthiness. Somebody wants them, at the moment, for life.

Maybe the relationship isn’t all that healthy. Maybe they put on a well-curated show for social media. Who knows? We don’t, because we don’t focus on things like that.

We don’t usually focus on what matters when we look at other people’s relationships. So, why do it for ourselves? We don’t. Instead, we follow our feelings, which can be easily misled about love.

Whenever I open up about the poor choices I’ve made in the midst of a toxic relationship, there’s still a lot of shame. People like to shame me for it. Tell me that I have terrible judgment and only attract weirdos. Say I have no scruples.

I feel bad for these people because they clearly don’t understand the danger of toxic relationships. Part of the thing that makes bad love so darn addictive is the way it preys upon our emotions and leads us to do the things we swore we’d never do.

Consider how often many of us swear that cheating is a dealbreaker. Most folks think it’s a dealbreaker until it happens to them. That’s where many of us waver. Sure, cheating was a dealbreaker, or so we thought. But then it happens and realize we’ve got all this history with the person. Or (despite all the pain), so much love.

In a toxic relationship, the person who’s been cheated on will frequently wind up chasing the lover who broke their heart. Repeatedly. That’s not because they’re stupid or weak. They’re just caught up in the thrall of bad love.

And the only way for us to do better, culturally about love, is to talk about it. We need to talk about what really happens when we fall in love and what’s going on with our brains and bodies. We need to be honest that bad love is easier to fall for than most people think.

And we need to quit trying to shame those who speak up about their experiences. Our culture does a notoriously bad job of preparing us for real love. For good love.

The insistence that any experience with bad love belongs behind closed doors, or that you’ve got to be stupid to have it happen to you is not just wrong but detrimental.

We have to talk about it.

Personally, it took a good three years to really recover from my toxic relationship with my daughter’s dad. Three years when we only lived together for six months. So much for the relationship half-life theory.

After six years, I can now rehash all of the old memories without pain or longing. Anniversaries and songs no longer trouble me. When I look back on our very unhealthy relationship, it feels a lot like I’m watching a movie. Those people are strangers today.

But I can still remember the pain. And I don’t think I will every truly forget how it felt to believe with every fiber of my being that I needed this man who treated me like trash. I will likely never forget how much I wanted to die and how scared I was to be alone when he left me.

How worthless I felt.

The fact that I still remember those things is why I insist upon bringing it up six years later. When I was right in the thick of it, people didn’t talk about love addiction to me. Instead, they treated me like an outcast. They pretended that my predicament was unusual, shocking, and stupid.

I suppose that’s what they wanted to see. They didn’t want to see themselves.

When I write about being addicted to bad love, however, I know that a lot of you will see yourselves. Maybe nobody told you that love could be addictive, but talking about it helps it all make sense.

Talking about it actually helps.

That honesty can help break bad love’s hold over you.

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Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. I cover real-life issues, like family, parenting, relationships, and spiritual abuse.

Cleveland, TN

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