Understanding the Psychology Behind Toxic Relationships

That Psych Nerd

How our upbringing can influence our adult relationships.

Disclaimer: Although I have personal and professional experience in the mental health field, I am not a licensed mental health professional. The information contained in this article is meant for educational and entertainment purposes only. The contents of this article are not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any disorder.

At one point or another in your life, you may be in a toxic relationship or know someone in a toxic relationship. All relationships start with the best intentions — nobody wants their relationship to fail.

The toxic relationship I was in was during college. I would constantly be worried that I had upset them during the relationship (and friendship); he couldn't reassure me that things were fine.

I was unable to stop my constant cycle of behavior that led me to fall into this continuous pattern of behavior. I hoped he and I would work this out; I wanted to be who he needed me to be.

I sought constant validation because my ex-boyfriend didn't talk to me much. We spoke but, there would be days that would pass in between — I felt like I wasn't even in a relationship.

To begin with, he was never an open person, so getting him to communicate was limited. He didn't think talking regularly was necessary for family, friends, or relationships — I knew this going into the relationship. Still, I could learn to handle it.

Our relationship wasn't healthy. I shouldn't have been seeking constant validation from my partner, nor should I be worried at every turn. Our relationship was toxic because we did not work well for each other — yet we kept coming back to one another.

Through our relationship (and subsequent friendship), we held onto that tiny spark that had brought us together in the first place. But, a spark cannot be the only reason you stay together.

Through this experience, I wondered what makes me and other people want to stay with someone who isn't right for them?

I have since grown from this relationship, so I am better positioned to understand what happened entirely. I know what a healthy relationship is and what isn't. Understanding what makes a relationship toxic is the first step.

What is a toxic relationship?

Toxic relationships can take on many forms and look vastly different from one to the next. But there are defining characteristics that can help us understand what a toxic relationship is.

To start, the bad outweighing the good moments in a relationship is defining factor in a toxic relationship. How often are there happy times? Do fights happen more often than not?

If there are mood good times than bad, there is a behavior pattern at play. A toxic relationship can form from one or both partners when they fulfill unhealthy relationship patterns.

Unhealthy relationship patterns can look like secrecy, nitpicking, and fights that last for days — you get the point. Unhealthy relationship patterns can look vastly different from relationship to relationship.

A common theme from toxic relationships is the couple's intense attraction to each other even though their relationship is unhealthy. Yet through every trial and tribulation, they are not meant for each other.

It's easier to fall into behavior patterns that are harmful than you might think. We are all fulfilling behavior patterns that we are unaware of — good or bad.

Now that we know what toxic relationships are, we can connect our past to the present.

Attachment style

From infancy, we learn about our world through our caregivers and anyone who has a close role in our life. Relationships that we develop in our younger years set the foundation for our future relationships.

Meaning, if you are constantly let down by your parents or regular caregivers, you can develop a mistrust of the world. Alternatively, if all of your needs were met as a child, you may feel more secure with your world.

We can see these relationship patterns displayed through attachment styles. Attachment styles are how a child's behavior and relationship with their parents can be understood.

Attachment styles are so essential to understand. However, your attachment style was as a child may influence how you function in your adult relationships. Below are the attachment theories proposed by Bowlby and Ainsworth:


The child exhibits positive emotions when greeting their parents when they return. A child with a secure attachment will use their parent as a 'secure base' to explore the world. The child always knows that their parents are there for them.


A child will be very fearful of strangers and will most likely exhibit negative behaviors. This can include the child having separation anxiety that is not resolved when the parents return.


The child will avoid their parents or caregivers. This child will also not seek out comfort from their caregivers.


This type of attachment is all over the place. A child does not show consistent behavior patterns with their parents or caregivers. This can usually occur from inconsistent behavior from parents.

If you would like to learn more about attachment theory in greater detail, I encourage you to visit, VeryWellMind.

Our attachment style will continue into our adult relationships. Suppose we are fearful and anxious as a child within relationships. In that case, that will carry on into our adult relationships with family, friends, and even our partner.

Understanding how we function as children can help us understand how we work as adults. I was very clingy, scared, and anxious when I was younger. My attachment style showed an ambivalent type of attachment.

From our experiences in our younger years, we begin to form core beliefs that lead us in unknown ways.

Core beliefs

Core beliefs are implicit and unconsciously formed in our younger years. Our core beliefs are not spoken nor entirely noticeable; they are hidden deep inside us. Core beliefs are our beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world around us.

Core beliefs are essentially the glasses you wear which give meaning to what your senses experience in the world. Core beliefs are in fact meta-beliefs; they cannot be disproved because they are all-encompassing. When you experience something that does not align with your core belief, your mind will immediately find a way to either disqualify it or interpret it as further validation to your core belief. (“Core Beliefs: The Hammer We Hold in Our Hand” by Assael Romanelli, PhD on Psychology Today )

Core beliefs are unique to each person. Each core belief that we hold ties into our past experiences. Those core beliefs can continue to grow and evolve as we discover new parts of ourselves.

Core beliefs can look vastly different from one another — they can be positive, negative, or somewhere in between.

Examples of Core Beliefs

"I do not put myself out there because I will be rejected."

"I'm not as smart as other people."

"I'm strong."

"I can handle anything."

"No one tells the truth."

The unconscious desire to continue toxic behavior is tied to our attachment style and core beliefs. Both play an intricate role in how we function in relationships.

Sometimes it's hard to let go of that spark that made everything exciting and fun in the first place. Now we are left with a clear reminder that sometimes it's better to move on than to stay where you are.

It's important to reflect on these challenging times and understand the more significant theme.

This relationship was a defining factor in figuring out who you are, what you want, and why you like that. I learned so much about myself that I wouldn't change the experience one bit (maybe the only thing I'd change is knowing this sooner).



If you feel like you may be in an abusive situation, please know there are resources available — it's okay to get help. If you are unsure and want to talk to someone, I encourage you to visit: https://www.thehotline.org/



Stay connected with this author: https://linktr.ee/JenniferMarch13



As Originally Posted on Medium

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MS in Psychology | Mom of three cats and some house plants | #MentalHealthAdvocate #BeKind


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