“All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the [person] to which we are attached by love.” -Baruch Spinoza
Meet Steven. Steven has decided to become a psychoanalyst. Before starting class, the graduate school requires students to spend a year in therapy.
Six months in, Steven was doing well. He showed signs of a healthy and stable mind. So much so that his assigned therapist believed he wouldn’t need more than a few years, compared to other students who need an average of four.
Then he met Leah. He fell in love within a matter of weeks.
Leah, an aspiring actor, was beautiful. But she was toxic. She sent mixed signals about committing to a relationship, leaving Steven unsettled. Two months into the relationship,Steven’s behavior began to change entirely.
Every 20 minutes Steven would check his cellphone to see if she had answered his text, Facebook messages or his emails. He began to miss deadlines for his job in programming. He started to spend an extraordinary amount of time chatting with Leah in a popular online chat room… under a fake profile.
He was obsessed. It was ruining his life.
Steven’s therapist was dumbfounded. How could his most promising student transform into his worst? Steven’s behavior started showing borderline masochistic personality traits.
A Masochist or Just Sensitive?
Our environment sculpts the type of person we become. Without computers, there would be no programmers. Without cars, there’d be no Uber drivers. Humans, by our very nature, are adaptable.
One of the most heavily researched theories on adaptability in interpersonal relationships is Attachment Theory. Attachment Theory states that our relationships influence how we feel about ourselves. This starts in our childhood.
Our relationships with our parents give us a blueprint of how our adult relationships should be. They influence how we believe ourselves to be and what we deserve in love when we start adulting.
In his relationship with Leah, Steven lives in a constant fear. He feels like he was walking on a tightrope without a safety net, anxiously floundering to keep his emotional balance. Endless cycles of anxiety with only rare moments of peace and security.
A relationship that creates an anxious person is a relationship with one unavailable partner who behaves in ways that avoid closeness. This behavior is toxic for the anxious partner, and consumes them in a tsunami of thoughts that all point to the same goal: how they can re-establish closeness with their partner.
If your partner responds to you in a way that reestablishes security in your relationship, you become calm and go back to watching cats freaking out to cucumbers on Youtube. But if they don’t, you literally cannot function without the reassurance that the relationship is okay.
Steven’s obsessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors were driven by the fact that Leah was unavailable to him, although he may have felt it was just part of love.
Despite all his insecurity and anxiety, Steven, like many others, had a difficult time breaking up with his toxic lover. He was drowning in common beliefs sensitive people have: believing that she would change, or that every relationship has similar problems. It took a year for him to find the self-respect to call things off for good.
Why We Love Toxic Relationships
Are we attracted to people who confirm our beliefs about love? A number of studies show that anxious partners choose an avoidant, and avoidants are attracted to anxious partners.
Isn’t it odd that partners who fiercely guard their independence seek partners who most likely invade their autonomy? Why is it that people who crave closeness in a relationship are attracted to people who push them away?
Each strategy complements the other because it reaffirms the other’s beliefs about themselves and relationships.
The avoidants self-perception that they are independent is only confirmed by a needy partner who tries to take that away from them. The anxious partner’s belief that they want more intimacy than their partner is confirmed by a partner who avoids closeness.
So, in a strangely unhealthy way, these pairings are attracted to each other because they reinforce the familiar script of how they believe love should be.
As you can see, specific relationships evoke specific reactions. These reactions are then interpreted to confirm our internal beliefs about ourselves and relationships.