Why do we go back to people who hurt us? A sexologist explains this unhealthy (and common) habit
Shelby Sells is an artist, photojournalist, and sexologist known for her exploration of modern sexuality. She has produced numerous videos, interviews, and articles on the subject, and is a sought-after speaker on matters of love, sex, and relationships. Sells is finishing her degree in Psychology with a Human Sexuality focus in hopes of becoming a sex therapist.
We see it time and time again in media, in our friend and family groups, and sometimes even in our personal decisions: The resurrection of painful and toxic relationships. The question is, “Why do we go back to people who hurt us?” From a third-party perspective, it’s easy to point the finger and identify the harmful patterns in a person’s behavior, but is it that simple from an insider’s perspective? Not always, and here’s why.
We, as humans, are creatures of habit, meaning that once we develop a routine, it can be hard for us to break free from it.
The instability of an unhealthy relationship provides some folks with a sense of ease, and that’s why they’re drawn to it. There’s nothing to risk or lose when you know the end game is always the same.
For some, familiar pain is a source of comfort, so it comes as no surprise that those people find themselves in a constant cycle of hurt. Where this pain pattern stems from is unique to each individual. It can be related to childhood traumas or variations of abuse at any age. When pain is all you know, it can be challenging to seek alternative behaviors.
There’s also the instances in which we are blinded by love. It’s easy to get caught up in a relationship, even when it’s toxic. Later, we’ll tell ourselves “Maybe they’ll change” or “Maybe things will be different this time” in order to justify going back. Frankly, the drama itself can be addicting for some people. One friend told me that she gave her ex another chance because she believed he had to make up for how he had mistreated her in the past. While people do have the capacity to change, more often than not a person won’t change their innate nature.
Another reason people go back to partners who have hurt them? Because it’s easy.
Investing time and energy into a relationship is a lot of work, and the thought of starting over can seem daunting. Dating takes a lot of effort. Opening ourselves up to someone new inevitably comes with the potential to be hurt again. It’s scary, and that fear alone is enough to keep people at bay. Plus, why start over with someone new when our hurtful partner already knows us so well? It’s especially easy to run back to someone familiar if we are going through an emotional rough patch. When we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to someone and labeled them as a person who knows us, it can be hard to categorize them as unsafe. When you’ve had some distance from a partner, it’s also easy to romanticize the good memories until, suddenly, the bad memories are less significant. After all, repressing negative memories is a tool we use to protect ourselves from re-experiencing trauma.
Lastly, reviving relationships with people who have hurt us has to do with self-worth issues. Trying to break free from a toxic relationship, and then returning to it, feeds and fuels an unhealthy cycle of low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. These feelings can make us believe that we are undeserving of, unworthy of, or not good enough for a better love. This idea is heartbreaking—we are all deserving of love and healthy companionship.
Sometimes we go back to unhealthy relationships to seek validation from a partner who was unable to give us what we desired.
We fight to try and gain what they could never provide us the first time around. Also, it’s not uncommon for people in toxic relationships to experience a sort of “Stockholm syndrome” in which they begin to favor their abusers. Many people in this situation are convinced (either by themselves, by their partners, or both) that this is the “best” relationship they’ll ever have. Of course, this is untrue, and a tactic used to justify abuse and neglect.
The good news is that if you or a loved one find yourself in a situation like this, there is hope.
While it may be difficult to leave an unhealthy relationship, there are an abundance of resources out there to help you through the process. Ask yourself if your needs are being met in this relationship and if the pros outweigh the cons. Therapy is a vital outlet in working through the pain, letting go, and unlearning toxic patterns and behaviors. A colleague of mine, Crissy Milazzo, created a website called youfindtherapy.com that helps people access affordable therapy.
Besides therapy, there are a number of support groups, books, and online resources available to those who are trying to make changes in their relationship routine. Remember, a healthy relationship is one where your partner brings out the best in you, where you feel safe and secure, where you have shared goals and values, and where you are both equally emotionally invested in each other and in your future together. It’s never too late to break free from pain and embrace love.