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  • Writer's pictureVikram Saggu

Chasing Butterflies: Your Obsession With Toxic Relationships Explained

Neurology of The Toxic Relationship

Have you ever finally broken free of a toxic relationship only to feel the urge to call that person even after you’ve healed? Toxic relationships often feel addictive, partly because even though the lows are so low, the highs are very high.

Neurologically speaking, the behaviours of a toxic relationship are like a cocktail of addictive hormones. Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, is released during cuddling and sex. Similarly, many toxic relationships can be mainly physical, which makes us only focus on the great sex rather than the terrible emotional treatment. Furthermore, dopamine, the happy chemical, is released when we receive attention and affection or even when our partner shows happiness for our giving of attention and affection. Adrenaline is an addictive stimulant we receive when we are unsure if we are going to receive the dopamine rush. Cortisol is released during the period of conflict with the partner and withdrawal. The release of oxytocin during intimate activities creates feelings of attachment to another person, regardless of whether this person is a healthy or unhealthy match. When conflict occurs, or one person withdrawals and cortisol is released, the brain craves its soothing hit of dopamine from attention and affection. Adrenaline is released due to the uncertainty of receiving the feel-good dopamine.

This combination, or cocktail of hormones, is very addictive and causes people to seek out “love hits in the relationship.” When they’re not getting what they crave, the brain releases cortisol, and they’re in pain. Once they receive the hit, they feel soothed, happy, safe, and loved. Even though the relationship is riddled with conflict and poor treatment, the partners are addicted to the cycle and crave the highs. They may be focused on their partner's potential and hold out hope that the other person will change, and one day, the relationship will remain in a high state.

 Comfortable with Chaos 

I had a client who started dating a good guy. He’s good-looking and fun, and he completely checked all the boxes. Similarly, she found herself thinking about her toxic ex-boyfriend a lot. She knows the ex isn’t a good guy, but she can’t help but miss the unpredictability of the relationship. We found the reason when I asked her if she was missing the chaos rather than the person. Picture someone who grew up amidst chaos. Maybe they dealt with much responsibility from a young age or witnessed things that took away their innocence. Their baseline reality as a child was unpredictable. Negative emotions may have been experienced: instability from moving a lot, fear due to situations involving crime, violence or drugs, anger due to an absent or even abusive parent, and so on. This person has become addicted to chaos because it is normal for their environment and, therefore, comfortable.  As a result of an addiction to toxicity in relationships, one might find their healthy relationship boring.   

False Butterflies 

We are told to fall in low at an early age when it “feels right.” However, no real characteristics exist, and it doesn’t exist like a Fugazi. We might think that we are falling for “the one” when we have an instant connection phenomenon, causing us to cling to that feeling, not the person. The truth is that the butterflies we are feeling right here are much like the feelings we experience with fear, anxiety, pain, insecurity, and trauma. Most of the time, these butterflies happen for someone we barely know. Someone we have known for a long time doesn’t give us these butterflies. As a result, if someone doesn’t give us these butterflies, we are less likely to give them a second date. Ultimately, we are chasing butterflies, but they just come as a toxic person. If you are used to people who give you butterflies in a relationship that starts heavy, intense, and full of excessive attention, you are probably dealing with a love bomb.

When we experience a love bomb, we will feel off when we aren’t gaining this energy level when we first meet. For instance, they always want to call and text you without skipping a beat and can talk for hours with an igniting conversation. This is love bombing, and it might seem harmless, but it’s addicting. Next, you’ve made plans to travel to Greece with someone you’ve been talking to for a week. We tend to fall for this chaos because we are getting a perception of love we weren’t given as children. 

Comparatively, there is more of a slow burn in a peaceful relationship. It’s not as intense, dramatic, or explosive as the fire felt in a love bomb. You aren’t basing a healthy relationship on how fast the fire is growing, how often the other is reaching out to you or how often you are calling each other non-stop until 4 in the morning.  

Consistency isn’t sexy. 

I like to think of consistency, like watching a Vancouver Canucks game. When we lose, we’re down and try to figure out excuses for their behaviour that led to a loss. However, when they win, we get a rush of addictive hormones, causing us to buy their jerseys and forgive them for the last loss. Similarly, a toxic relationship can make us feel down on a date and overjoyed the next. As stated earlier, we gain adrenaline when unsure if we will gain dopamine, and oxytocin is released during intimate activities, creating feelings of attachment to another person during the love bomb. Simply put, we are constantly waiting for our love hits and unsure if we will gain them.

The highs and lows of the relationship are addictive behaviour, as this behaviour can feel enthralling, enticing, and irresistible because we don’t know if we will be feeling this again. During a comfortable relationship, we know what we gain throughout the day, causing us not to gain the dopamine rush. 

Cognitive Dissonance 

Cognitive dissonance is a person's discomfort when their behaviour does not align with their values or beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time. In a relationship, the emotionally abused goes through cognitive dissonance. They are supported one day and denied the next day. When they are swept off their feet and love-bombed, they are ignored or abandoned the next. 

The result is a sense of deep confusion about the relationship. Is the wonderful, charismatic, and loving person the actual partner, or is it the abusive, emotionally unavailable, and cold person? Is the truth what was discussed in detail over the last few days, or is it the denial of the conversations, promises, and agreements heard today?

The feeling of cognitive dissonance is constantly doubting yourself and struggling to keep up with the rollercoaster of changes and challenges to reality. The behaviour of the narcissist partner that causes cognitive dissonance is called gaslighting. 

What is a Trauma Bond? 

A trauma bond is a connection between two people: one who is an abusive person and one who is the victim of their abuse. Trauma bonding occurs when the victim has a psychological response to abuse, which develops into a deep sense of affection, empathy and sympathy for their abuser. Empaths and people who experience childhood trauma bonds and early attachment disruption that are not resolved are at risk of forming trauma bonds in toxic adult relationships. A trauma bond occurs when abusers use covert abuse that causes the victim to believe they need the abuser’s care and validation to feel whole. They become very dependent on the abusive relationship, whether family, romantic, friend, or work-related. They become so addicted they are willing to set aside the destructive phases which prevent healthy, loving emotional connections from ever taking place. They remain laser-focused on achieving the ups and downs of the rollercoaster. 

If you feel like you or a friend is dealing with the effects of a toxic relationship, it's never too late to ask for help. Let's walk through your healing journey.


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