There's a strong link between abuse and addiction — here's why people get stuck in toxic cycles

US 2015 / ShutterstockYour body can become dependent on people as well as substances.
  • Addiction and abuse are linked.
  • Sometimes people are stuck in toxic relationships for many of the same reasons they are suffering with addiction.
  • It may be because they are stuck in a familiar, abusive cycle.
  • If you’ve been hurt, you may seek out damaging people because you’re trying to subconsciously fix the past.
  • But this isn’t healthy in the long run.

An abusive relationship is sometimes compared to a harmful addiction. People don’t tend to know they’re getting involved with an abusive person until it’s too late, and they feel like they have no escape.

This is one reason they stay in the toxic relationship. Another reason is something called “trauma bonding,” where they become chemically addicted to the hormonal rollercoaster the abuser sends them on.

The intermittent reinforcement of love and affection the abuser gives is enough to keep the victim hooked. As Shannon Thomas, author of “Healing from Hidden Abuse” said: “When we’re looking for something that we want, that we once had, which is a connection with somebody, and they are playing cat and mouse where they are pulling it back and forth, then the body really does become dependent on having that approval.”

It’s not all that dissimilar from being addicted to a drug.

Brook McKenzie, the director of clinical outreach and family liaison for rehab center New Method Wellness, told INSIDER healthy relationships are even more important for someone getting treatment for addiction.

Humans want to be loved

People sometimes fail to leave their abusive relationships for many of the same reasons they suffer with addiction – they get stuck in toxic cycles because they feel familiar.

“Human beings, we want to be loved,” said McKenzie. “I want to belong with someone, I want to be a part of something – often times that underlying current that’s present in almost all of humanity is what allows us to get into the abusive relationship in the first place, and then stay with the relationship.”

People have a strong need to feel like they belong, but this means they may stay attached to unhealthy relationships. And this can be even more difficult for someone who is also struggling with substance abuse and addiction.

If someone is already isolated from friends and family due to their troubles – maybe they stole from them or lied to them – they may feel their toxic relationship is all they have.

“Then of course, we see the abusive pattern start,” said McKenzie. “The individual is unwilling to leave the relationship, and they stay in it. And oftentimes they become traumatised by the experiences that they have within the relationship.”

Sad hugAntonio Guillem / ShutterstockHealthy relationships feel comfortable, not familiar.

People are often baffled when someone stays in a toxic relationship, McKenzie added, and may be unable to comprehend why someone stays with a partner who beats them, hurts them, steals from them, or enables their substance abuse problems (or all of the above). But it’s because the victim is in a familiar cycle, and that can be hard to break, he said.

“It becomes normalised,” McKenzie said. “It doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary for the individual who’s going through it.”

There’s a difference between a situation that’s familiar and one that’s comfortable. If someone feels familiar when you meet them, it could be because they remind you of someone from the past. If that person was abusive, you may go through something called “repetition compulsion,” where you try and fix the unresolved issue with a different person.


Read more:
The difference between being familiar or comfortable with someone – and why one can be a red flag

Being truly comfortable, as psychologist Perpetua Neo said, is when your personalities align.

Speaking to INSIDER, she said: “Is there space for your similarities and your differences? When you’re free to be yourself you can talk, you can joke, you can laugh. You can actually tessellate between going deep, talking about intellectual and emotional stuff, and being fun.”

These are the sorts of relationships people facing demons should focus on. But it can be a long, difficult journey to get there, especially if they have an unhealthy attachment style and are already trying to curb something like substance abuse.

Relationship relapses

Those battling addiction may hang on to the familiar abusive people in their lives. But this is only going to cause them to fall back into bad habits, McKenzie said. After all, it takes someone an average of seven times to leave an abusive relationship.

“What keeps them attached to that is, unfortunately, the addiction because addiction really retards our personal and interpersonal growth,” he said. “What we often see with individuals here, is they’re being treated for addiction, and they leave and they may have a relapse. And during that relapse is often when they may return to the actual relationship.”

That’s why at New Method Wellness the treatment doesn’t stop when someone walks out the door. Clients have to do Skype interviews to make sure they’re following their aftercare plan.

“Just because a client leaves or graduates, we’re still interested in their continued care,” McKenzie said. “We still want to be a part of their lives, we still want them to keep up with us.”

But it’s not in a way that suggests there’s no trust, he added.

“It’s more of an invitational approach,” he said. “We love you, we care about your well-being, we’re invested in you, we want to follow up with you, we want to continue to be a part of your life and continue the journey that you started here.”

A journey that – hopefully – leads to better, more secure relationships with people who won’t let them down.

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