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Why is it so Hard for People to Break Away From Toxic Relationships

In recent years, I have inadvertently become a bit of a local expert in the area of high conflict individuals and the people who are in relationships with them. High conflict individuals often fit the bill for having a personality disorder and so for this article I especially want to address relationships with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD). I have written other articles about this problem and complicated dynamic. I have been quite troubled, at times, at the distress it brings to individuals and any children that are involved because there has been an apparent lack of effective solutions. Finding effective ways to untangle people in these relationships is an ongoing challenge. Here is what I have learned, so far, and what I believe is keeping these relationships going when they are toxic and chaotic in extreme ways. So if you have ever asked yourself why you can’t seem to bring yourself to break away, please consider these points:

  • Shame and fear create paralysis – If you’re in a relationship with someone who has NPD or BPD, you know fear and shame. While fear is an obvious emotion and state of being, shame can be more subtle, especially if it has become a normal part of your everyday life. Sadly, some people truly do live with deep levels of toxic shame day in and day out. Shame and fear create a state of being stuck and a state of paralysis; unable to act, move or change. People with BPD and NPD become masters at creating fear and shame in their partners. While I don’t believe that this is a deliberate or premeditated action, it is still one that they become quite skilled at through repeated conditioning. They seem to have a knack for triggering fear and shame responses in others. It is honestly the only way that they know how to keep people around for longer periods of time. They don’t know how to build positive relationships or function within them and so they are forced to rely on these types of methods. Using fear and shame also comes from a severe insecurity that they don’t know how to cope with and so many of their behaviors are motivated by a desire for self-preservation. The fear that is involved is among the most intense and therefore irrational fears that I see with my clients. When they think about leaving their NPD or BPD partner, they are met with a truly intense fear. Common shame based beliefs include not being deserving of a good relationship, not being lovable, not being good enough, etc. The intensity of the shame and fear is so big that the biggest battle that people fight is often within themselves. If you relate to this I will tell you, if you can win this internal battle, you can break free, if that is your goal. I tell my clients that love cannot truly exist in a codependent relationship because codependent relationships are built on a foundation of shame. If you relate to this, understand that you must overcome your own fear and shame if you want a happier life.

  • Enmeshment – When two people are enmeshed in a relationship it means that they have a complete lack of boundaries and there is usually a heavy and severe burden on one person in the relationship to carry all the blame for the problems in the relationship. These relationships maintain destructive cycles that are codependent in nature. Each person seems to keep each other stuck in their own style of self-destruction. These relationships are extremely chaotic and require a lot of dedication and emotional energy; they really are like a full time job. When these relationships end, there is usually like an emotional ripping and tearing that takes place. They are so enmeshed that the first few weeks are extremely difficult as each person attempts to adjust. Those with BPD or NPD never seem to do so effectively and usually do what they can to keep perpetuating the chaos.

  • Extremely poor sense of self-worth – In my experience, people with BPD and NPD get into long term relationships with people who generally have extremely low self-esteem. Forgive me for being completely blunt for a moment, most people will not tolerate the abuse and chaos that comes with being with a person who has BPD or NPD. Only certain types of people will tolerate them for an extended period of time. Low self-esteem is often tied to a person’s family of origin where they were conditioned to determine their value and self-worth by certain criteria that was taken to an extreme. For example, a person may have learned, as a child, that they had value as a person only when they were doing things for other people and sacrificing their own needs in order to do so. People that stay in long term relationships with someone who has BPD or NPD usually don’t believe that they deserve respect or love. Their sense of self-worth can be so low that they endure abusive behaviors from their partner. They may not even make a connection to the fact that they may be in an abusive relationship even though it is emotionally abusive and sometimes violent.

I believe that there are other factors involved with these relationships but I think that these three points represent the lion’s share of what is involved. If you feel like this describes you and you are living in a toxic and chaotic relationship that is filled with fear and shame, you are not alone. I also want you to know that you are worthy and deserving of love and respect. Getting the right kind of professional help can make all the difference and if you connect with this article I hope that you will reach out and ask for help.


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