Why do we keep going back to familiar relationships even though it may be harmful for us?

It’s time to break the toxic pattern.

Harper's Bazaar India

In Jonathan Larson’s song Louder than Words, he writes: Why do we stay with lovers / Who we know down deep / Just aren’t right? / Why would we rather / Put ourselves through hell than sleep alone at night? 

It's perhaps the most remarkable way of asking the simplest question. Think of Jane Sloan from The Bold Type, when she forgives Ryan for cheating on her or Blair Waldorf for going back to Chuck every single time or when Lorelai drops everything to be with Christopher each time, no matter how unreliable he is. They all went back to the known. Neither of their better (or worse) halves did any good to the relationship. They were harmful and unhealthy. Still, these characters found comfort amid the chaos of their lives.

This is true beyond the world of fiction, too. “When the Covid-19 pandemic started and the world was unanimously overwhelmed, all of us turned to binge-watching shows we had watched before. We know what happens when Rachel and Ross break up and that Monica and Chandler were able to adopt babies, but we invested time and energy to re-watch it. Similarly, in relationships, even though we know a pattern has been unhealthy, we feel exploring a new territory will be even scarier. This is especially when we have gone through difficult experiences in relationships and have formed our coping mechanisms around them,” says our resident writer, Akanksha Narang. 

Deborah Ward writes, “Studies have shown that we are attracted to what is familiar to us and that repeated exposure to certain people can increase our attraction toward them. Even when someone’s behaviour or personality is hurtful, on a subconscious level, some part of us may find comfort in the familiarity of that behaviour.” At a time when the levels of anxiety, stress, and depression are constantly increasing, we want nothing but to feel at home. Sometimes, the home turns out to be people whom we need healing from or who aren’t healthy for us. But it’s time we become conscious of these patterns and find ourselves a way out. We let you in on the whats, whys, and hows of it all. 

Why do we stay or keep going back to familiar but harmful patterns? 

There is a gamut of reasons for portraying such patterns. When it comes to prolonging an impending break-up, you may continue to be with the person because you are not comfortable being alone, you think you deserve the disrespect or toxic behaviour or even because you don’t want to hurt the other person. But going back to such familiarity brings with it a whole other gamut of issues. “One of the reasons we repeat unhealthy but familiar patterns is that we are subconsciously trying to overcome those. So until we crack the code and win, we keep falling into the same pit,” says Narang.

Psychologist Nisha Khanna agrees. “We don’t know how to overcome the past trauma, so, it ends up becoming a vicious cycle,” she continues, “In fact, sometimes we knowingly go back to these patterns because we think that this time we will know how to get out of it.”
“The lack of self-love is also one of the reasons,” says Khanna. “We may end up thinking and feeling like we are not loveable. Childhood trauma and the resultant damage in self-esteem is also another significant factor in how we behave in relationships." 

“Sometimes, we are not even aware that a pattern is unhealthy if we’ve been familiarised with it since our formative years. If they fit in our normalised version of relationships, we will likely repeat those until we unlearn many things and possibly change our attachment styles,” says Narang. 

Consequences of these patterns 

Dr Chloe Carmichael, clinical psychologist and author of Dr Chloe's 10 Commandments of Dating puts it simply, “Like any addictive behaviour, it becomes harder to quit over time. We can also start to lose faith in our ability to change.” When we go back to familiar but toxic relationships or people, we are stopping ourselves from growing. 

Here’s what Narang has to say, “You feel stuck in a loop and slowly it kills the spark in you. Your relationship gravely influences the quality of your life. If it is damaging your mental health, your productivity at your workplace will also suffer. You may get isolated from your loved ones, too. It can lead to various stress-induced health issues. So, until you start loving yourself enough and asking for the love you deserve, toxic relationships will threaten your overall security and well-being.” 

How to become aware of it and overcome it 

One of the most significant steps you need to take amid the anxiety-inducing situation you may be in is becoming aware of your behaviour and patterns. “It’s important to listen to your friends, family, and close ones when they point out such patterns in you,” says Khanna, “You should also consciously take out time to reflect on your past relationships and understand behaviour patterns.”

Narang says, “Analyse how these patterns make you feel. If something makes you feel anxious, insecure or unhappy, those things need to go. Once you are aware of what is killing your joy, you will have to find the strength to let it all go and mindfully identify those red flags in the next potential relationship. Make a list of things you truly want out of a relationship (prioridating) and look for those. It may seem scary at first and you may catch yourself wondering if you will ever find someone who fits the bill, but trust the process. Heal yourself first and become comfortable being alone.” 

“It can take time to recalibrate yourself so that you no longer register unhealthy drama as "chemistry". Don't be afraid to seek support from an uplifting friend or trusted counsellor. Invite them to hold you accountable and help you to see when you're slipping back into old patterns,” says Dr Carmichael.