top of page

Why Some People Are Drawn to Harmful Relationships

Love and pain can be a painful relationship combination.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

All relationship partners go through hard times and have to navigate them successfully for their connection to flourish. They tangle and untangle at different times and for different reasons, hoping to create a better relationship each time they do.

Most relationships fluctuate between those positive and negative aspects but, overall, move in the right direction. Over time, partners understand better what makes their love grow and strive to eliminate the behaviors that are detrimental.

Sadly, there are relationships in which those polarizations are extreme. The love may be intense and all-encompassing, but the negative interactions are as equally dramatic and painful. Over time, the relationship becomes one of agony and ecstasy, hopelessly intertwined, and the partners within them are helplessly caught in patterns they cannot seem to stop.

With guidance and understanding, many people do learn from these relationships and do not recreate them. But too many not only stay in them, but actually seek them. I have often worked with people who have told me that they have only ever been in these types of relationships and feel that the behaviors are to be expected as part of every intimate connection.

To break these patterns, people must understand what draws them to these relationships, and believe that they can create an intimate partnership that does not require this high a price.

9 Common Reasons People Are Drawn to Love/Pain Relationships

  1. Testing. There are people who want to feel safe and secure in a love relationship, but don’t trust that it is achievable. When it does happen, they feel the necessity to find fault in their partner in order to protect themselves from the loss they expect. They may begin to focus on small things that might indicate a potential betrayal, looking for disappointment where none may lurk. Ever testing, they look for trouble where none exists. Eventually, they create a self-fulfilling prophecy that proves to them their predictions were right.

  2. Provoking to Control. Children who grow up with parents who alternately pushed them away and then drew them close learn to control how and when they will be hurt or loved. Many children have told me that their parent is always nicer after they’ve been mean, so they want to get the “mean” over with by provoking it. That parent may suffer from substance abuse or live with dark personality traits, but the child cannot understand that and only does what seems to work.

  3. Believing Sorrow Is Necessary for Love to Thrive. All intimate partners fight but most have built-in places that they do not risk breaching, even at their worst, because they know that hitting below the belt may one day make the relationship unable to recover. But people in love/pain relationships, when out of control, throw those rules away and go for the jugular. At those times, they are only able to see their partners as enemies who must be annihilated in those moments. After the toxic venting, they create the same level of passion to make up. They truly believe that love will not thrive if sorrow is not part of the process.

  4. Personality Traits. Genetics can sometimes be a predictor of unstable emotional reactivity. People with accurately diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder or manic-depressive instability, or who are on the autism spectrum, for example, may have more difficulty regulating emotions under stress or fear of loss. They often have many other traits that their partners continue to value, but eventually, those cannot overcome the dramatic negative behaviors that accompany them.

  5. Feeling Deserving of Pain. People who have low self-esteem, whether from painful life experiences or the inability to feel successful in life, often feel that they are the problem when anything goes wrong in their relationships, and deserve the pain they must endure if they don’t measure up to a partner’s expectations. They may create love/pain relationships to feel they must pay in some way for the love they need.

  6. Martyrdom. Many relationship partners find dignity and self-respect when they are able to “take” a lot of pain and respond with forgiveness and continued commitment. They make every effort to forgive any hurtful behavior from partners in order to experience the love they are sure will follow.

  7. Fear of intimacy. Most people in love/pain relationships do not want to hurt their partners, yet find themselves doing just that. They may struggle to find the right balance between closeness and freedom and alternate their behaviors to maintain that balance. If they push their partners too far away, they pull them back. When they are too connected for too long, they push them back.

  8. Childhood Modeling. Children who are exposed to parental dramas of love/pain relationships learn to tolerate the toxic part of what they see, and wait for the loving reconnections they know will follow. They expect that reciprocal and love interactions are normal. Feeling powerless to change the patterns, they learn to feel helpless to stop them when they create the same dynamic in their own adult relationships.

  9. Drama Can Alleviate Depression. Newness produces reward chemicals in the brain that make people feel alive and excited. Change, novelty, challenge, and more intense feelings can temporarily alleviate the heaviness that clinical depression can cause. The drama of love/pain relationships can make a depressed person feel more, and they are willing to pay the price.

Caveat: How the Media May Exacerbate the Problem. Opportunities to watch other people's intense displays of emotional interactions have long been available to us, but never so graphically and limitless as in today's media, which exposes us to experiences we want to know and feel, but ccould not tolerate as a constant in our everyday lives. Widely available and unrestricted in scope, new books, operas, movies, television series, and music allow people to temporarily escape the limitations of normal relationships. The variability, depth of drama, lack of restrictions, and unleashed creativity can urge people to seek more of that same drama in their everyday lives. As a result, I am seeing more extreme behaviors in many of my patients, who unfortunately lack the tools they need to stop the emotional tsunamis they create.

35 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page