Highly Sensitive Refuge
An HSP in a toxic relationship

Why Highly Sensitive People Keep Falling for Toxic Relationships — And How to Stop

Learn to spot these five red flags in a toxic relationship, and you can end the abuse before it even begins.

We go into relationships expecting the joy of unconditional love. However, sometimes we leave them feeling afraid to love ever again. 

Like many people, I’ve found myself in a toxic relationship before. Now, with just a few more years of experience under my belt, the warning signs that presented themselves at the time seem so obvious. Sometimes I beat myself up for having been so blind, but I’ve realized that it’s pretty common to ignore the signs of a toxic relationship — especially when you’re craving love and acceptance. 

Toxic relationships are dangerous because, most of the time, we don’t realize we’re in one until it feels too late to leave. Unfortunately, highly sensitive people (HSPs) can be more vulnerable to unhealthy dynamics. How so? First, let’s look at the traits of a sensitive person so we can better understand why they may be more likely to fall for toxic relationships.

The Science Behind High Sensitivity

Everyone is sensitive to a degree, but some people are more so than others. Almost one-third, approximately 30 percent of people, are innately more sensitive — both physically and emotionally. (While around 40 percent of people are average in sensitivity, 20 percent are low in sensitivity.) To researchers, this is referred to as environmental sensitivity — or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. And all three levels of environmental sensitivity are considered to be completely healthy and normal.

As far as highly sensitive people (HSPs) are concerned, they fall near the high end of the sensitivity continuum. They’re known for their high levels of empathy, easily absorb others’ emotions and feelings, and are deep thinkers. They are also very in tune with their physical environment — they pick up on everything from light sensitivity to chemical sensitivity. In addition, they may be more sensitive than others to noises, textures, and other everyday factors that don’t seem to affect non-HSPs. While being a sensitive person doesn’t just “go away,” HSPs can learn to manage their environments in order to make them less overwhelming.

Some researchers think high sensitivity is linked to giftedness, as well. And while sensitive people are highly intuitive, because they have such a strong sense of empathy, they can easily end up in toxic relationships more so than others. Here are a few reasons why.

5 Reasons Why Highly Sensitive People Keep Falling for Toxic Relationships

1. They are naturally caring and give of themselves freely. 

Since HSPs are open books and there for others unconditionally, some people, like narcissists,  may take advantage of their kindness — they can sniff out an empathic giver from miles away. Of course, the HSP gives them the benefit of the doubt… and it can take a while before they realize the person causes more harm than good in their lives.

2. They tend to get into codependent relationships. 

The highly sensitive person’s ability to tune in to other people’s emotions can make them an ideal partner, but their empathy can be a breeding ground for codependency. Codependency usually begins in childhood, when we aren’t taught to differentiate from the self and other people. The child internalizes their parents’ emotions as their own and takes it upon themselves to detect, and remedy, their negative emotions. When this sort of enmeshment continues into adulthood, you might find it difficult to set healthy boundaries in your relationships. Or you might find that your happiness is dependent on your partner’s moods or behaviors. This sort of dynamic robs both partners of their individuality, which can lead to tons of resentment. 

3. Their perfectionistic tendencies can make them doubt their self-worth. 

Conscientiousness is a common character trait among highly sensitive people. In some cases, conscientiousness can escalate into perfectionism, the compulsive need to seek perfection in everything we do. Perfectionism is praised in our society, since it can help us create top-notch results. But it can wreak havoc in our personal lives. American research professor and author Brené Brown puts it perfectly. She’s said: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” 

In terms of relationships, perfectionism can stop us from taking flight because our high standards can cause us to believe that we aren’t good enough to be loved unconditionally or accepted. This is dangerous in several ways. Others can detect our lack of self-worth and use it to mistreat us. Even with a loving partner in a healthy relationship, questioning our worth can make it difficult to receive the love that we need and deserve. 

4. Due to their intense emotions, relationship hiccups can feel catastrophic.

Everyone becomes a bit reactive when they get overwhelmed; relationships are overwhelming by nature. Sharing your life with someone, dealing with another person’s quirks, and resolving conflict can cause lots of extra stress for anyone (sensitive or not). Depth of processing is an identifying trait of the highly sensitive personality. As a result, our life experiences have a more intense effect on us. 

What might seem like a minor relationship hiccup can feel catastrophic for you, and you may react more strongly than others, which can cause further conflict. In addition, you may have a low tolerance to reactivity from your partners. It might be extremely disturbing to deal with someone raising their voice, crying, or expressing anger. After all, HSPs are not good with receiving criticism.

5. Conflict aversion can make it hard for them to enforce boundaries.

Most of us learn through rom-coms — and even modeling from our parents — that a “perfect” love story doesn’t require boundaries. Ideally, we spend every waking moment with our partners and are fully in sync with them at all times… Right?! 

In reality, however, boundaries are an important foundation of a healthy relationship. Sometimes setting boundaries involves a degree of conflict. In fact, there are four renowned stages of a relationship — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — and the conflict stage is an essential one. 

As HSPs, we might try to avoid this ritualistic part of sharing our life with another person. As mentioned in the last point, conflict can be particularly distressing to us, and we might use behaviors like people-pleasing to get away from it. As a result, we may not set healthy boundaries or make our needs known. 

Recognizing That You’re in a Toxic Relationship

Now that you know some of the reasons why HSPs may be more likely to enter into toxic relationships than non-HSPS, you may be wondering how to recognize that you’re actually in one.

When I think back to an unhealthy partnership I experienced several years ago, five clues in particular stand out to me. If you notice any of these patterns in your romantic relationships — or with friends or colleagues at work — it might be time to get the support you need, and, if needed, exit the situation. 

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5 Signs That You’re in a Toxic Relationship

1. They try to control you, like what you wear.

I always thought it was cute that my ex cared so much about what I wore (though I was uncomfortable with the way he voiced his preferences). My style is an eclectic medley of granny chic, cottagecore, hippie, Y2K, and whimsigothic. (Hopefully, that paints a clear picture in your mind.) I loved my personal style, but my ex did not. He was more into form-fitting athletic wear, and he would make it a point to admire any lovely lady in public sporting that style. 

I have no problem with a partner noticing an attractive person (before quickly averting their eyes back to the light of their life — me), but my ex’s wandering eye was brazen and offensive. When I confronted him on the topic, he explained that he hated everything I wore and that I couldn’t expect him not to stare at other women if I didn’t try to attract his attention with my clothes. “Fine,” I thought. “I could change a thing or two.”

For over two years, I would closely curate the clothes I wore around my then-boyfriend, for fear of receiving a nasty comment about how dowdy or ugly I looked. Other changes followed, like giving up my signature fragrance (Infusion d’Iris by Prada — now discontinued). He also constantly pestered me to get extensions. 

I thought nothing of all these things until I spoke to a friend who seemed horrified. She told me that I was being manipulated and my partner was trying to plummet my self-esteem so he could control me. I immediately agreed, knowing she was right.

Are you in a situation where your partner feels the need to control a certain aspect of your life? Perhaps they need to know where you are at all times. Maybe they decide they don’t like your friends and isolate you as a result. Controlling behavior doesn’t have to be forceful or even aggressive. It’s more likely to be subtle and manipulative. Common signs of controlling behavior include using guilt as a tool, conditional love, denying you alone time, disrespecting your “no,” belittling you, and sabotaging your goals. 

2. They don’t respect you.

Love is not all it takes to maintain a relationship. All of your relationships should be based on mutual respect. If you sense a consistent lack of respect from your partner, this is a major red flag. 

I remember being bothered by some of my ex-boyfriend’s habits, but I rarely spoke up about them because when I pointed them out, I was mostly dismissed. For example, he would always speak over me. When I’d stand up for myself, I was belittled and silenced with insults. 

A lack of respect can show up in many different ways. A partner who doesn’t respect you might not listen to you, disregard consent in physical situations, or hurl insults at you. 

3. They don’t support you emotionally.

Your partner should be your biggest cheerleader. Whether you’re trying to attain your next career milestone or get into a new hobby, your partner should stand by your side and encourage you to be your very best, I think. If you’re hesitant to share your goals for fear of being shut down — or you don’t feel like you and your partner are on the same team — you’re likely in a toxic situation. 

As an HSP, you may be particularly eager to please. But you can’t let anyone, even your partner, get in the way of your personal goals and self-actualization. 

4. They’re dishonest, like lying about where they’re going.

The success of our relationships are highly dependent on trust. When a partner is dishonest with you, that trust is eroded and other relationship problems are inevitable. If your partner is lying about where they are, who they’re with, what they’re doing, or how they feel, they are breaking essential trust and not enabling it to grow. Remember, lying by omission counts, too. 

When someone refuses to be honest with you, they leave you with nothing to work with in the way of improving the relationship. In cases where dishonesty is a consistent theme in your dynamic, leaving is usually the best option. 

5. Their unstable emotions become like a roller coaster, and you get a “high” from it. 

In the beginning of my last relationship, I got a thrilling high from our interactions. I later learned that I had developed an addiction to the extreme highs and lows of the relationship. 

Our addiction to toxic relationships can come from early attachment styles that may have been chaotic and unstable. We begin to feel at home in dysfunction and seek that out in our adult relationships. I think that’s what happened to me. 

Even though I began to feel more and more terrible as the relationship progressed, I found myself unable to leave. I had developed an obsessive, addictive attachment to the very person who made me feel so badly about myself. 

I finally realized that my toxic relationship couldn’t go on when I started exhibiting signs of depression and stopped feeling excited about the future. When I pictured what life would be like with my ex, I saw misery. I even felt a vague sense of danger. 

If you think you’re in a toxic relationship, know that you deserve so much more. Seek the support you need, whether that’s from a professional or trusted loved ones. Know your worth and take your life back — you’ll be much better off, trust me.

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