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Why People Can Miss Red Flags in Toxic Relationships

Often, it's because partners mimic patterns from childhood.

Key points

  • Due to their history, many family trauma survivors struggle to identify red flags in dating partners.
  • Childhood coping skills are often carried into romantic relationships, continuing unhealthy patterns.
  • Red flags can be hard to spot if they mimic behaviors considered normal or acceptable in a family of origin.
Mircea from Pixabay
Source: Mircea from Pixabay

“Why do I keep attracting toxic people?” Ezra cried, hands over his face in an attempt to hide the shame he felt in uncovering this revelation after yet another unhealthy breakup. “It’s like I am a magnet for people who are messed up! They seem fine in the beginning, but I keep getting hurt no matter what I do!”

Ezra is just one of many of my clients who worry that they “attract” toxic—or unhealthy—individuals as dating partners. Over our four years together, he experienced many unhealthy and traumatic relationships, going in and out of dynamics that inevitably caused him pain. Like many, he wants to meet a healthy person, but he struggles to know how to get out of this pattern that holds him hostage.

Like many in the starry-eyed phase of a new relationship, Ezra claimed that there were no red flags that he noticed—at least not really. Yet a year later, with the end of the relationship crashing down upon him, he was able to recall things at the beginning that gave him pause. Yet, he excused them. An objective observer might be able to see some of the red flags that Ezra, and so many others, excuse or even ignore. But for Ezra and so many others, it was easier to push aside the red flags in order to continue the hope of having someone—anyone—to love him.

Are some of us more likely to attract toxic people?

Yes. However, an appropriate response to this question deserves a more complex answer. All of us are at risk of being on the receiving end of unhealthy relationships. Still, some seem to be more susceptible to intellectualizing the warning signs and continuing relationships with toxic individuals. To give a better explanation of human and relationship patterns of behavior, we must go back to our early experiences, where we originally learned these behaviors.

Not surprisingly, we learn certain behavior patterns and coping mechanisms during the developmental stages of life. And if those behavior patterns are unhealthy or dysfunctional, we then carry this with us into our adult relationships. Whether intended or not, the way we learn to interact with our caregivers is usually mimicked in our early relationships. If any of these interactions were dysfunctional, we could unknowingly carry on dysfunctional ways of engaging with the world.

Unless we intervene to develop more self-awareness of our behaviors, either through therapy or deep self-reflection, we usually continue to follow these same harmful patterns into adulthood. In summary, we ignore destructive behaviors because they do not register in our minds as unhealthy—but rather as tolerable. Or even as normal.

Red flags can be difficult to spot if they mimic behaviors that were considered normal or acceptable in your family of origin.

Going back to our early experiences gives us insight into our adult relationships. Since we frequently mimic patterns and experiences from our early caregivers and families, it is common to repeat these in our relationships. In other words, if we do not yet know that something is unhealthy or toxic, we do not know to avoid it.

If we experienced neglect or abuse in our family of origin, we likely had to establish coping mechanisms to manage these experiences. Many of us grew up having to ignore or intellectualize our experiences:

"Dad loves us, he just gets angry sometimes."

"Moms usually act like this; it’s normal. We should just pretend it didn't happen and go on as normal."

Even as we become educated adults, it may take time for us to recognize these experiences as unhealthy or even traumatic. It becomes difficult, at least in its early stages, to see these unhealthy patterns as anything but “normal.”

This is why it becomes so easy for children with family-of-origin trauma to grow up and fall into dysfunctional relationship patterns. It’s because they recognize them as being familiar.

But what can we do?

“Will I ever be able to have a healthy relationship?” many of my clients ask. I remember asking this very same question to my own therapist many years back, worried I was doomed to repeat the pattern I had somehow found myself stuck experiencing.

In short, my usual response is that it depends on your level of insight and the amount of work you are willing and able to put into yourself and your relationship(s). I realize this is unfair—you did not ask for your trauma history, yet you have to work harder than others to overcome it. Your peers take for granted that they were conditioned to expect healthy relationships.

Not all people who experienced trauma from their family of origin later experience dysfunctional partnerships, and not all people who experience unhealthy adult relationships have childhood family trauma, but there are common links. Because dysfunction exists on a spectrum, most of us can and will exhibit dysfunctional ways of interacting with others at some point in our life. The key difference is that we can recognize the behavior as being unhealthy and work to do better. But unfortunately, many people struggle to know what is normal and what is not.

For those of us who have left abusive relationships and wondered, “Why me?” knowing this connection can give us an answer. Many only first recognize and confront their family trauma history when they find themselves unable to escape the dysfunctional patterns of adult relationships.

The key to changing this is learning what red flags are, how to spot them, and working on convincing yourself that you deserve better. Many worry that they will not find anyone better, so they settle for less than they deserve. It takes time and patience to work on changing this, but awareness is the first step.

Facebook image: Katya Kvitka/Shutterstock

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