Are You Emotionally Masochistic? 15 Signs You Can't Avoid Toxic Love

If you've ever found yourself stuck in patterns of self-defeating, self-destructive behavior that you can't seem to get out of, you may be emotionally masochistic. Emotional masochists tend to stay in (and even seek out) situations that put them in a state of distress, both intentionally and unintentionally. We all find ourselves in these places from time to time — almost comforted by the familiarity of the emotional pain we may experience. When this behavior becomes a long-lasting pattern, however, it's a good sign there's an underlying issue at play.

Emotional masochism is a tough subject to talk about, mostly because of how destructive it can be to an individual. People with emotionally masochistic tendencies tend toward self-destructive behavior, but it doesn't stop there — they often seek out partners that will further their own self-destruction. Again, this "seeking out" may very well be subconscious, but that doesn't make it any less destructive. Emotional masochists often find themselves drawn toward toxic relationships because they're familiar, they reinforce existing self-concepts, and they give them some sense of power in the relationship.

If you suspect you might have emotionally masochistic tendencies, first and foremost, we recommend exploring trauma therapy with a licensed mental health professional (though you may feel worse at first). Still wondering whether you might be an emotional masochist? Here are 15 signs you can't avoid toxic love.

You constantly chase unavailable people

Do you frequently find yourself in relationships where you often don't know what your partner is feeling? Maybe you frequently feel they're hiding parts of themselves from you, or you have a hard time feeling like you truly know them. During arguments, they get quiet and shut down, or, at their worst, they may try to turn the argument back on you and blame you for the problem, even using tactics such as gaslighting. If this sounds at all familiar to you, you may have a history of picking partners who are emotionally unavailable. 

Emotionally unavailable people aren't able to form deep, intimate, authentic relationships with their partners. They may have a history of past trauma that keeps them from opening up, or they may be wary of true vulnerability. Whatever the case, if you find yourself in these relationships again and again, it's a slight sign you may be emotionally masochistic. Staying with partners who can't reciprocate deep love is annoying at best and incredibly painful at worst. If you feel you aren't receiving as much emotional energy from a relationship as you put into it, your partner may be emotionally unavailable. This doesn't necessarily make them a bad person; they may just not be ready for a relationship, and you probably won't get what you want from it. However, if it persists, emotional unavailability can make for an incredibly toxic relationship. 

You find yourself drawn to drama

If you find yourself consistently in dramatic situations in your relationships, even if the drama isn't about you, you just might be drawn to drama. We get it — drama can be almost captivating at times — and observing it from a distance can add some interest to an otherwise monotonous day. But when you're putting yourself in the middle of it, starting drama with little provocation, or egging your partner on to cause drama, it's a sign you may be emotionally masochistic. 

Do you experience a small rush of adrenaline during arguments, big or small? Maybe you even enjoy arguing your point and defending yourself — after all, you've done it dozens of times before, and this is a situation you know how to navigate. Small issues in a relationship get blown out of proportion easily, and you often find yourself and your partner in a days-long fight over the correct way to load the dishwasher. Every couple fights occasionally, but knowing how to navigate those disagreements healthily and reach resolutions quickly is an important tool to use in every relationship. Instigating, prolonging, and giving into drama for drama's sake is unhealthy, to say the least, especially if you (or your partner) is constantly victimized in the process. 

You stay with the same person, even though they hurt you

Have you ever been in a long-term relationship that you just can't seem to leave, even though you know it's unhealthy? Or maybe you're stuck in an on-again, off-again relationship, where you're in a seemingly endless cycle of getting together, fighting, and breaking up, only to keep doing it again, even though you know you should move on. Emotionally masochistic individuals tend to stick with hurtful relationships because they're familiar, but they also often reinforce the individual's negative beliefs about themselves. Staying with a partner who constantly hurts you, demeans you, picks on you, or puts you down may reinforce your own beliefs about being unlovable, unworthy of love, or any other negative beliefs you may have about yourself.

If this sounds like you, we recommend seeking talk therapy with a professional to help you change your own self-schema. Changing those negative beliefs to positive ones is an incredibly important step in breaking the toxic relationship cycle. It's hard to do this while remaining in your toxic relationship, though. If you're with a partner who makes you feel worse about yourself rather than better (a pattern that doesn't seem likely to change), it might be time to cut ties for good.

You pick friends who insult or put you down

Toxic love doesn't only apply to romantic relationships — it's present in friendships as well and can do just as much damage. If your circle of friends insults each other, fights with each other, or puts each other down, it's a sign you may have some toxic friendships, but it doesn't have to be this way. Of course, there's a time and place for playful teasing in all friendships. Some friends are able to healthily "insult" each other without damaging the other's self-esteem. Getting to this point in a friendship takes a good amount of trust with one another and a deep level of knowing each other — you have to know what is okay to poke fun at without your friends getting hurt. If your friends don't seem to care about how their jokes may hurt you or they tend to be just plain mean, the friendship is probably toxic.

You might wonder why anyone would seek out these friendships in the first place. Sometimes, you may simply believe that this is the best you'll get from a friend group. You don't think you deserve better friendships, so you might as well stick with the ones you have. Besides, you have fun going out and partying on the weekends and gossiping about each other later. If any of this sounds familiar, you may be emotionally masochistic in your friendships.

You constantly put others' needs before your own

There will always be times of self-sacrifice in relationships, especially long-term ones, and there will be times you'll find yourself shouldering more of the burden. This shouldn't be constant, though, and you should feel a healthy balance with your partner when it comes to taking care of each other's needs. When you find yourself constantly putting your partner's needs above your own and they gladly accept, it's a good sign you may be an emotional masochist stuck in a relationship full of toxic love. 

This is especially true if your partner doesn't allow you to take time for yourself or take care of your own needs. If you need a few hours for self-care and they simply won't let you have it, that's not real love — that's toxic love. Maybe you're reading this and thinking to yourself that it's okay because you actually want to take care of all your partner's needs, so it can't be toxic. Well, it can. Taking care of your partner at the expense of yourself isn't healthy, especially when they don't take care of you. You're just as deserving of love and care.

You shoulder the blame for all the problems in your relationships

Does everything seem to be your fault in your relationships? You're the one to blame when your partner has a bad day — after all, you could have made them breakfast before they left for work. It's your fault you're out of trash bags because you should have gotten them days ago. Maybe there was some minor miscommunication between you two — obviously, it was your fault, and you should've handled it better. You take the blame willingly, whether to defuse the situation or because you really do believe you deserve the blame. 

If this sounds like the status quo in a lot of your relationships, you may be emotionally masochistic. Nobody is to blame 100% of the time — chances are, you and your partner share relatively equal blame for many of these situations. You may be willing to shoulder it because it just makes sense that you're to blame, especially if you have a negative self-schema. If you believe you're always wrong and constantly make mistakes, taking the blame is a way of reinforcing those beliefs without even realizing it. Find partners willing to take their share of the blame. A healthy relationship should find both partners admitting when they're wrong and talking about how to do better — if one person always takes responsibility, it's a sign of toxic love. 

You stay in relationships that don't make you happy

Picture this: You've been in a relationship with your partner for years now, and something just... isn't right. You know you're not happy, but you also can't picture yourself leaving. Maybe you know why the relationship doesn't make you happy. Maybe your needs are mismatched, there's aggression (verbal or physical) involved, or the two of you just don't get along. Remaining in relationships where you're actively unhappy a good amount of the time is a key sign of emotional masochism.

Often, staying in these types of relationships seems like your only option, especially if you're emotionally masochistic. You might even draw some comfort from the familiarity of the unhappiness. Sure, you and your partner fight every night, but you know how to deal with the fight — it's become almost routine, and knowing you can rely on the fight to happen before resolving it is comforting in its own way. Plus, you can't imagine you'll find someone else who would actually love you better, and you're terrified of being alone. In these cases, staying in the relationship seems like the easiest option. But staying will probably only feed more into your negative self-thoughts and further your emotional masochism.

You're uncomfortable when everything goes right

If any of the above has resonated with you, we wouldn't be surprised if you find yourself uncomfortable in a healthy relationship. Have you ever had a friend or partner who encourages, supports, and shows genuine affection for you, and something about it makes you cringe or want to run away? If you've only experienced abusive, unhappy relationships, it makes sense that anything different would make you feel a little uncomfortable — after all, a secure relationship is probably something you've never experienced before. 

Working through this initial discomfort (preferably with a licensed professional) is an important step to healing. If you find that the discomfort pushes you away from the healthy relationship and toward an unhealthy one, you may have some underlying emotional masochism you need to work through. Being in a secure relationship challenges your own negative self-talk, which can be tough to deal with at first. With time, though, you'll probably find yourself healing and rebuilding positive self-concepts — an amazing step forward.

You don't set boundaries in relationships

Having boundaries in any relationship is incredibly important to keeping the relationship and all parties involved healthy and happy. Being clear and upfront about what you will and won't tolerate and what you are or are not comfortable with should mitigate certain issues that can arise, as long as your partner respects your boundaries. People may fail to set boundaries for many reasons — maybe they just don't know how or that they should. If your refusal to set boundaries is rooted in a feeling that you don't deserve to have boundaries, you may be emotionally masochistic.

You may believe that you shouldn't have boundaries. Maybe you think you should be available for your partner at all times, or you don't feel like your "no" matters in your relationship. If this is your mindset in relationships, you probably have hints of emotional masochism. Know that you deserve to set boundaries and have them respected; if your relationship doesn't allow for this, it may be time to reevaluate.

You're quick to disregard praise or compliments

Do compliments make you cringe? A simple "You look nice today" from your partner has you saying everything to the contrary — actually, you didn't do your hair, you forgot to wash your face last night, and you just grabbed this shirt from the top of the hamper, so you're sure you don't really look that nice. Thanking someone for a compliment doesn't come naturally to you, and it never has, because you never believe the compliment-giver is telling the truth. They're probably just complimenting you to make you feel good, at best, or out of pity, at worst.

News flash: People don't usually give out compliments unless they mean them (Regina George-esque divas aside). When you don't want to accept a compliment, it's probably because you don't believe it yourself. It's much more comfortable to spend most of your time with someone who doesn't compliment you at all, and it's even easier when they treat you as you treat yourself: constantly pointing out what to fix. This is a huge warning sign of emotional masochism, and, if left unchecked, can lead to a downward spiral of self-esteem.

You find yourself constantly apologizing

Everyone needs to apologize at one time or another in relationships. We all make mistakes and do wrong to our partner, and, when we do, it's important we recognize it, own up to it, and resolve to do better going forward. But if you find that the words "I'm sorry" become an ultra-regular part of your daily vocabulary, you might be over-apologizing for things you don't need to apologize for.

Are you constantly apologizing over tiny things? Maybe you notice the dishwasher is full and you apologize to your partner, saying you should have unloaded it earlier. They may not even argue — they might genuinely say it's fine. You still find yourself feeling guilty, though. Then you apologize for apologizing, and you feel annoying and guilty for being annoying, and you want to apologize for that, too. If this sounds familiar, you may have emotionally masochistic tendencies. 

You find your own self-worth in helping wounded people

Maybe a lot of the above is ringing true for you, but you don't feel that you have the lowest of self-esteem. After all, there are definitely moments when you feel important and worthy — namely, when you're helping others. You're incredibly compassionate and empathetic, a natural listener, and a shoulder to cry on for everyone you meet. In fact, you're more than happy to shoulder some of their emotional burden. You have plenty experience dealing with your own, and it's worth taking on someone else's if it helps them through a tough time.

If your own sense of self-worth comes largely from helping other people, it could be a sign of emotional masochism, especially when their burdens and pain only enhance your own. It's nearly always good to be there for a friend who's going through a tough time, but ask yourself if this seems to be happening the majority of the time in your friendships or relationships. If it does, and you find yourself constantly sitting with people in their times of trouble, it could be because their trouble is comforting to you in a way. Know that you are worth more than what you can give to others, and make sure you're saving some emotional energy for yourself.

You don't let yourself trust anyone

Some of us have past wounds and trauma that make it hard to trust others. This is nothing to be ashamed of and can be overcome with therapy and good relationships. Sometimes, though, you may find yourself refusing to trust others, despite their best efforts to show you they're trustworthy. In these situations, you may find yourself suspicious when suspicion isn't warranted or hiding parts of yourself even in stable relationships. 

Vulnerability is an important and scary part of relationships but one we must reach eventually if we want to form deep, long-lasting partnerships. If you refuse to trust your partner enough to become vulnerable with them though there's nothing they've done to warrant mistrust, it may simply be that you're a bit emotionally masochistic, refusing to go deep in relationships because you're more comfortable with distance. Boundaries are important in relationships, but too much distance can be unhealthy and prevent the relationship from growing, even sabotaging it in the process.

You agree with plans you don't want to do

We all go along with things we don't want to do occasionally. Compromise is an important component of a healthy relationship, and, sometimes, partaking in activities your partner wants to do that you don't can do a lot for your relationship. If this is the status quo, though, and you're always agreeing to plans you don't want to do, it might be your emotional masochism peeking out.

If you've never had a conversation with your partner about the imbalance in your activities, now's the time to start. If they care, they'll want to hear you out and compromise more on the activities you do. If they push you aside or disregard your concerns, that's a huge warning sign of toxic love. Asserting your own wants and desires in a relationship doesn't make you greedy — on the contrary, it's one way to ensure both of your needs are taken care of.

You nitpick at little things

Maybe you've finally found someone who's really good for you. Your relationship has a good balance of give and take, and there's not much to complain about. In fact, this is what seems to be the problem. Suddenly, you feel yourself almost looking for things to get upset about — after all, you're used to relationships with a good amount of bickering involved. Before you know it, you're nitpicking at little things, from a tiny stain on their shirt to a quirk they have that you used to find charming.

Finding tiny things to complain about in a relationship says that you may be emotionally masochistic. You're not used to having a good partner, so something feels wrong. Nitpicking to get into arguments makes you feel better, in a way, as you're navigating familiar territory. But this isn't fair to you, and it's especially not fair to a partner who wants to genuinely love you. If this form of toxic love sounds familiar, it's a sign to take a step back and consider whether those little things are really worth fighting over.