Steam rises from a pan of boiling water.

A frog in boiling water: Why do we stay in abusive relationships?


Written by In Sight

The phrase “a frog in boiling water” is a powerful metaphor about the often unnoticed and gradual escalation of abuse. Imagine a frog placed in a pot of water. If the water is hot, the frog immediately jumps out to safety, because it can recognise how dangerous the water is.

However, if the water is only lukewarm and slowly heated, the frog remains unaware of the increasing danger until it’s too late and it no longer has the strength to escape.

This analogy illustrates how a person might become so immersed in an abusive situation that they fail to recognise the harm being done to them, even when people on the “outside” can.

In narcissistic, abusive relationships or environments, mistreatment often begins subtly. It might start with small acts of control, seemingly insignificant insults, or minor invasions of personal space. These initial behaviors can be easy to overlook or dismiss as one-offs. However, over time, these actions typically escalate, becoming more frequent, intense, and damaging. Like the frog, you may adjust to these gradual changes, rationalising or normalising the abusive behavior as a coping mechanism. We’ve spoken before about cognitive dissonance, and the frog in boiling water metaphor illustrates this perfectly!

One of the most insidious aspects of gradual abuse is that your perception can become distorted. You may start to believe that the abuse is your fault (it isn’t!), or that it is a normal part of your relationship or environment. One of the common toxic traits of narcissists is their ability to gaslight and manipulate a situation that suits them, regardless of the impact on those around them. In reality this manifests fore their victim as a total loss of confidence, a loss of identity and an unhealthy trauma bond.

This is why it’s crucial to be aware of the signs of emotional abuse, and by knowing what harmful behaviour looks and feels like, you can protect yourself. Pay attention to how you are being treated and trust your instincts if something feels wrong.

Intervention is key in these situations. When you are immersed in an abusive environment, recognising your circumstances can be challenging. Reach out for support from trusted friends, family, or professionals who can offer a different perspective and help you see the situation more clearly. Don’t be afraid to seek help or a second opinion; it’s a vital step in protecting yourself. The most important aspect of the frog in boiling water analagy is this: it’s not the fault of the frog that the water is boiling, just like it isn’t your fault if you’ve been conditioned and manipulated into staying in an abusive relationship.

It’s not easy to break free, and it will be a tough, painful journey, but you deserve healthy relationships, with people who love and support you. By understanding how toxic behaviours trapped you in abuse, you can become the frog that jumps out of the water before it boils.

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