7 Reasons Why People Stay In Unhealthy Relationships
Dr. Steve examines why leaving a dysfunctional relationship is so difficult. It’s deeper than you think.
By Steven Lake
People stay in unhealthy relationships for many reasons. There is no shortage of reasons but it is feelings that keep us stuck. Whether it is how we feel when thinking of the future, feeling hopeless about the current situation, or feeling angry at our partner, somehow we are not able to translate these feelings into action. This makes us feel even worse.
The list below is not in any order and some items can merge one into another, they often do. I have separated them to create clarity and to simplify the maelstrom of thoughts and feelings that inundate our senses when living in a relationship that is not working.
Homo sapiens is a strange species. It seems that our enlarged brain and culture warp our need for self-preservation to such an extent that we delude ourselves into creating a hoped for reality rather than deal with the reality in front of us. We “hope” that our relationship will become something better than what it is, even after years of trying for improvement.
This quality is a double-edged sword as believing in and working for a better future is a good thing, especially after the honeymoon phase has worn off and the real work of a relationship begins. Having a shared vision of what we want to create gives direction and purpose to the relationship.
Hope then is both realistic and delusional, depending on the circumstances. Distinguishing between these two extremes is where most people get confused. The biggest element to consider if you find yourself in this situation (or have in the past — most of us have been there) is determining whether or not your partner is as determined as you to make the situation work. If not, you are dead meat.
For argument's sake, let’s say both of you want to make it work. This is a good start but not a guarantee. Will both of you do what’s necessary? That could mean couples counseling, a relationship workshop, buying a book on communication and then doing the work/exercises on a consistent basis.
In my practice, a complaint that often arises is that one partner makes some initial gains and once the other partner seems happy, the first partner falls back into old habits and they are back to square one. Very discouraging.
Fear will keep us in a relationship way past the due date. I know. I stayed in a relationship that was so destructive that I got ulcers and still could not remove myself. I was sick in bed when a good buddy pleaded for me to take care of myself and leave the relationship. I was not able to make the healthy choice and suffered for another year before getting out. Fear of being without my girlfriend was one aspect that kept me stuck in inaction.
We had a passionate relationship. She understood me as an artist and we supported each other’s dreams. Fear of being without the positive aspects of our relationship kept me hoping for an improvement.
Another time, again in a painful relationship, the hook was sex. It was the best sex I had had up until that time and I did not want to lose that. I was willing to risk my health, both physical and mental. Even when we broke up we continued to have sex for another year. I was like an addict and connecting once a week kept me hooked to this person.
The irony was that fear ultimately got me to let go and move forward. It was fear for my life. This was back in the ’80s when HIV/AIDS was rampant and my lover was fraternizing with high-risk groups without practicing safe sex. It took the fear of dying to finally wake me up and make a healthy choice.
Then there is a fear of the unknown. Will I ever find someone who understands me as she does? Will I find as good a sex partner? Will I find someone who accepts me as she does? How will I pay the bills on my own? It is like we prefer the devil we know than the one we don’t. Yet, it is still a devil and we are suffering. But we know so well the details of our suffering and how to live with it even when we hate our situation. Fear of the unknown is a powerful force that can keep us frozen in our current situation.
3. Low self-esteem
We often have stereotypical ideas of what a person with low self-esteem looks like. They have a sign around their neck saying “I am not enough.” They walk with a slouch, mumble, and avoid looking you in the eye.
It is not a pretty picture and it only covers a small portion of those who suffer from low self-esteem (minus the sign). I certainly would not have appeared to have low self-esteem yet my behavior in a relationship indicated otherwise. Outwardly, I was energetic, involved in my profession, creating relationships, had friends, and was living a creative lifestyle.
However, I was not able to stand up for myself in an intimate relationship. There was a part of me that was just not able (or willing) to make the tough choices. It took me fifteen years as an adult before I matured enough to realize that my self-care was important and not listening to my inner truth was too high a price to pay. Furthermore, it was not fair to the other person (who was also locked into an unhealthy relationship) not being honest with what I was thinking and feeling.
Now, I would not stay in an abusive, dysfunctional, or unhappy relationship. I would bring myself fully to the relationship and do whatever it took to engage in change so that we both are able to create a healthy and happy relationship. If that did not work, then I would walk no matter how much I “loved” that person. I have learned through much experience that, “love is not enough.”
Sometimes, ego gets in the way when trying to leave a relationship. You may have the “perfect” relationship from the outside and losing that may bring humiliation in your eyes and the eyes of others. You may have invested time, energy, and love in your relationship and the loss of the “dream” is a bitter pill to swallow. It may be so difficult that you will stay for reasons other than love or self-regard to maintain your status, finances, or the dream, even if it is false.
Sometimes our ego hates to admit defeat — if I try hard enough and long enough I can make it work. At other times we are in denial, “This is what relationships are like. My friends have it worse.” Making excuses becomes easier than dealing with reality.
5. Lack of courage
It takes courage to leave a person you love. You know it’s going to be painful. Maybe the most pain you have ever experienced. It is easy to talk yourself out of a healthy choice. All creatures move toward pleasure and away from pain. The pain of leaving seems bigger than the pain of staying.
In my experience, both personally, and with friends and clients, is that most people will stay in a bad relationship until the pain of staying is greater than the pain of leaving. That can be a lot of pain over a long period of time. I am amazed at the human capacity to endure suffering.
When depressed it is hard to make decisions. That is why it is critical to remove yourself from a relationship before becoming depressed because once depressed it will be almost impossible to take care of yourself. You lose perspective, feel bad about yourself, think you deserve what you have, have no right to complain, and life will never change.
If you are depressed and in an unhealthy relationship — get help. Professional help. We often don’t listen to our friends at this point even though we should and an outside and unbiased person can often give us the clarity that we are sorely missing.
I believe that we are all depressed to some degree when going through a relationship crisis and having compassion for ourselves and our situation is helpful. If we cannot be compassionate with ourselves get support wherever you can find it. You may have to look after yourself first before being able to make a decision regarding the relationship.
7. Re-enactment of family dynamics
This one is a killer when you realize what is happening. Discovering that you are doing exactly what your mother or father did is a shock. Somehow you are repeating the same mistakes they made. The mistakes you vowed never to do in your marriage. And yet, here you are, repeating history.
The forces of our upbringing are powerful and often we are unconscious to what motivates us to do what we do. Finding yourself repeating an old pattern, possibly one going back many generations is sobering and with this realization comes the opportunity to make a change that will reverberate into the future.
As I said at the beginning of the article, a number of these elements can be happening concurrently and some are stronger one day and weaker the next. Leaving a relationship may be the most difficult choice you ever make, but once made, a new life awaits. A life where you can breathe freely and make choices without second guessing yourself. A life where you can focus on healing, strengthening, and then giving of yourself when whole once more, or even whole for the first time.
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.