Danielle cannot stand-up right now. I mean this in a literal sense, not a figurative one. She is so mentally exhausted from the verbal pounding she took (again) last night, she simply cannot muster the strength to get on her two feet. Her daughter Samantha looks over her in wonder while her husband Mark is parading around the room as if the lights shined bright on Broadway and he was at the top of the billing. Samantha knows that mommy isn’t feeling well but she is not sure why. The fact that she is 3 years old may have something to do with her lack of knowing. Mark knows just what happened last night but his indifference towards Danielle is deafening. It is also convenient for him.
This is not Danielle’s first rodeo. Her mental picture of life, love, and picket fences has long been replaced by the stare and strain of a guy that outright scares her. He knows it. She knows it. Sooner or later, Samantha will know it.
Kara is not in an abusive marriage. For that matter, her husband is very respectful and kind towards her. Kara just needs a lot more fire and passion than Cal is willing or able to bring. He is a man whose ideas of love, grandeur, and excitement are very different than Kara’s. They have sex every few weeks and it is very mechanical. They have date night every two weeks that generally consists of going out to eat or seeing a movie. Kara needs more. Cal understands this and has expressed a strong desire to try harder. Unfortunately, they have been trying to bring more energy and excitement into their marriage for 3 years. And yet for all of the sincere effort, the fire is no hotter, the passion no more magnetic. Kara feels isolated and alone, her desire for something more seeping through every day. And yet she stays.
There are very basic reasons why people decide to stay in unhealthy relationships. Basic, and yet heartbreaking just the same.
1. “I made a commitment”/”I am not a quitter”: Simply put, we often stay in bad situations because we are beholden to the fact that we made a commitment and we do not want to quit. This is especially true for people who are in unhappy but non-abusive relationships. “It’s not like I’m in a dangerous situations, it’s just a little boring. I’m not going to dishonor my commitment to Cal over something like that.” So said Kara.
2. “This is as good as it gets”: If we are in a bad situation but we believe that this is life, we will likely stay put. Lonnie has been unhappy for 8 years and although she has thought about leaving, she hears “too many horror stories” from her sister and her girlfriends about not-so-nice boyfriends, verbally abusive husbands, and relationships that are stagnant. In this, Lonnie is convinced that there is no greener grass on the other side and so she stays.
3. “I love them warts and all”: Despite our partners shortcomings or the negative relationship space we live in every day, we cannot take the step to leaving them because we love them. I find this to be one of the more troubling reasons we stay. Loving someone and staying with them should not be two inseparable things. As Patty Smyth sang some 25 years ago, sometimes love just aint enough. Easier said that acted on perhaps.
4. “It will get better”/”It has to get better”: In some cases we stay simply because we believe that it will get better. We have seen the darkest side of the moon and we have convinced ourselves that the light must and will shine soon. This potential keeps us in place, even as we continue to extend the time that we are willing to wait for the light.
5. Fear of being alone: We very often stay in unhealthy relationships because we fear being alone. This is especially true as we get older and lose confidence that we will be able to leave our current situation and find a new one.
Before we get further into this topic, we need to talk about root cause. Root cause is, by definition, an initiating cause of a chain of events which leads to an outcome or effect of interest. I just walked you through five reasons why we tend to stay in bad situations but those were symptoms. Without fully understanding root cause, one will never fully move past the reasons.
Root cause 1: Lack of self-confidence – I have yet to meet a client that did not have self-confidence issues at the heart of their decision to stay in an unhealthy relationship. The fear of being alone reasoning stems from a lack of confidence that we will be able to find someone else. We look at ourselves from a negative lens and we question why someone would want to be with us. Digging deeper on the “…warts and all” reasoning, there is an unstated belief that the person with the warts is the best that we can get. This also connects to the “as good as it gets” reasoning that keeps us in bad situations. All to say, if we do not believe in ourselves, we will not move past these 3 common reasons.
Root cause 2: Lack of faith in others – If we do not believe that there are any good fish in the sea, we will likely stay. This aligns with the reasoning around “it will get better, it has to get better”. This is because we perceive “it” is all there is to choose from. There is also a connection to the reasoning around commitment and not being a quitter. Factually, if you had self-confidence as well as faith that there were other fish in the sea, we would not find ourselves languishing with someone that did not make us happy.
Root Cause 3: Fear of our partner – If we fear retaliation from our partner, we may not leave them. And yet, we will often mask this fear by attributing our ‘desire’ to stay to other reasons. “I love them, warts and all” or something of this vein is a common phrase we use to mask our fear. This is especially true if our partner is abusive and others notice. “Mom, I know he has put his hands on me before but really he’s a great guy and I love him. He was just stressed”, for instance.
There are several reasons why we stay in an unhealthy relationship and they are very important to look into. Root cause is more important than reasons, however. Understand the root cause and we can begin to truly move past them and the relationship.
In part 2 of this series, we will be talking about why people choose to go back to an unhealthy relationship.
In part 3 of this series, we will be talking about how to tackle the root causes that prevent us from moving forward.