20/20 hindsight is at once empowering and terrifically discouraging. Yes, you see with clarity—how you managed to entangle yourself in the connection to begin with, why you kept hoping that things would get better, how you talked yourself into hanging in—and there are important lessons to be learned from the exercise of revisiting and making sense of the past. But then, too, there’s the painful admission that you just should have left long before.Sometimes, it’s even years before, as one reader wrote me:

What’s extraordinary to me now is how I looked away from what was going on. I made excuses for him, papered over his shortcomings, and every time I thought about really leaving, I froze at the thought. It took me ten long years to finally get up the guts and walk. Why is that?

Humans are, in fact, hardwired to persist because once upon a time, when most of the challenges our forebears faced were physical, continuous effort tended to pay off. Practice does make perfect even now when it comes to physical pursuits; that isn’t, alas, true when it comes to relationships.

The securely attached among us—people who have unconscious mental models of relationships as being reciprocal, supportive, loving, and intimate—are much better at seeing both toxicity and dysfunction in emotional connections. They’re quicker to recognize that their emotional needs aren’t being met and they have the self-confidence both to head for the door and to believe that they can do better.

That isn’t true of those of us who are insecurely attached, whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood and whose mental models of relationship include disparagement, being ignored or marginalized, and who don’t, deep down, believe ourselves to be worthy of love and good treatment.

Why it takes so long to leave

There are many individual and highly personal reasons why people stay in relationships that make them unhappy including financial dependence, a sense of obligation or loyalty, concern about the effects of divorce on children, societal pressure, and religious beliefs. These are beyond the purview of this post. Instead, let’s focus on the psychological processes that may keep you stuck.

Self-doubt

At the core of staying is persistent self-doubt and the nagging feeling that somehow, you are responsible for your partner’s behavior. This is a default way of thinking left over from childhood, especially if you worried that your mother’s love was withheld because of something you did or who you were; you bring it along into your adult life, like an invisible and unwanted piece of baggage you’re carrying. If your lover or spouse uses blame-shifting for your arguments and disagreements—blaming it on how sensitive you are or gaslighting you by telling you that you’re simply making things up—you’re even more likely to believe that, somehow, the failure of the relationship is all on you.

Fear of making a mistake

Closely connected to self-doubt is an overwhelming fear of making a mistake, which is often a function of low self-esteem. This can be terrifically confusing especially if your spouse looks good on the surface and the life you live looks enviable from the outside. The carousal of thoughts goes something like this: “No one is perfect and no marriage is perfect either. How many people do I know who are totally happy? Maybe this is as good as it ever gets? Maybe this is all I deserve.” These are thoughts of a woman who is stuck.

Fear of the future

Human beings are notoriously loss averse—that’s one of the reasons we hang in when we should be moving on and why we stay put even when we’re miserable—and the fear of ending up alone and unloved is a huge one for an unloved daughter to face. Absent a reliable crystal ball, she’s more than likely to fall into the trap of what’s called the sunk cost fallacy—thinking about the time, effort, emotion, and energy she has invested in the relationship rather than imagining where she might find herself in the future. Everyone has this propensity but it’s harder for the insecurely attached daughter to recognize.

Intermittent reinforcement

There are inevitably better days and worse ones even in a toxic relationship, and it’s the better ones that glue our feet to the floor. Yes, it’s the power of intermittent reinforcement, discovered by B.F. Skinner. If we get what we want some of the time, we’re more likely to stay and persist than if we get it all the time or never. Intermittent reinforcement hijacks the clarity of our thoughts and jacks up our hope for a happy ending. That leads us to the next point which could also be called life on the carousel.

Mistaking drama for passion

In some of these relationships, intense fighting may be followed by intense make-up sex and efforts at reconciliation. Fighting arouses our passions and, alas, it’s easy to mistake this pattern for love, especially in a culture which idealizes the idea of love as subsuming or being swept off your feet. Highly controlling and manipulative partners, along with those high in narcissistic traits, have a home court advantage if this is a continuing pattern in the relationship. Those with an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment are most likely to end up on this particular merry-go-round.

Normalizing bad or abusive behavior

Many unloved daughters who were emotionally or verbally abused in childhood are often slow to recognize these patterns in adult relationships because they are so familiar. Since many of them fell into a pattern of excusing or denying their mothers’ treatment of them—thinking that “she didn’t really mean it” or “she couldn’t help herself because she wasn’t mothered well by her mother” or “she loves me deep inside even if she doesn’t show it—it doesn’t take much of a leap to continue doing precisely the same thing for a lover or spouse. This is what one reader wrote:

His childhood was messed up by an alcoholic father who was a good provider and a mother who pretended nothing was wrong. When he stonewalled me, I would tell myself that he couldn’t help it because that’s all he knew. His first wife was passive-aggressive and I just thought it would take time for him to learn to talk things through. In fact, I was being played. He knew exactly what he was doing. I finally got it.

The truth is that, sometimes, the red flags that are obvious to some people are hard to see especially if your childhood experiences included toxic relational patterns. Becoming conscious and aware of what is healthy in a relationship and what is not is the first step out. If you know someone who is stuck, please don’t be judgmental. 

 Photograph by Everton Vila. Copyright free. Unsplash.com