And how to overcome them.
We aren’t staying in our toxic relationships because we’re masochists. True, we’re putting up with some pretty egregious behavior and always coming back for more, but fear is a powerful motivator when it comes to having a death grip (literally) on our man.
Here are the real reasons why we stay in toxic relationships.
1. You're desensitized to the abuse.
There comes a point in every toxic relationship where the cycle of abuse becomes habitual. We simply get desensitized to the chicanery. And the thought of going back out on the Love Market is intimidating and demoralizing because we don’t trust our Man Picker. After all, we picked this guy. Who’s to say the next one will be any better?
In fact, we fear the next guy may actually be worse. When you start thinking you’ve arrived at the last gas station in the desert it’s pretty tough to risk taking off again. This does not have to be true. The more we work on our emotional health, the better our Man Picker will become.
In Twelve-Step recovery, it’s suggested we NOT make any drastic decisions for six months from the date we begin to work the program. This includes leaving our current love interest and/or dating someone new. We have to be sure we’re ready to leave our current situation and hone our self-love skills enough to reset our Man Picker.
2. You're afraid to leave the relationship.
Turning thirty was my Come-to-Jesus moment. I knew I wanted a family and my ovaries started yelling at me: “What’re you doing with this non-committal guy? You need to get serious, stat! Do you think we’re going to be producing eggs forever?”
I made a forceful breakup speech to Mister C.H. And the guy just smiled. He informed me that I was foolish to throw out our three-year relationship because it would take at least that long for me to meet another guy who may or may not want me. And probably double that time to convince the new guy to marry and have kids with me. And by that time I probably wouldn’t even be able to have kids.
Talk about emotional abuse and blackmail. Given the glacial pace of our relationship, I decided Mister C.H. was probably right, so I stayed two more years.
I worried my unborn child might feel like he or she had to take care of me, the way I’d taken care of my mom during her emotionally abusive relationship. I realized that if I married Mister C.H. I’d be duplicating my mom’s second marriage and that my child would likely inherit some of my dysfunctional traits. Traits like low self-esteem, codependency, and love addiction.
So when your fear of ending up childless kicks in, take a deep breath and remember that it’s not enough to give birth to a child. You want more than that. Ideally, you’d like a loving, supportive, stable home to raise that child in. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Don’t let your biology pressure you into repeating generational dysfunction. Heal yourself first, then leave the door open for a child to enter your life by any wonderful means possible.
3. You're afraid it's a bad time to hold them accountable.
Those of us afflicted with caretaking tendencies pride ourselves on our ability to make other people feel good. So it’s tough to confront them once and for all about their destructive behavior. Let’s give men a rest for the moment. I had a friendship with a woman that was more difficult than any of my love affairs. Let’s call her Amanda.
I met Amanda in the college dorms my freshman year. I could tell right away she was an emotional vampire and tried to flee her clutches. But Amanda could smell my people-pleasing, doormat tendencies from five doors down. She basically forced me to be her friend (aka slave) by coming into my room, grabbing me by the arm and making me go places with her.
She also seemed to need a lot of favors. Which turned out to be very exhausting for me. “No” was not a word in my vocabulary at the time.
Here are the things I did for Amanda: Held her head while she vomited in 20 different nightclubs over 10 years. Drove her to one of her four abortions then cooked and cleaned while she recuperated. Helped her move apartments five times. (I still bear a scar on the top of my foot caused by her 500-pound armoire.) My low point? Hiding behind my sofa while she banged on my front door and peered through my window trying to find me.
There’s more, but I’ll stop. Ironically, it was my friendship with Amanda, not my dysfunctional love affairs, that finally drove me into therapy. In my very first session, my therapist told me flat out that I had to get out of the friendship.
“I want to,” I replied. “But this is a really bad time for Amanda. Her boyfriend just kicked her out and she wants to stay on my couch until she can get herself together.”
To which my therapist asked, “Is there ever a good time for Amanda?” Hmm. Actually. No. I didn’t have the cajones to end the friendship in person. I hand-wrote a five-page letter detailing my reasons for bidding her adieu, then spent a year hiding behind my couch every time someone knocked on the front door.
The bottom line: It’s never a good time to confront or detach from a toxic person. Sometimes, you’ve got to just do it. So when you’re afraid it’s a bad time to hold man accountable and are drowning in a sea of your own misplaced empathy, remember they have their own spiritual journey.
4. You're afraid they will die without you..
We’re especially susceptible to this fear if we once felt responsible for a parent who was addicted to drugs, alcohol or abusive relationships when we were growing up. As I struggled to extricate myself from Mister C.H., I felt deep dread that without me he’d become a devastated husk of a man. After all, hadn’t he begged me to take him back with tears in his eyes? Would he be OK without me?
I remember sitting in church after our breakup, weeping my eyes out as I prayed to God to take care of my fragile ex-boyfriend who’d done everything he could to destroy our relationship and me. After two weeks of sheer, guilty hell, I came home from work to discover a note tucked into my screen door from Mister C.H.’s new girlfriend, Jeri, who was already doing the Dance of Death with him and was desperate for advice.
I don’t want to be dismissive. I’m sure there are instances where a jilted toxic person does indeed self-harm. But let’s remember: You didn’t cause your toxic partner’s dysfunction, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.
5. You're afraid he will take everything he learned from you and give it to the next girl.
Did Mister C.H. suddenly do an about-face for his next girlfriend, Jeri? Not according to that note she left in my screen door. She asked if I knew whether or not Mister C.H. had “secret girlfriends” and implored me to call her back. When I talked to her on the phone I had just one word of advice: “Run!”
It’s not our business to think about whether or not our guy will change when we leave him. Our only business is to continue our own journey to emotional health, making positive changes in ourselves. I’ve given examples of five fears that keep us stuck in toxic relationships. But there are many more unique to each of us, and it’s our responsibility to ferret them out, check their validity and ask ourselves how we’ll manage if they happen to be true.
Purchase Shannon's book She Dated the Asshats, But Married the Good Guy.