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13 Reasons People Stay in Unhealthy Relationships

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Why is ‘hindsight is 20/20? Could it be because hindsight isn’t loaded with

fearful and hopeful feelings?

Have you ever looked back at a previous relationship and wondered, “What was I thinking?” Well, most of the time, people in unhealthy relationships aren’t doing as much thinking, as they are feeling. People who linger in unhealthy relationships usually ‘think with their hearts’ instead of their heads. Feelings can be very strong and impact how we allow ourselves to view and perceive things. We can be motivated by feelings that we are aware of, and even feelings we are not aware of.

Usually in the midst of a challenging and unhealthy relationship we hear a voice deep inside urging us to look more closely at the realities of the failing relationship but that voice easily gets buried beneath our often overwhelming underlying fears. Here are some of the feelings that can play a significant role in keeping you holding on to a relationship that you know deep within limits or attempts to control you:

1. Security: Let’s begin with very low on Maslow's hierarchy pyramid reasons. Security! People stay in unhealthy relationships because they may offer a form of financial and even emotional security. When you feel trapped and frightened about what it might mean to take care of yourself and your children by yourself, it can be extremely daunting. So for many people, especially women, they stay in unhealthy relationships in order to meet their basic survival needs.

If you find yourself staying in an unhealthy or abusive relationship for survival reasons do something today to plan for a more secure future. Go to school. Learn a new trade. Do something that you might enjoy and that will also provide you the financial security you need for you and those you love.

2. Some People Simply Hate Change: There are people who hate change so much they would rather be miserable than face whatever change might bring them. I remember one of my clients telling me that her husband was a devil, but it was a devil she knew and could prepare for and she did not believe that she had the emotional resources to learn how to deal with and survive a new devil. If you are one of those people who hate change, just consider that where you are could be so much worse than any change you are afraid of. Just because something is familiar does not make it better than the unknown. I highly recommend you do some exhaustive research and learn about your talents and strengths as well as the tendencies you have to be destructive to yourself by staying in an abusive and unhealthy relationship. That change you have been so afraid of might turn out to be your new best friend.

3. It's Not Safe to Leave: If this is the case in your situation, please get help. If you believe it is not safe to leave I can pretty much guarantee that it is not safe for you to stay. Find resources in your area that help protect and support you. No one should live so afraid of their partner that they are also terrified to leave.

Call for more information: Here is the National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233

Hours: 24/7. Languages: English, Spanish and 200+ through interpretation service Learn more

**But now let's talk about the more emotional, psychological and non-conscious reasons why people hesitate to leave what has proven to be an unhealthy relationship:

4. Feeling Unfulfilled is Familiar: Let’s begin at the beginning. Many adults are still struggling with wounds from feelings they felt as a child. Parents are human beings often caught in their own childhood and life struggles. They do not plan to leave us feeling unfulfilled and unattached, but often many of our emotional needs can go unmet during crucial stages of development, leaving us with the same kinds of attachment wounds our parents were dealing with. This actually is very common. Whether it is that our dad’s might have worked too much, our parents had their own issues and were addicted to alcohol or drugs, or possibly depressed and dysfunctional we are more likely to be drawn to an adult partner suffering from similar traumas. We are always attempting to solve ‘that thing’ that we felt was missing growing up and so we non-consciously can find ourselves attracted to someone who has many of the same dysfunctional patterns we experienced with our parents.

According to Roxy Zarrabi, PsyD., “If you learned early on to associate love with high conflict, volatility, or inconsistency, there may be a part of you subconsciously holding onto hope that maybe this time, things will be different.” People who have these early experiences most often have developed an anxious attachment style that can make it much more difficult to let go of an unhealthy relationship.

5. We Never Learned to Validate Our Own Worth: Because of these anxious attachment styles and childhood issues, you may fear being alone, because we have never learned to validate our worth by ourselves. We still need others to validate our worth for us. For many, the fear of being not enough alone is a powerful motivator for remaining in a relationship long past when they know it is no longer healthy. When we first fall in love, or in truth, become infatuated, we see primarily what we want to see. We can tell ourselves we have found ‘the one’ who finally loves us and can make us feel whole. Between our ideal partner fantasies that we are attempting to project onto another person and our bodies being drugged by infatuation, we can blind ourselves to the red flags in the beginning telling ourselves that they are no big deal.

6. I Loved Being Infatuated, And Hate Being Disappointed. Well this is understandable. Who doesn’t love feelings of infatuation and who doesn’t intensely dislike being disappointed? But many people are holding onto hope about your partner’s potential, or your dream of what your partner has the potential to be, rather than seeing the fullness of behaviors of the person in front of you. Believing that your partner will change into the person you want, or dream them to be, just because you want or need them to is a recipe for continued heart break and disappointment. Staying in a relationship like this is a very anorexic way to approach love. You want it badly, but refuse to allow yourself to have all you want.

When there is strong infatuated chemistry early on, it can be mistaken for compatibility, even be ranked with soul-mate status. This sets the foundation for becoming prematurely attached to an infatuated fantasy, rather than the person in front of you, and, consequently, letting go of the relationship means having to face that you fell in love with your fantasy and ideal, instead of the person in front of you.

7. Feelings of Entitlement: You’ve already invested a significant amount of time and energy in this relationship so you deserve for it to work. This entitled fallacy refers to the the entitled belief that because you have tried so hard, and invested so much, you deserve for the other person to wake up and realize how valuable and precious you are, despite the relationship not being what you truly want or need.

You tell yourself it’s NOT FAIR to have to start over. You have paid your dues, you have sacrificed and suffered, and again, you deserve this relationship to be what you want it to be. But entitlement simply doesn’t work like that. Entitled feelings and attitudes corrupt and poison our every thought and are the cause of all misery.

8. What Makes You Valuable?: If you attach your worth to your relationship status, you can end up very disappointed. Perhaps due to messages received from your culture, family upbringing, or your current stage of life, you may feel pressure to be in a relationship and consequently attach your sense of worth to your relationship status. But you must attach your worth to who are YOU, first and foremost. A partner should enhance and encourage who we are, not define who we are.

We need to define ourselves before we connect ourselves to another person. It is truly interesting that in all of the education available in today's world, one area is sorely lacking and that is how to create and maintain a healthy happy relationship. For most people, a course in healthy relationships would serve them much better than taking algebra as a first year in high school.

9. Lack of Understanding Who You Are: As I mentioned above, who are you? What do you care most deeply about? What are your personality tendencies? What brings you joy? What brings you peace. Many people define themselves by their relationships and in the process do not get to truly learn who they are. Remember the movie Runaway Bride? If we are unclear of who we are, what our values are, what we stand for, what we truly want and what are our true natures, we may be having a difficult time letting go of an unhealthy relationship because we don’t know who we are outside of it.

Although the relationship could be unhealthy we might be accustomed to being the person who is hopeful, positive, the one who never gives up, etc. As crazy as it sounds, if I hold these beliefs to be true and value them, an unhealthy relationship can be a perfect place to prove these values to myself and others.

If your worth is attached to your relationship status, you are allowing yourself to be defined by the opinions, feelings, traumas, confusion of others versus making your decisions according to the values you hold most dear. As a result, you will be more likely to hold onto a relationship fantasy, that causes you misery, frustration, and unhappiness at the expense of yourself.

10. Gaslights are Blinding You: If your partner is emotionally abusive, you may question your instincts and doubt yourself. A partner who regularly gaslights you, telling you that you are crazy to feel, sense and perceive the things you are feeling may tell you it is your fault for anything that is dysfunction in your relationship. People who emotionally abuse and manipulate you are extremely good at not projecting their inadequacies and failures onto others. They are not responsible for their actions and feelings and their lack of accountability and will often cause you to feel as if you’re in the wrong.

Many people fuel one another’s narcissistic tendencies and if you began with feelings of low self-worth, wait til your narcissistic partner gets done with you. The only way to protect ourselves from gaslighting and emotional abuse is by fortifying our esteem and respect for ourselves. One of the best ways to do that is to give of yourself and make a contribution that you feel makes more of you. Volunteer, give blood, rock babies, work with animals, volunteer to serve others in some positive way that you admire. Our positive and serving actions are stronger than our feelings of inferiority. These actions prove to ourselves our true value apart from anyone else.

11. Hero complex: You have been conditioned, or conditioned yourself to over-function in a relationship. Maybe the way you proved your value in a relationship is to fix, or save others the expense of yourself. If you place a great deal of value on sacrifice, and possibly grew up in a home with high conflict and unpredictability you may have adopted the role of being the hero or caretaker or you may have witnessed a parent take on a very co-dependent role. As a result, you may have learned to associate love with having to “earn it” or “sacrifice yourself for it” in order for it to be real.

12. You are addicted to the ride: You are hooked on the highs and lows of the relationship. In this relational dynamic, the highs are high and the lows are low. Your partner may run hot and cold, so you don’t know when the next high will come but when it does, it feels special and exciting. This intermittent reinforcement can lead to difficulty letting go of a relationship due to feeling dependent on the next high.

13. Your Beliefs: We have talked about your values and beliefs. These are powerful motivators. If you believe “relationships are hard” and this is just a rough patch, it helps you justify staying in an unhealthy relationship. Yes, relationships are difficult to maintain and nurture and they so require work, but they shouldn’t be abusive, restrictive, dominating, demeaning, disrespectful and consistently disappointing. A relationship shouldn’t require you to sacrifice your values or sense of self.

Look for a relationship that serves as a stable and secure force in your life, rather than a cause of distress or disconnection from your true self. I must caution you, sometimes the most incredible nurturing relationships can at first feel, notice I said FEEL, boring. If you have become addicted to the rollercoaster ride of a dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship, you may actually miss the stress rush. Our bodies want to maintain the status-quo, even when the status-quo is amazingly stressful, so as you prepare to find and nurture a healthy relationship, work on yourself first. Get grounded. Teach yourself more about who you are and what values you truly want to build your live on.

If you want to learn much more about how to create and nurture healthy connected relationships, look into an online course Relationship Help At Home. It offers personality insight and training, communication skills, emotional intelligence enhancement and so much more. It is always the perfect time to learn more about how to create and manage a healthy relationship, instead of how to continue to survive an unhealthy one.

Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute professional or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or another qualified health provider with questions regarding your condition or well-being.

In 2008 Dawn was selected as one of the nations 80 emerging women leaders by Oprah Magazine and the White House Project. Personality and relationship expert Dawn Billings is the Executive Director of the Relationship Help Resort in Mesa, Arizona and creator of the Relationship ONLINE relationship course Relationship Help At Home.

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