I have been writing about relationships for almost a decade and the most fascinating phenomenon I’ve observed (and experienced firsthand!) is staying with a man even though he treats you like crap.
I get tons of emails from readers asking how to salvage their relationship and oftentimes, it’s clear to me that this is not a relationship worth salvaging! It’s usually a guy who won’t commit or who treats her like an option instead of a priority…a guy who doesn’t respect her or is selfish. Whatever the case may be, the relationship has her feeling really bad, and yet she stays. Not only that, she’s willing to fight for this bad relationship!
It seems so counterintuitive, yet it’s a staggering reality—one that you may be able to relate to.
Many years ago I shackled myself to a man who treated me horribly. He was never physically abusive, but he did a significant amount of emotional damage. The relationship had me questioning my sense of self, my attractiveness, my worth, my intelligence, my abilities, basically everything about myself.
I’m not going to blame him entirely; he may have taken me for granted and caused me a lot of pain, but he wasn’t holding me hostage. I stayed in the relationship on my own volition. I sacrificed for the relationship, I expended tons of time and energy thinking of ways to make it even better, but my efforts were all in vain. The relationship inevitably fell apart and I was left with significant emotional war wounds that took years to heal.
Fortunately my story had a happy ending and I am now married to the sweetest, kindest, most amazing man I have ever known. But it took me a long time to get here, and for many years after that failed relationship, I continued to date guys who treated me like crap, thinking it was normal.
So why do we do it? Why do we stay in relationships where we aren’t being respected, where our emotional needs get dismissed, where we feel bad about ourselves, where we’re insulted, where we’re essentially treated like crap? What is it about these toxic relationships that reels us in and keeps us locked in a tight grip? We would never tolerate such things from a job or a friendship…we would leave. But in romantic relationships it’s a little different.
Here are some of the core reasons it happens:
1. You don’t want to believe you could stay with someone who treats you badly
Instead you convince yourself reality is some other way. I remember when I was in my bad relationship a friend approached me expressing her concerns. She said she didn’t think he was treating me right and I should get out of the relationship. This was still early on and had I listened, I would have saved myself a significant amount of pain.
But I didn’t listen; instead, I got majorly defensive and told her, and this is a direct quote, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, he treats me like gold!” And I really believed it. I convinced myself that the kind things he did amounted to gold…and everything else could just be ignored because gold shines brighter than that stuff anyway!
I really cared about him and I didn’t want to believe someone I cared about could treat me badly, so I created a different story, a story where nothing was that bad and maybe I was just exaggerating and maybe he didn’t mean those nasty things he said and the bad stuff doesn’t count anyway because he’s stressed and he’s sad and he can’t always control his temper so none of that counts, what counts is the good stuff!
The human mind has an extraordinary ability to write its own script, and that’s what I did. It just seemed easier than accepting that maybe, possibly, I was in bad relationship.
2. You don’t believe you deserve better
It’s not that you actively don’t believe you deserve better, but somewhere deep down, that could be how you feel. If all you’ve had are bad relationships then you don’t really have a basis for comparison. Since all you know is being treated like crap, then crap is what you come to expect.
Don’t dismiss the power of the subconscious mind—it is the puppet master behind almost everything we do. If you develop a belief that you are unworthy of love, then you’ll never believe that you deserve healthy, happy love and you will stay in bad relationships because that’s what you believe to be normal.
You figure it’s better to stay in these relationships than have no relationship at all, and that this is the kind of relationship that was designated for you.
Obviously this is a very dangerous belief and while it would be nice to just flip a mental switch and wire yourself to believe that you are worthy of love, it takes a bit more work. But it is possible to undo these bad beliefs. Some can do it on their own, but working with a great therapist will really expedite this process.
3. Excessive Compassion Disorder
It might not be in the DSM, but ECD is a very real problem. Excessive Compassion Disorder is when you make excuses for a person because you see the potential in him; you see the good guy he could be if only he got over his issues.
You make excuses for him: he had a rough childhood, he went through a bad breakup, he’s depressed, he hates his job, he’s in debt…whatever it is, you see that as the cause of his bad behavior and believe it’s not his fault. You figure that as soon as he overcomes that one thing, everything will be different.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever give anyone the benefit of the doubt, but you also need to look at things through an objective lens. You also need to realize that you can’t change another person, you can’t get over their issues for them, and you can’t solve their problems and fix their life. You can inspire change, you can be there for support, but you can’t do it for them. A person can only help himself. When you become his fixer, then you risk forming an unhealthy, codependent relationship.
If he isn’t actively working on himself and trying to be a better man, then there is nothing you can do. Compassion is a wonderful virtue, but it needs limits; otherwise, you run a real risk of being heartbroken.
If you’re in a relationship where you feel bad about yourself, where you aren’t being treated with respect, where you find yourself constantly making excuses for him, where other people in your life are expressing concern, where you don’t even feel like yourself anymore, it’s time to take some space and do some real thinking about whether this is something you need in your life.
For more clarity on the true state of your relationship, take our “Are You In a Toxic Relationship?” quiz to find out how dire the situation really is.
About the Author:
Sabrina Alexis is a New York based writer and co-founder of anewmode.com, a lifestyle site with a focus on dating and relationships. She is also the author of the bestselling book “10 Things Every Woman Needs to Know About Men.” Sabrina graduated from Boston University in 2007 with degrees in English and Psychology.