In my years as a psychologist and advice columnist, I’ve seen an inordinate amount of people suffering in toxic or even abusive relationships.
Often as outside observers, we can become incredulous as to why someone would stay in a relationship that was so clearly bad for them. And yet, it happens every day — even when the person recognizes that their relationship has its flaws.
Why do women stay in abusive relationships? How can it be so hard to leave? What makes breaking up with a toxic partner so difficult? Why do people who are perfectly rational and functional in other aspects of their life all too often have a blind spot when it comes to identifying some types of abuse and seeking out relationships that are healthy, and where they’ll be treated the way they deserve to be treated?
Though this can be maddening to watch as a bystander, the answers are actually very simple.
Of course, every relationship is different — even every bad one — and yet there are some basic psychological principles that often apply when someone lacks the motivation to see their relationship for what it really is or to get up the courage to leave.
Here are some of the reasons that your friend or loved one may be blinded to how bad their relationship is, or, if they’re not, then why they may be reluctant to get out — much to your frustration.
1. The principle of sunk cost.
It’s an economic principle that applies all too well to relationship decision-making. Sunk cost — our perception of what we have already invested that we can’t get back — often makes us less likely to chart a new path, for fear of losing our original investment.
We see this in everyday decision-making, like how you may not want to hang up after being put on hold a certain amount of time, even if you really need to be free to do other things in that moment. You’ve already put in enough time waiting, so you want to “see it through,” despite the fact that you are now needed by your family and would probably get a shorter wait time if you tried again during daytime the next day. Or perhaps you might decide to keep spending exorbitant amounts of money on repairs of your old appliance instead of considering purchasing a new one since keeping the old appliance seems to justify the money you’ve already poured into it.
The same is true in relationships. I’ve worked with many people who have stuck with a bad relationship for a long time, with each passing month becoming more of an “investment” that they are scared of “losing” by leaving. They picture having to start over in the dating scene, fearing it would mean that all the years they spent getting serious with their partners were for naught.
In reality, though, a different calculation needs to be made.
Visualize this: The investment is done and can never be recouped, whether you stay or go. But what can be recouped is any future investment — by choosing not to make it. Plus, your past investment in the relationship was not for nothing. It was not a waste. If you can use your experience to gain insight into yourself, your patterns, and how to be more vigilant against making the same mistake — not to mention flexing your independence muscles by asserting yourself and leaving a bad relationship — then you have the power to make your investment actually pay off.
2. Cognitive dissonance.
In short, cognitive dissonance occurs when we have two competing thoughts or actions that are not naturally compatible. We don’t like the fact that they don’t go together well, so we try to change what we can in order to have less friction. (It’s why we feel more positive about a candidate we voted for right after we voted for them rather than right before. Once our vote is done, and we can’t change it, it causes dissonance to believe they weren’t the right choice — and so we convince ourselves even more strongly that they were.)
Let’s say you have been with a partner for three years who doesn’t treat you very well, and you know this on some level — and your friends and family have said as much. But there’s also a voice inside you that says that if this partner didn’t treat you well, then it would be completely unacceptable to have spent three years of your life with them. If they are that bad, you reason, then you should have left long ago, as being in a toxic relationship for a long period of time goes against everything you were taught and everything you believe is right.
So, what can you change?
You can’t change the fact that you’ve spent three years with them (hey, it’s sunk cost all over again!). But you can change whether you believe they are truly that bad for you. And so you try desperately to convince yourself that they’re not that bad. And you stay. All while your friends and family cringe in disappointment and bewilderment.
3. The myth of arrival.
Many people spend their days in a toxic relationship thinking that it must be on the verge of getting better. They feel that any given day is just temporary; things will improve when their partner is less busy at work/isn’t so stressed about their family/finally gets their degree/has a little more breathing room with money. And yet, days go by this way, which all too quickly turn into weeks, months, and years. Any given day you can write off — but what happens when you reach your 500th day? Your 1,000th?
The myth of arrival falsely tells us that once you reach some fixed point, you will have arrived at a destination that will magically be better, just by the passage of time alone — everything will fall into place. This can all too easily keep us in a bad relationship because instead of taking control and realizing that the here-and-now is unacceptable, we convince ourselves it’s just a blip in the screen. We tell ourselves it’s just the path to a much greater destination.
What if instead, we realized that today — the moments we are living right now — is the actual destination?
If your life ended tomorrow, will your relationship have been worth it? Was it giving you what you needed, as is? Or were you pinning your hopes on something that you can’t control, imagining that things will get better when circumstances change — and yet your partner has no specific plan to change themselves?
Don’t judge a relationship on a future hypothetical. Ask yourself if it’s truly what you need and deserve as is. In your life, in this moment. Because that’s how you’re living it, isn’t it?
4. Learned helplessness.
Humans can have notoriously low accuracy when assessing their level of control over their environments. One particular way this can wreak havoc is through learned helplessness, which happens when someone significantly underestimates the amount of control they have in a situation, usually because they’ve gotten used to having too little control in a real situation in the past.
Let’s say you have a boss who criticizes you no matter what you do — whether you put in extremely hard work on something or do virtually nothing at all. Over time, you will learn that your level of effort doesn’t really matter: You are helpless in getting your boss’s praise. You give up. That’s probably pretty understandable. But let’s say you get a new boss entirely, and yet your old mindset continues: You still believe that your efforts don’t matter, and so you continue not to try. In this case, you now have learned helplessness and are falsely underestimating your control over the situation — after all, your new boss may very well be more reasonable with their feedback, and if you put in the effort now, it may very well pay off.
This dynamic becomes quite common for people in bad relationships since their perception of autonomy has likely been further damaged by a domineering, insensitive, or controlling partner. They get used to not being able to change their partner’s treatment of them, and so that bleeds into their beliefs about their ability to exert any control over their lives whatsoever. In these cases, they may feel far more helpless than they actually are; they may think that they’re not capable of finding a person who will treat them well, perhaps because they feel they don’t really deserve it. Or they may feel that their life will for sure still be unhappy whether they are with their partner or not, so they might as well stay.
A person with learned helplessness may also believe that they don’t have the power within themselves to leave, even if physical safety is not an issue. They may think that they are not capable of being in a functional relationship — that it must be them who is the problem — and that nothing they do will ever be able to make them have a happy partnership.
In these cases, it’s crucial to keep communication open with friends and family (something that controlling partners often guard against).
It is often the loved ones who can remind the person of their worth and their life outside of the relationship, in addition to providing the logistical and emotional support that it may take to leave. In time, by taking steps to break free of the toxic relationship, they can reverse the learned helplessness in the ultimate way — by taking care of themselves in the way they deserve.