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Why We Fall Victim to Difficult Relationships

Are you in a bad relationship? Why do you stay?

Key points

  • We get into bad relationships when we let our emotions and passion outweigh our cognitive evaluation.
  • We fall victim to the belief that we can change our partner’s behavior, or we rationalize it away.
  • It takes courage, and often the help of an objective party, to break out of a bad relationship.

Many of us end up in bad relationships. Sometimes, those relationships are so negative and destructive that we might label them toxic. These difficult relationships cause stress, not only to the parties involved but often there is collateral damage to others, definitely when there are children involved. I’ve fallen victim, and perhaps you have too. Why do we let ourselves get into these relationships, and why do so many of us endure them for far too long? Here are some of the psychological factors involved.

We Don’t See the Warning Signs. You are head over heels in love, or at least you think you are. There are, however, subtle signs of the dangers yet to come, but we ignore them and move forward. Emotionally we are all in, but the cognitive part of us picks up on warning signs, but in the end, the emotions win out. I know of one case where the relationship seemed good, but on rare occasions, typically involving drug or alcohol use, the difficult partner went off the rails. Because they were rare events, the partner discounted these warning signs. As the relationship progressed, the substance abuse became more frequent, as did the bouts of anger and aggression.

What to Do? Pay attention to the warning signs. Don’t let emotions cloud your judgment. Of course, this is easier said than done. Seek out objective others; perhaps a trusted friend or relative, or, even better, a trained therapist. Use their objective feedback or perception as a guide, and do a cost-benefit analysis for the relationships and for continuing it. When the costs become too high, end it.

We Believe We Can Change the Person. Sometimes we see the other person’s flaws, and the warning signs are there, but we believe that we can make things better.

What to Do? Realize that you cannot change anyone. Change has to come from within, within the other person. If you truly believe there is a future in the relationship someday, be frank and lay down the ground rules of how things need to be if the relationship is going to have a future. And, stick to it.

We Allow the Behavior. It is far easier to end a new relationship than it is to end a longer-term relationship, particularly if there is a big investment in it—emotionally, financially, and involving others, such as family members and children. In our effort to make the relationship work, we may ignore our partner’s misbehavior, and, in some cases, even encourage it.

What to Do? Separate your partner’s behavior from your behavior. If you believe that the other person’s behavior is out of bounds, either have the courage to call it out, or ignore it. If it has come to allowing bad behavior to continue, however, it is a major sign to get out.

We Get Manipulated. The partner promises to change and do better. Or, your partner gives you a guilt trip (You are the one who is damaging this relationship). Or, they argue to stay together for the sake of the children. Likely there has been some manipulation throughout the relationship, but when you try to move away or end it, the manipulation increases.

What to Do? Realize it for what it is, using coercion to get you to behave in a way that you know is wrong (or not what you want). Stand your ground (I realize that ending bad relationships involves courage; seek support from others).

We Rationalize. Even when we realize that the relationship is bad, we stay in it for far too long. We do this because of our tendency toward rationalization. We convince ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they really are, or we engage in self-blame and think that maybe we are the cause.

What to Do? Again, strive for objectivity. Reach out to trusted others for objective opinions, and a licensed therapist is a good person to help us see things clearly.

To seek professional help, contact a therapist.


Felmlee, D., & Faris, R. (2016). Toxic ties: Networks of friendship, dating, and cyber victimization. Social psychology quarterly, 79(3), 243-262.

Motz, A. (2014). Toxic couples: The psychology of domestic violence. Routledge.

Quah, S. R. (2014). Rationalization. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Health, Illness, Behavior, and Society, 2046-2051.

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