Bad Relationship? 4 Bad Reasons to Stay

Your emotional mind can scare you into staying. Time for a reality check?

Posted Jan 16, 2019

Fabiana Ponzi/Shutterstock
Source: Fabiana Ponzi/Shutterstock

Katie has been with Dan a few years now. It’s not an awful relationship but Dan can be quickly critical and irritable, he forgets her birthday, he dismisses any talk about future commitment. Katie’s friends and family have urged her to get out, to move on, that she can find someone better, but she gets to the edge of breaking up and always wavers.

For many, leaving a relationship is emotionally overwhelming and physically daunting because of real obstacles — lack on money, worry about the impact on the kids, difficulty finding housing, realistic worries about the other’s reaction. Here there is need for detailed planning — bringing family support, accessing community resources, getting legal advice and protection.

But for others, like Katie, the obstacles are more emotional and psychological. Here are the four common roadblocks to decisive action:

1. Intermittent reinforcement and magical thinking

For the past few weeks, Katie and Dan have been arguing on a regular basis; they haven’t been affectionate. But then they went away last weekend for a wedding, and they had a great time. Dan was funny and complimentary instead of critical, they didn’t argue at all, and they had sex for the first time in weeks. Katie left the weekend feeling that yeah, maybe they can turn this around, that she needs to give it more time.

She may and can. But psychologically she is more likely getting hooked by intermittent reinforcement. Just when the steady arguments and criticism are about to push her out of the relationship — bam — there’s a positive break, and she gets reeled back in. Her mind is trying to connect the dots, she is emotionally off-balance, and this easily leads to magical thinking — that things can turn around, that she just needs to decode what she did and what worked about the weekend, and everything will be fine.

It’s likely that things won’t be fine. Once they are both back in the old environs and routines, the same triggers and problems will rear up. Katie needs to step back and look at the big picture, the big patterns, the past months and years, and not get seduced by this one weekend.

2. Fear of being alone

You’ve undoubtedly met people who are never alone more than a few days, weeks. They quickly move from relationship to relationship, have one in the wings before ending the current one, or too easily drift back to the last. What they fear is being alone — that they can’t cope, that the loneliness will overwhelm them, that they will have nothing to distract them from themselves.

All this is understandable, but being able to tolerate aloneness is an adult skill set that at some point everyone need to master to be more resilient. What helps is countering that all-or-nothing thinking by building in supports in advance. This does not mean persuading your sister to move in with you, or moving in with her, but setting up dinner with her a couple of nights a week, mapping out plans with friends for those long weekends, or thinking about interests and passions that you’ve always wanted to pursue, but never had the time for before, and then taking concrete steps to start them.

This will not make the loneliness go away, but by being proactive, you can feel more in control and less a victim of your anxiety. Over time, your tolerance and comfortableness for aloneness will naturally increase.

3. Fear of never finding another relationship

While fear of being alone is about getting through the everyday, this fear is about looking ahead to the future: that if you leave, you can only imagine yourself two years ahead sitting in an empty room with a naked lightbulb over your head. But the reality check is that this is not likely. If you look at remarriage rates, for example, a high percentage of folks remarry within a few years of a divorce, and the rates for more casual relationships or living-together relationships are undoubtedly higher. 

But statistics aside, what might fuel this fear for someone like Katie is her own distorted self-image. After being in a relationship with Dan, where she doesn’t feel cared for and is often feeling criticized, it’s easy for her to walk away and see herself as someone who is not easy to live with, someone who is not lovable — and so she believes that no one else would want her or treat her any better.

She needs to mentally push against this assumption and thinking by both action and recognition: action in getting out there and meeting people in spite of her assumptions, in order to find out that what she thinks will happen doesn’t, and recognition of her emotional mind going down old rabbit-holes of negative thoughts, and deliberately stopping and countering them.

4. Fear of regret

And, finally, if Katie leaves Dan, she may worry that she will look back on the relationship sometime in the future and kick herself for not giving it more time, for not trying harder, for giving up.

She probably will.

This is not about Dan and the relationship, but the way we naturally think about our past. If two years hence Katie is happy with her life, she will look back and think that leaving Dan was the best decision she ever made. If, on the other hand, she is struggling or simply having a bad day in her current relationship or her life, she will look back and think that being with Dan wasn’t that bad after all, certainly better than how she feels today, and feel regret. This is how our minds work; our past is always being recreated as we look at it through the lens of the present.

The best Katie can do is decide what she needs to do now, before she leaves, to feel that she did give the relationship her best shot. She also needs to acknowledge to herself that she will likely have these waves of regret in the future, that this is part of the natural process and not a sign that she made the wrong decision.

Making big decisions like leaving a relationship understandably stirs anxiety, and it’s these anxieties that are the real problem fueling the indecision, the sitting on the fence. The antidote is unraveling these fears, looking at them in the light of reality, and then proactively planning ways to counter them. 

Don’t stay in a bad relationship for bad reasons.