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5 Reasons Fear of Failure Sustains Toxic Love

And how to get unstuck.

Source: YuriyZhuravov/Shutterstock

Too many people stay in dysfunctional, unhappy, and even abusive relationships simply because they equate walking away with personal failure. For them, the end of any relationship becomes a blot on their permanent record. Yet, there is a far greater risk in holding onto unhappy relationships that do not meet an individual’s needs than there is in moving on.

Here are five reasons why fear of failure keeps people stuck in unfulfilling unions—and what to do to get unstuck.

1. Fear of failure keeps you from weeding out toxic candidates.

Instead of connecting with your instincts about people and trusting yourself when something doesn’t feel quite right, you go forward just so you don’t have to feel as if it were you who messed up the relationship or potential relationship. Fear of failure in romance can be so great that some will put themselves in harm's way just to ensure that they are liked. They simply can’t bear turning someone away. Instead of letting go, they hold on to an unsuitable match as if it was their last romantic hope left. Rejection is an important skill in dating: It can hurt to separate from someone, but the pain is far greater when you just accept anyone who will have you.

2. Fear of failure keeps you working overtime for love and attention.

You put your entire energy and resources, emotionally and otherwise, into attaining affection. You become so consumed with the positive attention of others that you may lose touch with yourself and what you really need to be happy over the long term. And, too, it means you might work harder at your relationships than your partners do. Notice if you have a tendency to develop one-sided relationships, in which your partner’s needs seem to get met more than your own. A relationship needs two fully invested people to thrive, not one doing the work of two.

3. Fear of failure keeps your focus on winning versus losing.

An intense fear of failure means you put the majority of your energy on the wrong aspects of a relationship. Instead of asking yourself if this particular partner is a suitable and fulfilling match for you, you focus on how to win them over. Consider if you are looking at the trees and missing the forest. If you are, change your perspective to the bigger picture of what is good for you: How does this person make you feel? Are you yourself with this partner? Can you laugh and have fun? Do you feel good or bad after outings?

4. Fear of failure keeps you cataloging inadequacies and disappointments.

Each time you hit a setback, you beat yourself up. When you have a conflict with a friend or romantic partner, you remind yourself of all the other conflicts in your past that you managed poorly. Your tendency to keep yourself on alert for your failings and shortcomings is a way to protect yourself. You try to keep alert so you won’t repeat the same mistakes. Unfortunately, this alarm system keeps you in such a hypervigilant, anxious state that it’s hard to be yourself with people. As a result, your friends and partners never get to know the real you.

In your relationships, work to be less in your head and more present — in the here and now. Give yourself an opportunity to find more meaningful and fulfilling romantic relationships. (I offer some specific strategies in my workbook, Toxic Love 5 Steps.) Instead of returning to the same disappointing types of partners, work toward new, more supportive ways of connecting with yourself. Do that, and you should attract healthier partners.

5. Fear of failure keeps you stuck in hopeless unions.

You believe it is your fault if a relationship fails to work. You attribute meaning to relationships that are not working out that may not really be accurate. For example, if a relationship fails, you may think you will never find another partner, or that you are so flawed that no one will ever love you. As a result, you keep relationships going — romances and friendships — even if they aren’t good for you. You do this just so you don’t have to face your own ruthless self-criticisms.

Start talking to yourself with greater self-compassion. The goal isn’t to be perfect, but to find what truly makes you happy and content. If you end a few relationships to get there, it’s worth it.

Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and author of Building Self-Esteem 5 Steps: How to Feel "Good Enough," Getting Close to Others 5 Steps: How to Develop Intimate Relationships and Still Be True to Yourself, Toxic Love 5 Steps: How to Identify Toxic Love Patterns and Find Fulfilling Attachments, and Breaking Up and Divorce 5 Steps: How to Heal and be Comfortable Alone. For more, follow me on twitter @DrJillWeber, follow me on Facebook, or check out

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