Jennifer Musselman

Jennifer Musselman M.A., MFTi

The Keys to My Castle

Why We Stay Stuck in Unfulfilling Relationships and Jobs

Happiness is just a spin away.

Posted Apr 13, 2012

What people say they want is often incongruent with their behavior. A person says he wants a loving partnership, yet stays in a relationship that consistently leaves him unhappy. People say they are unhappy in their jobs, yet remain, succumbing to energy-draining emotional abuse that often bleeds into their personal lives and relationships. People complain they want to lose weight, but then mindlessly eat everything on their plates. So just why do we stay in unfulfilling relationships of all sorts indefinitely?

Fear. Sure, there are a multitude of reasons why people stay in unhappy situations, but it usually can be simplified to some variation of fear that keeps us securely anchored to our discontent. Often that fear is the fear of change itself. Instead of changing our behaviors to align with what we say we want, we often indulge in self-destructive patterns: substance abuse, eating disorders, addictions, and unfulfilling relationships, all of which provide false comfort and a pseudo sense of security.

The origin of many fears is unknown to us, usually arising from childhood encounters when we were easily terrified by life’s experiences. These fears remain unconscious although they are running our lives. Fear can handcuff us, leaving us vulnerable and unprotected. Instead, we keep ourselves protected by the idea of, “At least we know what to expect,” so we can closely monitor our fear like a tiger in a cage. If we let the tiger loose, we might become victims: to the fear of the unknown, rejection, abandonment, loneliness, of not being able to pay our bills, death, or perhaps worse, we might actually get what we say we want. And that would set off a chain-reaction of actually having to let go of our deeply rooted belief system that we are not good enough for what we want. Because, often underneath all of this, many people don’t feel that they deserve anything better. 

While people may cognitively believe they deserve something better or what they desire, they often straddle what the brain believes with what the heart feels, as if intertwined in a challenging game of Twister. It is this unbalanced belief system that maintains low self-esteem, and which makes it very difficult to make any changes. A fall, after all, is just one wrong move away. Indeed, the fear of change, of becoming vulnerable, of losing control, of confronting new feelings and experiences, can stop you in your tracks. But it is an illusion that we can avoid change. It will happen whether we fear it or not and it will force us eventually to embrace it or flee it. But we can’t flee change forever even though we might think we can. So just how do we prepare ourselves to embrace change?

It isn’t until we experience what Franz Alexander (Alexander & French, 1946; Alexander, 1961) called a Corrective Emotional Experience that we can begin to heal and create more courageous, fulfilling futures. In a corrective emotional experience, you re-experience an event differently than the original hurtful encounter (Hartman, D. & Zimberoff, D.).

Case in point: You can get angry with your partner without fear of being stonewalled, criticized or abandoned for feeling that way. You can let your guard down and trust, because your new friend or lover can sit with you in your pain without minimizing it, trying to make you (and him) feel better about the situation or telling you to stop crying. Eventually, it is through enough of these corrective emotional experiences that we can begin to feel safe to lose excess weight, address our addiction and get sober, or leave an unfulfilling relationship because it no longer serves us to remain distant and heavily guarded from others.

We no longer take comfort in the discomfort. Instead, we rewire our brain to become comfortable in our vulnerability and to face the unknown. We are gifted a renewed sense of strength, a new experience which can now consciously guide our cognitions and, like a domino effect, our behaviors. In fact, it is only until we surrender our iron-tight, fist-clenched hold onto control of an outcome or situation that we truly find ourselves in-control.


Hartman, D. & Zimberoff, D. (2004). Corrective Emotional Experience in the Therapeutic Process.

Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 3-84.