First, for the benefit of the fanatics and the flamers, I said "bad" relationship, not abusive. If you are being hurt or are unsafe, of course you need to get out. But this article is not about domestic violence. It is about unhealthy relationships.
With that said you may ask, "Why should I stay in a bad relationship?" I used to say the same thing. Cut the ties and get out. Go on to the next one. After years of doing that I now realize that the "next one" looks just like the last one. Because I didn't stick around and learn what was going wrong. I just bailed and moved on.
So why should you stay in a bad relationship? If you typically get into relationships that are healthy and happy, and your current one is some freak mistake, this article isn't for you. If you have a history of bad relationships, chances are your "picker" is broken and you need to keep reading.
If you are currently in a bad relationship, why should you stay there? To learn to avoid it. To see what drew you to it. Why did you pick this person instead of someone else? What was it about them that felt good? What felt familiar? We tend to date what we know. Even our friendships are typically fashioned after something familiar. Personally, I date my father and have best friends who are just like my mother.
(For more on this, see also on this blog : Who are You in a Relationship With?)
If you decide to stay in your current relationships and figure out what's going on, what are some of the questions you can ask yourself?
What attracted me to this person?
Since I was raised by narcissists, I'm attracted to narcissists. They have no empathy and are completely self-involved. So, in my case, what feels familiar is someone who contributes absolutely nothing to the relationship and sucks up all the oxygen in the room, including mine. Since this was the definition of "love" that I grew up (everything revolves around the narcissist) this is what still feels like love - unless I make myself aware of it and challenge myself to break out of my comfort zone.
What characteristics attracted you to your partner? They are forceful and in control? They are dependent and need to be cared for? They are charming and seductive? They are exciting? They are boring and safe?
When you find out what you are drawn to you can consciously choose to make different choices. That, then, becomes the next challenge.
What happens when I meet someone who is the opposite of this person?
How uncomfortable am I? Like I said, I'm drawn to narcissists - people who have no empathy and are completely self-absorbed. Therefore, when I'm with someone who is loving and nurturing, who is tuned into how I feel and cares about what I'm saying they feel "intrusive" by comparison. It feels "too close", even smothering. I almost panic at the realization that they are listening to what I say and remembering it! But if I want to break out of my old patterns I need to learn to tolerate this "intrusion", because this is actually how someone who really cares about me should act. It just feels strange because I'm not used to it, and that is what should feel strange.
If you're in an unhealthy relationship, notice what happens when you meet someone who is the opposite of your partner.
Are you a caretaker? What happens when you meet someone who doesn't "need" you, someone who won't be dependent on you? Do you feel unworthy? Do you feel ill at ease, not knowing what to bring to the relatioship if they don't require your caretaking? Does it make you nervous that you can't care for them? Do you feel like they couldn't possibly want just you? Do you feel you need to be able to do something for them?
Do you end up with abusers? What happens when you meet someone who doesn't dominate the relationship? Do you feel unsafe, "unprotected"? Do you feel they aren't a "real man"? When I work with people who have grown up in violent homes they often have this passive-aggressive dichotomy that defines "violent" as "strong" and "non-violent" as "weak". If this is you, you might have to challenge yourself to date someone who is less aggressive to challenge that belief that this means they are "weak". You might find it takes more strength to hold your temper than to take it out on everyone around you.
Once you see the dysfunction, how do they suck you back into the relationship?
Do they use guilt to keep you there? (After all I've done for you...) Do they use compliments to lure you back? Do they use rage so that you stay there to avoid the violent confrontation? Do they resort to retaliation or revenge? Do they use the kids? Do they "gaslight" you? (Trying to make you think you are crazy, trying to convince you it's all in your head.) Do they say, "You're just making it up" or "It's just your 'perception?"
What games are being played that you're falling for? If you can figure out what buttons are being pushed or what games you're used to you will be less susceptible to them next time. This one is really hard. Your feet start dancing before you even realize the music is playing. It is so automatic. But practice, practice, practice and you'll get better at seeing what is happening - to the point that you will one day be able to side step it.
What's comfortable about it that shouldn't be?
In the case of a relationship with a narcissist - being with someone who has never heard a word I've said and has no idea who I am is comfortable - and it shouldn't be. Some people get comfortable with violence, or substance abuse, or insane jealousy, or perpetual helplessness, or perpetual martyrdom - and they shouldn't.
If you can identify what you're comfortable with - that you shouldn't be - you have a lot of great fodder for your therapist. This is where you need to work your own program to make you less accepting of bad behaviors and unacceptable treatment.
What did you see in the very beginning that you should have paid more attention to, but ignored?
This is paramount. The little red flags at the beginning of the relationship that warned you what was to come - but you ignored them. If you can figure out what they were, or might be, you will be better able to avoid this same pattern next time. Even if you do fall for it again, you will be less likely to get so far down the path before you realize you've been had again.
What would be the signals that you're in the same kind of relationship again? The "social" drinking or drugging? The defensiveness? Someone who is never wrong? The selfishness? The inability to empathize? The inability to care for themselves? The martyrdom? The domination? The blaming? The denial? The rages?
Staying in It
If you aren't in danger and your mental health is not totally compromised you might find that staying in your current unhealthy relationship will teach you a lot about what to avoid in the next one. Learning what drew you to this person, what feels normal that shouldn't, what games are being played to keep you there and what should be red flags for the next relationship can be helpful information for making better, more informed choices in the future.