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2 Top Reasons for Being Stuck in Dysfunctional Relationships

For a happier life, learn when to stay and when to leave relationships.

Key points

  • Some childhood experiences set people up to be in dysfunctional or abusive relationships.
  • Some people stay in dysfunctional relationships because they believe this is the way relationship are.
  • Finding a loving relationship involves knowing when to stay and when to leave.
Sydney Sims/Unsplash
Sydney Sims/Unsplash

People stuck in dysfunctional or abusive relationships know that they are unhappy. So why don’t they just leave and find a relationship in which they are treated with love? It’s often confusing to them, as well as those around them. There can be many reasons for this, but two stand out. One reason has to do with why they don’t leave, while the other reason relates to why they don’t choose a loving partner. Let’s take a look at each one…

Why Some People Stay in Dysfunctional Relationships

When children are raised in homes in which they are neglected or abused, they are taught that the world is not safe. They are also taught (directly or indirectly) that there is something wrong with them that is bringing them emotional pain. When they mature and enter adult relationships, they continue to carry those lessons with them. A dysfunctional or abusive relationship doesn’t feel good, but they believe that this is the way the world works, and possibly that this is the treatment that they deserve. Even if they intellectually know better, they absorbed these lessons at a deep, nonverbal level. The lessons aren’t so much thoughts as they are experiences, like knowing where your limbs are even when your eyes are closed.

So, given that “reality,” why would they try to find a more loving relationship? Their choice is to stay in the current relationship or do life on their own—and sometimes the latter option feels like it would be worse than their current relationship. It’s hard for them to recognize that they might be better off without the relationship even if they are in love. For more on this, see my two-minute video, In Love: Is It Enough?

Sadly, families do not need to be outright abusive for children to receive these messages. There are many subtle ways that children feel rejected or hurt by family members, even those who love them very much. Sometimes these children are fortunate enough to have greater inherent resilience and to have someone in their life who is accepting, supportive, and caring. This often imbues them with a sense that they are lovable and worthy, and that others can be loving toward them. They can then carry these experiences into adulthood and have a better chance of experiencing self-acceptance and creating happier relationships. When that is not in their background, they need to find in their adult lives a sense of being lovable and that others can be emotionally available—a very difficult task (but doable, especially with therapy).

Why Some People Don’t Choose Healthy Relationships

When children from abusive or neglectful homes grow to adulthood, they carry with them the sense that being close to people is dangerous. Those people will hurt them. When they actually connect with someone who is accepting and loving, part of them may feel the pull to lower their defenses…but a truly caring response is unfamiliar, and warning sirens go off. Though they yearn for love and connection, they “know” that being vulnerable will not end well. So, they keep their distance and may not even let themselves feel attracted or interested.

Or, they simply remain defended against feeling close to anyone. While they feel nothing special with caring others, they may feel anxiety with those who are not fully available or are even outright hurtful. And they interpret this anxiety as attraction. The result? They don’t begin relationships with emotionally safe people but may be pulled into relationships with emotionally unsafe people.

When to Stay and When to Leave

When people get stuck in dysfunctional or abusive relationships, the solution to this problem involves challenging their own emotional reactions to potential partners. They must try to look objectively at their relationship and also ask themselves two questions: Why do I want to stay? Why do I want to leave?

If the person wants to stay because they feel like they are supported in being their best selves, then that’s a potentially great match. However, if they want to stay because they have the hope of winning the other person’s affirmation or love, then there is a serious problem.

If the person wants to walk away because they fear being vulnerable in response to another person being caring or vulnerable, then they might want to rethink walking away and instead consider finding their courage. By contrast, if they want to walk away because the other person makes them feel worse about themselves, then they might do well to walk away and just keep on going.

It can be very difficult to overcome a past that has made you susceptible to being in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship. But knowing when to stay and when to go is an essential step toward eventually nurturing a healthy, happy relationship.

More from Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph.D.
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