This Is Why Some People Stay In Toxic Relationships, From A Therapist

September 25, 2022 — 9:31 AM

You’ve been texting with someone you met on a dating app. This person is smart, attractive, charming, and you hope they will be the one… even though they often don’t respond to your communication for days at a time.

You’re living with someone, and you feel like you know this person and are dependent upon this person. But you also continue to feel let down and dissatisfied, and you’ve done everything you can to try to improve the relationship. You don’t want to be alone, and you hope that eventually they will stop being dismissive, self-involved, or controlling.

You’ve been with your partner for a year now, and you’ve had many intense arguments and painful moments. They’ve been harsh and unforgiving with you through conflicts, but they’re loving to you when things are good. You tell yourself those crueler moments were just one-time things, and you hope things will be different going forward.

Here’s the hard truth we need to realize: A person is a pattern of behavior. A person is not a series of consecutive moments created by your hope and fantasy of who they could eventually become.

The trouble with too much hope in relationships.

Hope is a great force in motivation and inspiration. Hope can help us finish writing a book, or training for a marathon. Hope can keep us by the bedside of a sick person we love. Hope is a beautiful quality in many contexts, but when it comes to people, hope without critical awareness can obscure the reality of a relationship. As therapists, we are often inviting a person to zoom out and see the pattern, as opposed to focusing on the momentary potential of who that person could or might become.

When it comes to interpersonal relationships, hope is often masquerading in the form of repeated attachment patterns. For instance, you might have experienced narcissistic abuse as a child, or had an unavailable caretaker, and so hoping someone will change and finally give us the love we want feels familiar and attractive. The feeling of longing or deprivation might also feel familiar, and so we hope that if we are good enough, talented enough, thin enough, smart enough, attractive enough, that finally we will get the attention we are so craving from this person. 

Without even realizing it, you are intoxicated by the fantasy of who you hope this person might become. But every time you are in the movie of projection, you have left the ground of your reality.

When it comes to people, you are best served to focus on the pattern of that person. For instance, if someone continues to neglect to return your phone calls after you have expressed how terrible that makes you feel, that is the pattern of who they are. If someone has been hurtful on multiple occasions and refuses to apologize or take accountability for their part in the conflict, that is the pattern. If someone has lied to you several times, that is the pattern.

And if you find yourself making excuses for their behavior, or giving them chance after chance, and they keep doing the same thing, you are ignoring the pattern.

To give yourself a reality check in a relationship, zoom out and look at the pattern. Ask yourself:

  • In what ways is this relationship satisfying?
  • In what ways isn’t this relationship satisfying?
  • What behavior is this person demonstrating that feels unsafe, neglectful, unsatisfying?
  • How often do they behave in a way that feels unsafe or dissatisfying?
  • Have I been assertive with expressing my needs? Or am I hoping things will proceed magically with this person without doing the hard work of knowing what I need and communicating those needs? 
  • Is there anything I can do to communicate my needs or experience more directly so that I can get more information about how they respond?
  • Have I seen evidence that this person is trying to meet my needs and make the relationship better for me?
  • What stories am I telling myself about who this person will be for me or to me?
  • Am I being realistic about who this person is, or am I idealizing them and creating a magical reality?

By being aware of your hopeful feelings or fantasy, you are being your own protector.

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Great relationships start with great sleep.*

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When it comes to hope and fantasy, discernment is paramount. Hope does have a place in relationships when you can see the evidence of someone trying to meet your needs and wanting to make the relationship better for you. Fantasy has a place for creativity, daydreaming, or in the bedroom with someone you trust.

From time to time, it’s important for you to do an inventory and reality test yourself to see if you’re wanting a relationship so much that you don’t see the reality of a person and telling yourself a story about who someone might become one day—a day that never comes.

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