“The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” -Gloria Steinem
I shouldn’t have to say it, but people do things that don’t make sense all the time. Now, what I mean by this is that their outward behavior doesn’t seem rational to others. I’m sure they have good reason in their minds. Allow me to explain…
Most human behavior is influenced by a release of chemicals in our brains that create “feelings” or emotions. These chemicals have a reciprocal relationship with our conscious (and unconscious) thoughts and memories. This is part of what creates certain “states” of being…what we call mood or attitude. Mood and attitude influence behavior, AND behavior influences mood and attitude. Falling in love creates a “state” that impacts cognition (thinking) in such a way that you get, well, kinda stupid. Love really is, in a sense, blind and creates irrational ways of thinking and approaching certain problems. For more info on this, click HERE.
That being said, what kind of (irrational) thinking keeps people stuck in unhappy relationships? Here are a few common rationalizations I have come up with…
Unreasonable expectations. The fixer. It is very easy for our minds to create illogical expectations for ourselves and others. The problem with this is that disappointment often accompanies these expectations, especially in regard to expectations of other people[i]. Feeling like we can change someone else if we “try hard enough” or give them “the right kind of love” is not unusual in the social world. Sticking around until we find the right combination of tactics to change someone else is common. However, this is not only irrational, it could be considered delusional.
I mean, a special gift for knowing how a person should be AND knowledge of the tools they need in order to change. Sounds like superpowers to me. Now, I’m not saying that superheroes don’t exist. I consider myself a superhero on occasion. What I am saying is that we can’t change other people; no matter how much we might want to; no matter how much we think they need to change; no matter how much time we invest in trying to create their change for them. People change short-term with enough pressure, but change under duress doesn’t usually stick. People make long-term change when they want to change and when they are ready to do the work to create change for themselves. None of us can do it for them. I know, it sucks.
Resigned hopelessness. The settler. On the other end of the spectrum is the passive acceptance that it just won’t get better where you are or be better anywhere else you would go. This concept is related to “learned helplessness” which is well known to contribute to “stuck” behavior in people. Thoughts that accompany this pattern are things like “well, at least I know what to expect with him/her; why go start over with new crap?” or “who’s gonna want someone my age/with kids/that’s been divorced” or “if I stay around and deal with it long enough, he/she will see how loyal I am and finally change.” Again, this approach is ineffective because it does nothing to ease the discomfort or create change. Settling is related to lack of self-efficacy (don’t worry…there’s more on this in part 3).
Fear. What if… The anxiety related to this one is related to judgment and perception, so it may look different in different people. A few fears that might contribute to sticking…
Judgment from others. This could be related to “looking bad” in the social world. The thought is something like, “what if people reject me because they think I’m a failure?” Being thought of as someone who is an ineffective wife/mother/husband/father/partner may affect our social status. Just knowing this is a possibility may influence our decisions or behaviors.
Another fear is one of never finding a place to “fit” or not being accepted by anyone/anywhere. This is the place for the “what if it’s me?” and “am I just plain unlovable?” thoughts. This is a dangerous place to be. I’ll tell you why. Most people leave the first time they feel like this. They want to test the theory. I’m not happy in this relationship, so I will leave and find one that is better. Then, the next relationship seems to follow the same pattern. This validates the idea that it IS them. So they settle in and get comfortable. Except it’s not comfortable. It’s painful. I know at least one of you is thinking, “Well, what if I did that, like, a hundred times and the same stuff happened. Doesn’t that prove it’s me?” My simple answer is yes, but not in the way you probably think. It proves that you may need to engage in some active self-awareness to figure out what to change, not that something is wrong you[ii].
Stubbornness. Too much investment. Have you ever played a slot machine? You know that feeling you get when you begin to lose steadily?—that the next time has to hit! You don’t want to get up because you just know that lady eyeballing “your” machine will slide in and steal your winnings. Yea, that’s the same kind of feeling some people have with their relationships. They feel they have invested a lot of time and energy into a relationship. They want to make sure they get their money’s worth, so to speak. It’s almost as if they don’t want another person to take credit for their hard work. This again requires developing a new focus or perspective. If we concentrate on investing in ourselves, it is never a “waste” of time. One way to do this is to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.
I read a meme once that put this sentiment in a nutshell: Change is painful. Growth is painful. But nothing is more painful than staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.
So what can we do instead? How might we counteract these faulty ways of viewing relationships to build our happiness? Check back next week for part 3 to receive tips for building self-efficacy and self-awareness in relationships. You’ll also hear some ways to decide if you should stay and work, or accept and move on.
[i] See subsequent blog post on dealing with disappointment
[ii] There is nothing wrong with you. The world is not against you, either. Changing our perspective and learning how to be better should be parts of human development. Don’t take life lessons too personally. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.