Why Are People Addicted to Unhealthy Relationships?

A woman posted on a social media site for those with addictions that her former partner called her and showered her with hateful commentary ranging from her appearance, body size and tattoos, to her habits and even the way she breathed. She remained on the call to hear the entire litany. Despite her distress, she didn’t turn to her drug of choice, but instead, to cigarettes, tears and the shelter of the group. She was offered support to ameliorate her pain, as well as kudos for her decision to refrain from using. Many encouraged her with the reminder, “That’s why he’s your ex.” A few questions remain:

  • Why did she stay on the call and listen to his diatribe?
  • What prevented her from responding and shutting down his angry venting?
  • How did she attract this man and remain in the relationship for as long as she did?

The answer may come from a wide array of sources. Most prominent are a person’s core beliefs about themselves and relationships. They include:

  • I am not worthy of being loved.
  • Men/women can’t be trusted.
  • I can change or heal him/her.
  • I can’t make it on my own emotionally or financially.
  • I am willing to settle for crumbs rather than wait for the whole cake.
  • I can handle it.
  • Relationships are hard.
  • Love hurts.
  • I have to take care of my partner.
  • I don’t want to disappoint anyone.
  • I am damaged goods because of my history.
  • I can’t leave because of my religious beliefs.
  • I have to stay for the sake of the children.
  • I don’t have the right to have my own needs met.
  • It is dangerous to express myself.
  • I will feel like a failure if I end a relationship.
  • People hurt me.
  • Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

What Are the Distinct Markers and Patterns That Have Come to Shape These Attitudes?

  • History of abusive relationships.
  • Parental modeling.
  • Early abandonment.
  • Attachment styles: secure, anxious preoccupied, dismissive avoidant, and fearful avoidant.
  • Accustomed to the drama and chaos.
  • Cognitive dissonance and self-deception— knowing that one should leave and then asking, “What does it mean about me that I stayed as long as I did?”
  • “Post romantic stress disorder” — According to recovery pioneer John Bradshaw, this is what occurs when the brain chemical cocktail of dopamine and norepinephrine wears off.
  • Secondary gain and payoffs for remaining, such as gleaning sympathy and appearing to be a victim.
  • Apathy — it takes too much energy to consider leaving and then following through.
  • Love addiction —“characterized by compulsive patterns in romance, sexuality and relationships that have harmful consequences for the addict and their partners.”
  • Fear of relapsing on substances.
  • Wanting the fantasy of the relationship, rather than the reality as it exists.
  • Denial that the problem is as severe as it is.
  • Fear of change and lacking the knowledge to do so.
  • Feeling incomplete whether in or out of a relationship.

Break the Addiction

  • Recognize that you are in an unhealthy union. If you spend more time questioning it than enjoying it, that is one sign that it is in need of relationship repair.
  • Know that relationships are not 50/50, but rather 100/100 with each person bringing all that he or she is to the table.
  • Acknowledge that your history is not your destiny and that you have the freedom to alter it.
  • If someone tells you who they are, believe them.
  • Don’t attempt to repaint them with your palette and brush.
  • If a new relationship seems remarkably like a previous one, it probably is.
  • Make a list of the costs and benefits of remaining together.
  • Seek nourishing relationship role models. If there are none in your immediate circle, look beyond it.
  • Attend 12-step or alternative meetings for love and relationship support such as Co-dependents Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.
  • Engage in sober activities that nurture you.
  • Learn to be alone with yourself, knowing that intentional solitude is not the same as loneliness and isolation.
  • Forgive yourself for making the choices you did, knowing it is possible to make new choices.
  • Invest in yourself as you would a partner.
  • Explore new interests and hobbies and/or return to those you had prior to the relationship.
  • Don’t allow someone to take up space in your head without paying rent.
  • Create a list of your finer qualities and assets.
  • Focus on maintaining an attitude of gratitude.
  • Journal on the topic “what I did for love.”
  • Record, either on paper or aloud, what a relationship means to you, as well as the qualities you seek in a partner.
  • See a competent therapist who specializes in relationships, either with your partner or alone.
  • If the relationship is mentally, emotionally, financially, sexually or physically abusive — leave.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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