Why We Stay in Relationships That Hurt
Once we gain insight into our own patterns, it frees us to make different choices, sometimes difficult ones. Do you believe you deserve more?
By Lori Hollander LCSW-C, BCD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert
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Kristen started our first therapy session by sharing her story:
“Dave and I began having an affair three years ago. I know he loves me. Our chemistry is off the charts. He said his marriage had been dead for years. He stayed because of the kids. I accepted that at first.
“I couldn’t have imagined our relationship would last this long. He was the first person I had sex with after my divorce. I figured it was my transitional relationship. I never imagined I would be involved in a long-term affair.
“In the beginning, Dave and I agreed it would just be physical. My ex-husband and I hadn’t had sex in years. Dave wasn’t ‘in love’ with his wife; they were more like roommates, but he didn’t want to leave his kids. Neither of us wanted emotional ties.
“When we met, there was an instant physical attraction; like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I felt alive again. We tried to stop a few times, but couldn’t stay away from each other, and eventually fell in love. Our connection is deeper than either of us felt in our marriages.
“Here we are three years later. I’m tired of being ‘the other woman.’ I’m tired of hiding our relationship. A year ago, Dave told me he would think about leaving, but nothing’s changed. When we’re together I feel excited and hopeful, but in between I never know when he’ll call or when I’ll see him again. I go back and forth between feeling loved and then let down. It hurts.”
Me: “What are you hoping for?”
Kristen: “I want Dave to leave his wife so we can finally be together full-time. I know it won’t be easy with his kids.”
Me: “Why do you think you stay in a loving relationship that hurts so much?”
Kristen: “Because I love him and I know he loves me. We are truly soulmates.”
Me: “What makes you think he’ll leave his wife, since you haven’t seen any evidence of that?”
Kristen: “That’s what he says. I believe him.”
Me: “Even though his actions don’t match his words?”
Kristen: “Yes. I understand how hard it is for him.”
Me: “Have you thought he may be comfortable just the way things are? He has you, and he has his family.”
Kristen: “I never thought about it like that.”
Me: “Do you see how you play a part in continuing the hurt by accepting his inaction?”
Kristen: “Yes, but I am afraid if I give him an ultimatum, he’ll end our relationship.”
Me: “Kristen, what other significant person in your life loved you but came in and out? Who else was there for you and then disappeared?”
Kristen: “My dad. When I was 6 years old, he left my mom. He came to visit from time to time and would stay for a few days. Things seemed back to normal. Then he’d leave again and I never knew when he would come back. I feared he would never return. He was unreliable, but I loved him.”
“We all observe and experience relational patterns growing up. What we see and feel in our families becomes imprinted in our hearts and minds. The way we give and receive love is patterned after our childhood experiences.”
Me: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence you have created the same relationship dynamic, in the present with Dave, that you experienced growing up. As a child, you loved a man who was there when he chose to be, but in between his presence was unpredictable. This is how you learned to love—to take what you could get and not expect more; to hold back your feelings about his unreliability; and suppress your anger, fear, and sadness about not being able to count on your dad. The result was love and pain became fused.”
Kristen: “Wow, I never thought about it like that. You’re right. It does feels the same. Why would I do that to myself now?”
Me: “We all observe and experience relational patterns growing up. What we see and feel in our families becomes imprinted in our hearts and minds. The way we give and receive love is patterned after our childhood experiences. Those patterns feel familiar and safe, even when they hurt or leave us unfulfilled. They’re all we know. If you met someone who was intimately available on a consistent basis, you might be overwhelmed. So instead, you connect with a partner who is inconsistent and create a dynamic you are used to.”
Kristen: “That’s truly amazing. I never would have realized that. What now?”
Me: “Once we gain insight into our own patterns, it frees us to make different choices, sometimes difficult ones. Do you believe you deserve more?”
Kristen: “Yes, but what can I do? I can’t force him to leave his wife.”
Me: “You’re right. You can only control what you do and say, what you tolerate, and what you accept.”
Kristen: “It’s going to be hard for me to confront this, but I can see I need to.”
Me: “We’ll continue working on it together.”
What did you learn about giving and receiving love? Ask yourself, “In what ways do my relationship difficulties mirror the issues I had in significant relationships growing up?” This insight may help you understand more about yourself and support you in making healthier choices in your relationships.
Note: To protect confidentiality, names and other identifying information in the preceding article were altered.