Why We Stay in Relationships That Hurt

Young woman sitting on windowsill behind curtains and listening to the musicKristen 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.”

Conclusion

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.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, therapist in Owings Mills, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • Thomas

    Thomas

    April 10th, 2017 at 7:36 AM

    Even when it is a relationship that hurts it has become what we are comfortable with and so the thought of changing that up can be very scary for many of us. I know that it would be the right thing to do to end it before I was hurt anymore but honestly I guess you become accustomed to the hurt that you know and that somehow feels safer than whatever the unknown is. Crazy isn’t it, that you know that it is wrong and yet you still can’t seem to break away?

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    April 10th, 2017 at 12:29 PM

    Thomas, Thanks for your comment. It may seem “crazy,” but I see it more as “human.”

  • Raisa

    Raisa

    April 10th, 2017 at 11:11 AM

    Because you choose to believe the best about a person, not the worst
    you don’t think that this person would ever intentionally lead you on

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    April 10th, 2017 at 12:38 PM

    Raisa, That’s an interesting thought. Is the “leading you on” intentional? If the partner is very self-centered or narcissistic, they may lead the affair partner on intentionally to manipulate and get their needs met. This is done at the cost of the affair partner’s feelings. For other partners, they may really believe they are going to follow through on their promises, but just “get stuck or paralyzed,” i.e. they want to leave their spouse for the affair partner but something continues to hold them back and they struggle, yet have genuine intentions. I had a client like this. Once we figured out what was holding her back, she was able to move on and out of her marriage.

  • Angel

    Angel

    April 11th, 2017 at 6:32 AM

    Because you choose to love that person. Even if it hurts, you still believe that someday at the right time you’ll be with that person. Though there were times that you feel alone and hopeless, you still hold on and still love that person. Or maybe you are afraid of losing the person that you’re comfortable with, afraid of finding someone that might not accept you who you are, afraid of starting over again and invest on your feelings for something uncertain. Because there’s FEAR in your heart that you cannot conquer and let go.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    April 11th, 2017 at 12:04 PM

    Angel, You are right on! It is all about FEAR. Thanks so much for your comment. Lori

  • roxie

    roxie

    April 11th, 2017 at 9:45 AM

    For the longest time I guess that I didn’t believe that I deserved anything any better than what I was with. I didn’t think that I was good enough for anything better because I had never learned anything other than I was a failure and always did everything wrong. That was how I was made to feel growing up and I guess it continued on into every adult relationship that I would then get involved in. It is still pretty hard to think that I do deserve better, and it is a constant struggle to make myself believe it.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    April 11th, 2017 at 12:09 PM

    Roxie, As a child, we are taught to feel undeserving by the reflection we see in the mirror of our parents and other significant people. As an adult, we can teach ourselves to feel deserving and find mirrors in people who love and support us just as we are.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    April 11th, 2017 at 5:55 PM

    I’m right there with you Roxie.

  • Fran

    Fran

    April 20th, 2017 at 11:22 AM

    I think there is an additional layer to consider. Yes, recreating what is familiar is very human, but I think the appeal is not just the familiarity but also the underlying hope that this time I can change the dynamic. This then becomes a measure of our value, goodness, loveability, power, safety, etc..

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    April 20th, 2017 at 12:47 PM

    Fran, You are exactly right. Thanks for adding that! Lori

  • HM

    HM

    July 26th, 2017 at 1:04 AM

    As i realized and assessed relationship criterias during counselling sessions, in any bond in expected relationships- it is 4 Cs – Compassion, considerations, concerns and care.These 4 basic factors are the real foundation to maintain relationships . even one of the factor is missing/ undervalued/lesser degree between the parents and teens; wife and husband , amongst the friends and relatives , relationship becomes unsustainable.4 Cs can be applied in any form of relationship -and weightage to each C can be assessed from the feelings, thoughts, actions and behaviour between the subject persons.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    July 30th, 2017 at 9:55 AM

    HM – Love the 4 C’s and I wholeheartedly agree with you! Thanks for your comment. Lori

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