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Why People Stay In Unhealthy Relationships - 3/28/2014

How many times have you heard about individuals who stay in horribly destructive relationships and asked yourself, “Why don’t they leave?” Possibly for the same reason that kids who grow up with alcoholic parents vow, “I will never be an alcoholic parent”, and yet, years later, they either become that alcoholic parent, or marry one. Similarly, children who have been abused, intellectually, emotionally, or sexually, either marry  someone who abuses them, or wind up abusing their own children.

Why? Because love isn’t just hugs and kisses, it’s something you learn. If, as a child, mother patted you on the head to show love, years later, when you want or desire to show affection, you either pat someone, or expect them to pat you. It also follows that if your parent abused you, you learn that abuse is love. Consequently, when you want love, you reproduce that “loving relationship” you had with your mother. I say ‘mother’ because I believe that our mothers teach us loving from the day we’re born until we are four or five years old.  I am not saying the person you marry is similar to your mother. What I am saying is that the relationship with your spouse is.  I’d further add that this applies to men and women alike.

So, if your mother treated you like an ugly stepchild, you search out someone who will treat you the same way. But, then you try to get this new surrogate ‘mother’ to love you. The reason being, if your birth mother didn’t love you, it didn’t mean that something was  wrong with her. It meant something was wrong with you. After all, from birth on, every child is repeatedly reassured that all mothers love their children.  So, if yours didn’t, you had to be at fault. Your unconscious solution: find an equally “flawed mother” to marry  whose love you can try to obtain. You will repeat this scenario time and time again, until you learn that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. Interestingly, when you ask men or women who are married to abusive spouses, “Why do you stay?” their answer is, “I don’t know”, or, “I love him/her.” Few individuals, whether male or female are able to see that they need and search for that type of abusive love, even though their brain tells them, “run, don’t pass ‘go’ and don’t collect $200.”

If  you’re in a relationship of this nature, you must learn to deal with it similar to an alcoholic who has stopped drinking. He may still want a drink, but he recognizes that he has to stay away from his old friends; he can’t go to a bar or party with the boys because, as he well knows, the rule in AA is “if you do the same thing over and over, you get the same results.” Pragmatically, you must commit yourself to living in a healthy manner. This can only  come about as a result of learning to filter what the little voice inside you says. That means when he/she says, “It’s okay to take more mashed potatoes; to order bleu cheese dressing instead of vinegar and olive oil; to eat one more piece of chocolate cake; take one last drink for the road; another downer or upper; a puff of that funny cigarette; or be the victim of abusive love .” You accept his feelings, but you behave in spite of them, instead of because of them.

What makes this possible is your understanding, first that the little child inside you is always going to strive to satisfy his/her childish desires; second that when his feelings surface, it doesn’t mean that you’ve gone backwards. Instead, it suggests that something is going on in your world that’s making you feel stressed, insecure and emotionally needy; third, that you need to deal with that stress, but  you can’t allow yourself to be ruled by his feelings.

That means don’t punish yourself when the thoughts arise. Recognize that your little kid doesn’t have the  capacity to deal with the stress intelligently. But your adult does. That’s when you say to yourself, “Long-term, all the alcohol, drugs, orgasms or abusive behavior in the world isn’t going to make me feel better. What will make me feel better is helping my little child to understand that he/she is okay, and has a right to desire “love”, but he has to search for it from a healthy person, who cares, thinks he’s worthy of love and, long-term wants him by their side.” That won’t come about overnight. To get that kind of person, you first have to be that kind of person. Learning to control and direct your little kid one step at a time will eventually make you that person.

Becoming a healthy person might also aid you to interact with your present spouse in  an honest, forthright way, without having to resort to threats, hostility, or apologies. You will feel that you have a right to be treated well, just because you’re you. That’s when you will no longer need constant success, drugs, or sex to feel good. Instead, you’ll be able to explain to your partner that you’re hurting, that you’re feeling inadequate, insufficient, needy; whatever your feelings are, and you expect and need them to hold you, to support you, and to reassure you that they care. You may be too fearful to risk being that vulnerable, but think of it this way: If your partner can’t or won’t respond, it will reinforce your pain and hopefully motivate you to leave a hurtful relationship. Conversely, if they hear you, you wind up with the positive relationship you desire. It’s a win-win solution.

What you most have to accept is that your little child doesn’t think, he feels. What he feels is something akin to muscle memory. The same kind of memory that you develop if you become proficient at table tennis, skiing, football, or golf, etc. Your muscles remember how to behave. It’s an automatic response that has nothing to do with your brain. The curious fact is, your little kid unconsciously functions at an intuitive level, that surpasses the accuracy of the insights any psychologist, psychiatrist, or Rorschach test. You can always trust that the little kid will be attracted to a partner who neurotically fits.

The solution is, one, never let your six-year-old’s muscle memory dictate your adult behavior and decisions, and, two, trust that when the adult in you takes over, you will no longer allow your little kid to control you, and you will be well on your way to living in a healthy manner, which will propel you toward a healthy relationship with a healthy partner.

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