Why It’s Not So Easy to “Just Get the Hell Out”

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One of the many difficult questions survivors of toxic relationships ask themselves is “why is it so hard to leave someone who treats me so badly?”  As rational people, we recognize that a relationship is extremely problematic and believe that the rational course of action would be just to stop the drama.

And yet, this is usually harder than it sounds.

While there are practical and logistical barriers to people exiting, the emotional resistance to leaving is usually present even when there aren’t kids or property or business deals or divorce laws slowing us down.

What accounts for this?  Why is it so common?

Social science has some insights that help to explain what’s going on here.  Knowing them may help you understand your own behavior (and the toxic person’s), help you exit or recover, and help you comfort yourself with the knowledge that if you’ve been caught in a toxic relationship, the dynamics that hooked you are dynamics that have tripped up many other human beings. They are also dynamics that you can change or avoid, once you’re in the know.

Here are seven principles from social science that will help you understand why it’s challenging to “just get the hell out.”

1. Intermittent reinforcement

They come, they go. They love you, they disappear. They love-bomb you, they tell you nobody else would want you.  These mixed messages may come quickly or may emerge slowly, but they hook us by making us wonder how we can stay on the happy side of the person’s attention and affection.

If the messages were all negative, we could easily walk away.  When we’ve had some taste of what it feels like to be “loved,” and then the behaviors we interpret as love disappear, it’s the fact of intermittent reinforcement that keeps us hanging in, trying to get the good stuff back.

2. The principle of least interest
At first, you are the center of their attention. Over time they are “just not that into you.”  The principle of least interest argues that the person who has the least interest in preserving a relationship has the most power in it.

Think of how this works with car salespeople: if you can walk away from the deal, you have more negotiating power. Toxic partners and family members manipulate the principle of least interest. As they back off, ignore, you, ghost you, or otherwise fade or disappear emotionally or otherwise for periods of time, they also accrue power — if you allow it by remaining intensely interested in “saving” the relationship.

3. How secrets create intimacy between secret keepers

Sociologist Georg Simmel argued that “every relationship between two individuals or two groups will be characterized by the ratio of secrecy that is involved in it.”  In healthy relationships, people are transparent with each other in generous degrees.

In toxic relationships, toxic people withhold information to manipulate you and have power over you and your choices. When they have affairs, they create intimacy with someone else who is then in on a secret (the relationship) that is invisible to you.

You may not leave because of the information that has been withheld from you, or because your partner’s other relationships are used to provoke you into competing for their attention, or if you aren’t savvy about how triangulation (the classic “love triangle” between three people) can be triggered by secret keeping.

4. Cognitive Dissonance

The experience of holding two competing beliefs simultaneously, cognitive dissonance is common among people in toxic relationships. “I love them” and “They treat me badly” are two beliefs that create the kind of tension associated with cognitive dissonance. “They are my sister so I should help them” and “they never repay the money I loan them” are two similarly competing beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance keeps us in emotional turmoil and slows us down in figuring out the best course of action to take for our health and happiness.

5. The Sunk Costs Fallacy

“Sunk costs” are the investments we have already made in an enterprise — or a relationship. The “fallacy” refers to our human tendency to over-estimate what we will lose by ending the endeavor and to under-estimate what we will lose by continuing.

In toxic relationships, this works to your disadvantage because it creates a tendency to expect, despite the evidence to the contrary, that if you just invest a bit more, the other person will become kind, appreciative, or reciprocal.  We underestimate the advantage of the “risk” involved with walking away. You can see how this belief sets you up to give until it hurts even more.

6. “Opportunity Cost” denial

Every day we spend in a toxic relationship is a day we don’t spend enjoying our single life or sharing happiness with a loving, supportive partner.  While our focus is on the drama, pain, or trouble created by a toxic relationship, we are missing out on opportunities for joy, connection, freedom, and happiness because the opportunities are less in our line of sight. Just like the moon behind the clouds, though, they are there all the time. When we see true alternatives to suffering, we can make choices to minimize opportunity costs.

7. Decision fatigue

Toxic relationships involve extraordinary decision making, often including re-evaluating every day whether you will stay in the relationship or exit. Neuroscience tells us that decision-making demands remarkable amounts of mental energy, leaving people exhausted.

As a result of decision fatigue, the quality of our decisions declines; we become less able to clearly see our options, assess potential outcomes, and accurately evaluate what we might gain or lose as a result of different decisions. Because of our tendency to under-estimate the costs of staying and over-estimate the costs of “losing” a toxic relationship, we may be inclined to continue to choose to stay when deciding from a place of decision fatigue.

Understanding what happens in toxic relationships through the insights of social science can help us see exploitative relationships more clearly. Even more importantly, these concepts can help us see more clearly the ways our own minds work, how we are vulnerable to making decisions that keep us in difficult situations, and how we can redirect our energies into more liberating, more loving relationships.

Leaving Abusive Relationships Is Especially Hard for People in Minority Communities

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Partners in abusive relationships — with psychopaths, narcissists, and other disordered individuals — often suffer in silence. This is especially true in marginalized communities.

Partners’ silence reinforces their isolation and reduces their capacity to end abuse and exploitation in these relationships.

What stops a partner from seeking help? Among the barriers to reaching out for a reality check — and support for leaving — are these common factors:

Shame. Partners worry that their association with a toxic person reflects poorly on them and that others will judge them if they know about the abuse they are tolerating. If they’ve left and returned, the shame feels greater.  Partners also often want to protect the “good reputation” of their toxic mate or the status the couple enjoys within a family or community.  If friends or family opposed coupling with the toxic person, the partner faces the shame of acknowledging the decision to ignore good advice and feels unworthy of support now.

Fear.  Partners of personality disordered people experience many kinds of fear as they contemplate seeking help. Fears range from the fear of retribution or stonewalling by the partner to the fear of being seen as crazy when they describe what is happening.  They sometimes fear that they cannot trust their own perceptions, or that they aren’t really seeing what they think they are seeing.

Hopelessness.  Partners may trust their perceptions that a relationship is toxic, and believe that others would sympathize with their situation, but still feel trapped by financial, cultural, and familial limitations.  As a result, they continue to suffer in silence, assuming that nowhere they turn will offer practical help in ending an exploitative relationship.

These three limitations affect partners of psychopaths and others with toxic personalities across categories of gender, sexual identity, race, religion, and relationship status.  For members of minority groups, barriers to seeking help are even greater.

Because members of marginalized groups are already stigmatized by society, they often work to “protect the reputation” of their communities, thinking that calling attention to dysfunction or violence within them reinforces negative stereotypes. For this reason, domestic violence and sexual assault are frequently under-reported within communities of color, religious minority groups, and LGBTQ communities.

In addition to the common forms of shame, fear, and helplessness that many victims feel, members of minority communities also experience fear that others will judge them for calling negative attention to the community.

They also fear that the legal system will not protect them as it should.  Because people from majority groups dominate criminal justice, legal, property, and financial systems, turning to people in authority to seek help with a toxic relationship is an extremely courageous and vulnerable act. But it could result in the system being unresponsive or shaming — or actually siding with the perpetrator.

In a worst case scenario, a victim could alienate friends, family, and community members by naming the problem and seeking help, only to find themselves treated poorly by the systems to which they have turned, resulting in more isolation and danger than if they had remained silent.

A famous example of how minority status increases vulnerability to psychopaths occurred in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous Milwaukee serial killer of gay men.

Dahmer was white. Many of his victims were poor men of color, men whose “missing” status would be less of a priority for white authorities to resolve. One of them, a 14-year-old Southeast Asian boy, Konerak Sinthasamphone, escaped Dahmer’s apartment, drugged, naked, and bleeding. African American witnesses called the police asking for assistance on his behalf.  White officers responded, only to return the minor to Dahmer, who had assured them that the two were a couple and everything was fine, despite the victim’s obvious distress.  Within moments of the police leaving the boy in Dahmer’s apartment, he was killed — a victim not only of the psychopath, but also of police ignorance, incompetence, and hostility toward minority people.

Aware of situations like these, victims from minority communities often seek help only with great caution, both when they face “stranger danger,” harassment, and hate crimes, and when they are victimized by intimate partners or family members. It is vital for people in the helping professions to be prepared to respond skillfully when people from minority populations take the risk of seeking help.

Police officers, lawyers, doctors, therapists, and clergy need an awareness of the patterns of victimization created by psychopaths and other troublesome people, as well as the special vulnerabilities of people in minority populations to exploitation and abuse.  When victims of toxic partners decide to reach out for help, we have a professional obligation to understand not only psychopathic abuse, but also what it means for a person in a minority community to come forward, to seek help, and, possibly, to exit their relationship.

Minority victims of toxic partners, like all victims, deserve to know that competent help is available when they take the important step to seek help, despite the barriers of shame, fear, and hopelessness.

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