As a private practice psychologist, I have been seeing a growing number of adults in unhappy, controlling, or outright abusive relationships. These clients span a wide age range, are men or women, of all different backgrounds, and may be dating, engaged, or married. Sometimes they want to improve their relationship, try to dave it, or gain a better understanding of what is going on. Often, they are trying to work up the strength to leave.
Regardless of particular situation, there are common threads in many of these cases. I thought I would detail some of them here in hopes that others might recognize mistakes they could be making or areas they might strive for improvement (either for themselves or the relationship).
1. Having limited self-knowledge or lack of clarity in values or standards
Many people don’t have a very clear picture of who they are or what is important to them, especially in their younger years (early 20’s, for example). They may be just starting out, floating along in life, getting by, or trying to figure out the whole “adulting” thing. Or, they may not view this as important, since they’re not necessarily thinking of getting married or having anything serious yet. But this happens beyond young adulthood as well.
But even when it’s “just dating” or “nothing serious”, it’s important to know your values, because this tells you what is important to you, where you will or will not compromise, and what is and is not negotiable in a relationship. This also helps you to develop standards, which ultimately dictate how dateable a person is, and definitely whether or not he or she could ever be marriage material.
Though we may have all dated someone we would never have married, relationships tend to go better when we date someone with similar values, ideas, or goals. If you’re a hard worker, someone who loves the outdoors, or someone who loves to read, it would probably benefit you to date someone who identifies in the same way. If you don’t drink or use drugs, you may not be very happy dating someone who does- especially if it is any degree of a problem for them. Or, if you’re financially savvy and like to save for a rainy day, it may be hard to date someone who lives check to check (as a result of their choices, not their circumstances) and who doesn’t have the money to take you out. These are examples of fundamental differences can create annoyance or stress, pull us away from the things that are important to us, or at an extreme, can even lead us to become a person we don’t recognize or like. None of these situations is likely to be fulfilling.
And looking at the big picture, who you choose to date, even just for fun or in a non-serious way, can very well impact who you become or who you choose to (or are able to) date when you do decide to get more serious. Dating the wrong people can also negatively affect your outlook on dating or can lead you to approach potential dates in the same (ineffective) way. And what if you become permanently attached to the wrong person- as in have a baby or get married and don’t want to get divorced or don’t believe in divorce? These situations can create many issues, as you can probably guess.
So it’s critical to know yourself and what’s important to you, what you want and don’t want, and what you like or don’t like in a person. Looks are one thing, but personality and other factors are what will make you either want to stick around or not in the end. And when you know yourself and your values, you can set standards- and these should be realistic, yet somewhat firm. For example, you may decide you need: someone with a job or who is in school; has good relationships with his or her family; who has friends and is social; doesn’t smoke or do drugs; is not more than 5 years older or younger; or identifies similarly in terms of religion or spirituality, politics, or other views. These are just examples, but if these things are important to you, then don’t bend on them- or you may end up unhappy or in a situation that is hard to get out of.
2. Having weak standards or being too quick to lower them
I see this a lot, too, and this usually relates to the individual. He may: not feel good about himself and decide to go for anyone who shows interest; view himself as undateable or defective in some way; have a negative history of relationships; be too willing to enter into “non-serious” interactions (i.e. casual sex or one-night stands); or feel as though time is ticking away and thus a lack of options exists. In any of these situations, either standards are weak or low already, or the person will readily lower them for fear of missing out or being alone. In other words, for the person who thinks in this way, it’s better to be with someone who doesn’t meet standards than to be with nobody.
Standards do need to be realistic, but we should all have them, and we should only enter into relationships with people who we would be glad to be in a relationship with. If you have reservations or even a gut feeling from the start that something isn’t right, it probably isn’t.
And if lowering your standards has been a problem for you, you might want to do some work on yourself (i.e. participate in therapy) in order to figure out what that is about. Perhaps it could help you not to do this in the future, and if you were alone for any length of time, you might tolerate it better or even enjoy it.
3. Tolerating things in a relationship you said you never would
It’s true that once you have been in a relationship for a while, things die down, become more routine, or passion may be lost. That is all par for the course, but when a partner stops showing that he cares, becomes rude or mean, manipulates you, or abuses you in any way, something is wrong. Actually, a lot of things are wrong- and chances are you have either been here before, or for some reason you didn’t see the writing on the wall before this point. If any of these things are true, then chances are you are not satisfied with the relationship and you have probably thought about leaving.
In reality, though, this can be hard to do. Particularly when it comes to abuse, abusers use manipulative tactics like gaslighting (you have probably heard this in the news recently), which lead the abused to question themselves and to even feel like things are their fault. No one should ever be subject to abuse, and I believe that is a point most would agree upon. It’s too complex of an issue to tackle here, but if others tell you your relationship is abusive or unhealthy, or you think this on your own, then it probably is.
But back to the points made in numbers 1 and 2, what I’m talking about here is tolerating things like: a partner refusing to work or help around the house; not helping with parenting; abusing drugs or alcohol and refusing to get help; making everything your fault; or just not showing that they care about you or even like you. Yes, situations can get complicated, particularly when it comes to marriage, children, or shared assets, but if you tolerate any of these things, chances are #1 and/or 2 are at play here. You probably don’t have solid values or standards, or for some reason you’re too willing to compromise on them. Chances are, you view it as too risky to leave, as it might make your situation worse in some way. If you believe any of this to be true, you could certainly benefit from therapy as well. Relationships are meant to be enjoyable and should add value to your life. If they don’t, then this certainly signals a problem.
In summary, if you find yourself in bad or unsatisfying relationships, having difficulty leaving relationships, or longing for something better, it’s useful to get to know yourself more and to think about what is really important to you. If you’ve ended up in a situation like this, there are things you may need to work on, either to improve things now or to avoid similar pitfalls in the future. When you put in the time or do this work, your chances of having a satisfying or fulfilling relationship (and life) improve dramatically, and you reduce the risk of many things you do not want. You might be able to make changes to find satisfaction in your current relationship, develop the strength to move on, or you may find it easier to tolerate being alone, whether it’s temporary or for a long time. If you ask most people in relationships, who you choose to be with matters- and to be in a relationship with someone you don’t like or who doesn’t treat you well, is not at all better than being alone. And if you tell yourself you are not worthy, don’t deserve or will never find a happy relationship, this is absolutely wrong, and you could certainly benefit from talking with someone about that.