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June 12, 2020

Why Strong Women Stay in Bad Relationships

Today I’m talking about why smart, strong women stay in LOW-quality relationships and what you can do about it. I’m not talking about physically abusive relationships, although some low-quality relationships do have some verbal or emotional abuse. I’m talking about relationships that aren’t good for you, that you know you don’t deserve, ones where you know you should be treated better. Maybe one in which you have evolved past in many ways, and your partner is no longer meeting your needs.

Why would a strong, smart woman stay in a bad relationship?

What I am finding is that powerhouse women often find themselves in these types of relationships, but you often don’t know it because they won’t tell you for fear of being seen as weak. Many people think that staying in a bad relationship is a sign of weakness when it is actually a really bad use of your incredible strength.

In fact, women who are the breadwinners in the family actually have higher rates of intimate partner abuse than women who aren’t. This sounds astounding, because these are the very women who have the financial ability to get out of the relationships, yet these are the women who stay. In fact, research demonstrates that smart, successful women are more likely to be in relationships with toxic men than others.

It’s not always low self-esteem

As I have been researching getting prepared to speak about this topic, I came across a line of thought that says that women stay in bad relationships because of low self-esteem, because they perceive themselves to be less attractive and generally have lower expectations of what a relationship should be like – so they accept bad treatment.

I think this can be true in certain circumstances, like if your parents were abusive, you may have lower expectations for what a loving relationship is or even feel that bad treatment is normal on some level. But I have not found that to be true in any way with the type of women I treat in my practice.

All of the women in my practice that are staying in low-quality relationships are gorgeous, smart, extremely successful women who are held in high esteem in the community. They are strong women who don’t take anything from other people in their lives and have clawed their way to the success that they are experiencing today. But, they are not that way in their relationship.

Reasons you might be staying

I think it’s important to say that you probably didn’t know you were getting into an unhealthy relationship. You are certainly smarter than that. You found yourself in one over time. These are the reasons why you may be staying:

  1. Strong women give their best in all aspects of their lives- including their relationships. 

They are used to working hard and it pays off. They don’t like to fail and they often create a story that ending this relationship is a failure. It isn’t. It could be a win, but if your story is failure, then you’re going to keep fighting. And you are expecting the ROI (Return on investment) into the relationship. You get caught into the “throwing good money after bad money” trap. You have invested so much that you don’t want to “lose” your investment and you perceive that the alternative is not as beneficial to you as your current state.

Working hard is familiar to you. You feel constantly challenged by this relationship and that feels normal. Also, If your first experience with love in the world, wasn’t that stable, you may seek out a similar experience subconsciously in your relationships.

Basically, high-performance women can put up with more and take it longer and this is where your strength betrays you. You become compassionate to a fault. You make excuses for his behavior or feel that you can understand it or fix it. You become a savior instead of saving yourself.

  1. Often, you may also value the positive characteristics of your partner more than you value the negative ones. 

For example, if your partner is generous but not thoughtful, you might come to value generosity more than thoughtfulness over the course of your relationship (Fletcher et al., 200). 

When making decisions about relationships, we often rely on emotions rather than logic. So, a woman who relies on logic and intuition in most of her life, which I have explained before is not an emotional thing, often does well in her life. But that same woman will rely on emotion when it comes to her relationships, and that causes her to stay in an unhealthy relationship.

Kissin (et al, 2011) also explains that you can have very negative thoughts about a partner and still have very positive feelings for your partner. This cognitive dissonance creates stress, but not enough for you to leave the relationship. It does keep you in a constant state of unhappiness, though.

  1. You aren’t ready to change your story- the way you view yourself or the way others view you. 

This is a form of denial- or maybe a calculated decision.

  1. You have a hard time changing your life or breaking up your family.
  2. The worst one in my opinion is that you may think you deserve this. 

You have created a story for yourself that doesn’t include being loved in a real way for who you are.

So what’s a strong woman to do?

First, you don’t have to leave the relationship, even though all the reasons I gave you above are the wrong ones for staying. What I do believe is that you have to be WILLING to leave the relationship in order for it to change, which can be just as scary. If you aren’t willing to leave, there is no motivation on your partner’s part to change and he likely won’t.

Stop waiting on him to change. It’s not going to happen without you changing first. Accept that you are in an unhealthy relationship. I didn’t say resign yourself to unhappiness. Call the relationship what it is and accept it. Denying it gets you nowhere

Tell the truth to your partner. If you don’t, you are part of the problem. You are enabling all of his behavior and you are codependent in the toxicity of the relationship. You may feel that telling him that you didn’t bring him to a work party because you are embarrassed about how he treats you when you drink, will increase the toxicity in the relationship, but it won’t. Telling him that you forgot about it or that spouses weren’t invited actually puts stress on you.

Lies create a physical and emotional burden. Think about it.  A lie detector only knows you are lying by the stress it creates in your body. Although he will likely get angry, you will be speaking the truth. This gives you freedom, reduces your stress long term, even if it increases it in the moment.  The truth starts to create space for change in your relationship.

Tell him, no more! Let him know clearly that the relationship will end if he continues xyz. Period. That’s it. That is the hardest part and don’t take that step until you are ready to follow through. An empty threat is the worst thing for your relationship and your self-esteem. But when you are ready, you may find that he is willing to change. If not, you will still be okay. I call this the win/win. Either the relationship ends and you are free to live a healthier life, or your relationship improves and you are free to be yourself in the relationship and have what you deserve. Either way, it’s a win. When you can get yourself in that frame of mind, you are on your way to a healthy place.

You deserve to be treated well, you deserve to be loved and if you aren’t getting that from your partner, you deserve to leave. Reach out if you need some help. Keep listening to this podcast for more help on strengthening yourself in your relationships, including that sometimes difficult one with yourself. 

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