Why Do I Always End Up in Toxic Relationships?: Understanding the Thought Patterns of Mistreated Partners

A girl I once knew, who was involved in a physically abuse relationship at some point in her past, told me that she stayed with her partner for so long because they were “too shitty people who deserved each other.” In my interpretation, although she was self-absorbed throughout most of the time, I would never have thought of her as an awful person. If we were to look into the cognitive patterns of those who end up in seemingly endless toxic relationships, we’d find the belief that the person who’s mistreated actually believes that they’re just as awful, or damaged, as their abuser.

This is often the case in my sessions, where I and my clients explore the sources of their maladaptive choices. They’ll say something like, “I feel a kinship with him,” or “I feel like we’re so alike, almost identical.” And, I’m left wondering, how? In inspecting their assertions together, we often discover that both partners have a history of parental abuse and/or neglect and find their commonality in their sensitivity and pain. In their overgeneralized beliefs, they intuit their partners’ suffering and think, he’s just as damaged as I am. So, while the manifestations of their suffering differ, they believe that they and their partners are identical at bottom.

Someone else said to me, “If I don’t love her, who will?” And in that moment, I sensed a more personal hunger for affection, a question that implied another: Who can ever love me? As this person truly believed that she and her boyfriend were the same, I hypothesized that she was projecting her badness onto him, hoping to prove to herself that she could consider herself as being worthy of love if she could hold onto him despite his obvious flaws. It appeared as though through magical thinking, she believed that she could fundamentally, and valiantly, overcome his badness and, therefore, her own; as though consistently loving him through all of the bad moments was akin to finally being able to love herself.

On the other hand, there’s the notion of deserving a poor quality relationship. In some compartmentalized manner, the individual believes that she deserves to suffer for her badness while also hoping that she deserves to be loved. And even though she may sense a deep connection through similar forms of sorrow, the mistreated person has to acknowledge the vasty different ways that both partners cope: one does so by taking care of others in pain, while the other abuses them. Thus, in spite of the sources of agony being almost identical (e.g. low self-esteem, parental abuse, “being bad,” and/or having been bullied), the couple involved differ in signifiant ways, one of which is that the one who actually is a “shitty person” believes he’s wonderful.

However, it’s important to note the kernels of truth in the over-generalized belief, and help the client work through their deep-seated sense of unlovability. If you fail to accept the partial validity of their belief (i.e. my partner is not a bad person) when your client is defending him or her, they’ll simply conclude that you don’t understand, or don’t know him well. But, in acknowledging their partner’s pain, we help the client assess whether the source of their partner’s abuse justifies his actions, asking: Would you ever allow yourself to do what he did, considering that you’re fundamentally similar? If not, why are his actions acceptable and yours aren’t?

The differentiating phase (seeing oneself as being substantially different from the partner) is challenging because of the black and white grouping of some as fundamentally good and others as bad. So, trying to convince a person who needs to see their partner as good, and often does (because no one is always bad), that he is, in essence, bad always goes nowhere. On the all or nothing seesaw, wherein he’s good when being defended and bad when being criticized, the victim fails to integrate the complexity of the partner’s identity. The question isn’t, “Is he good or bad?” It’s, “How often is he considerate and how often abusive?”

Due to compartmentalization, and the conflicting needs to, sometimes, see good and, at others, see bad, the focus ought to be on why. What’s the benefit of seeing the partner as this way or that? And, if I’m certain that he’s lovable and just like me, does that make me lovable, too?

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