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Why People Ignore the Fact Their Relationship Sucks

Micaela Marini Higgs

Your subconscious has a lot to answer for.

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Post-breakup analysis tends to reveal obvious signs that "it" would never have worked. At that point it's easy to look back and wonder how you rationalised certain shitty behaviours, but it's even easier to marvel at how other people manage to ignore red flags in their own relationships.

And yet, we've all got stories. We can all list off warning signs that should have sent us running, but didn't. So the question must be asked: why didn't we?

Actually, says psychotherapist Kimberly Hershenson, people do usually recognise the red flags, whether it's on a subconscious or conscious level. The first group realise that something feels off, but can't put their finger on what it is. The second group talks themselves into sticking around, more often than not because of low self-esteem.

That's how Ellen*, 27, felt while she was married to her possessive ex. "My gut was telling me I should be paying attention to these signs," she says, "but I would justify them. I mostly ignored them on purpose."

In Ellen's first relationship after her divorce, she "ignored pretty obvious" red flags again. This time her boyfriend was a cocaine addict. In retrospect, she thinks she intentionally avoided reality because "I liked the idea of the relationship more than the relationship itself. And I didn't want to be alone."

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Caty, 24, also experienced the fear of being alone when she found herself with a man she had gone on two dates with but never planned to see again, because "something wasn't quite right about him." Before they met, Caty had been followed home and robbed by a meth addict, so she was feeling particularly vulnerable. "He was a dark person but I was going through a truly dark time," she says, "so I fully gave into the relationship."

Their time together was riddled with red flags: sexual manipulation, emotional belittlement, and the exploitation of the trauma caused by the robbery. But she was also filled with the fear he might leave her, and she purposefully avoided the issues in the relationship because of the cultural belief that "naive, dumb girls are the ones who attract, and stay with, losers."
Acknowledging the red flags would have required Caty to see herself as that naive victim, she says. "And I couldn't face being a victim again."

There are many cognitive functions that can distort your perception says another clinical psychologist, Dr. John Paul Garrison. "Victims of childhood abuse may have an increased likelihood of struggling when identifying signs of an abuser, but it's not a prerequisite." One common cause is cognitive dissonance, "the mental discomfort that occurs when two incompatible attitudes are confronted."

If someone believes "good people are treated well," for example, it can be confusing and overwhelming when they are faced with an unexpectedly abusive situation. Cognitive dissonance allows people to avoid acknowledging abusive tendencies in their relationships.

"Subconsciously, people think they can change other people and fix them," says Hershenson. "The thought of having to date again, have the first kiss again, and have sex again for the first time" can be really intimidating, she says. "If we love and care greatly for someone and they show us affection, we believe that they love and care for us back."

For some, confusion adds to the fear of hitting reset. "I have some clients who tell me, 'My boyfriend says I'm never going to find anybody else, is that true?'" says Hershenson, who advises that if you have to ask "Is this normal?" then something is probably wrong.

Manipulative relationships can distort people's perception of "normal" behaviour. At 13, Jesse began a relationship with Matt, an older teenager. Matt warped Jesse's perception of what was normal by preying on their insecurity as a young teen and Autistic person.

"I was just glad anyone was interested in me in the first place," says Jesse.

The relationship ended three years later when Matt tried to kill Jesse, who can now pinpoint huge red flags, including Matt's belief he could read auras and minds, sexual manipulation, and a need to be right at any cost. "I didn't just let him manipulate me; I kind of wanted him to," says Jesse, "because I thought it was my only chance for a real relationship."

Everyone is susceptible to viewing their relationship through foggy glass, says Garrison. "We often assume that other people feel similarly to how we feel. So if we love and care greatly for someone and they show us affection, we believe that they love and care for us back. That's a healthy way to view others, and it allows us to be trusting."

"People tend to go into relationships with the best of intentions," agrees Hershenson. "You're always hoping for the best, so when there's a little something [strange] you ignore it because you want things to work out." That's why so many of the stories people share begin with statements like, "Right off the bat, he gave me a strange feeling."

Ultimately you need to trust yourself, says Garrison. "When you have a reaction that someone is 'creepy' or 'weird,' that's not just a coincidence."

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