Why do people hold on to dysfunctional relationships?
I’m talking about friendship or romance here. The latter is obviously more intense, but I find many of the issues are the same with both.
The two most common reasons people hold on to an unhappy relationship are (1) fear of being alone and, (2) the false belief that forgiveness is a virtue.
Let me start with the second point. Yes, you read that right. I’m saying that forgiveness is NOT a virtue. People find that shocking, especially from a mental health professional. They seem to think that it’s an unchallenged code, written out somewhere that nobody is allowed to question. Well, when something gets in the way of facts or logic I always stand ready to question it. And you should too.
Forgiveness is not always a virtue. In fact, I would go so far as to call unwarranted or undeserved forgiveness a vice.
Take an example. Someone recently told me about a long-standing friendship going sour. “She drinks in my presence even though she agreed not to do so, since I’m trying to quit myself. She blasts my decisions, puts me down and I feel worse being with her than even staying home alone with the cat.” So why not stay home alone with the cat then? “Because it would seem mean, and unforgiving, to end a friendship over this.”
First of all, a friend is someone who is consistently nice to you. If someone considers you a friend and treats you badly, this shows they have a contradiction. You only make a bad situation worse by engaging in a contradiction yourself. It’s literally living a lie to go through the motions of being friends with someone when that person does not treat you like a friend, or you don’t treat him or her like a friend.
Secondly, forgiveness is always beside the point unless a person is sorry. The ‘friend’ in the example I’m telling you about expressed no remorse for the way she treated the person I know. How can you forgive someone who’s not sorry? If someone cheated you in a business deal, and refused to acknowledge it, would you say, ‘Well, I must keep doing business with him. He hasn’t said he’s sorry and he’ll probably keep defrauding me of my money. But it would be unforgiving and therefore mean, unhealthy and un-Christian not to forgive him.’ Very few people would take this approach when their money’s at stake (nor should they); but a surprising number take this approach when it’s friendship or romance.
It’s not enough to say you’re sorry. A remorseful person has to show it through consistent actions, over time—including compensating, when that’s possible. And forgiveness takes time. It doesn’t happen in one fell swoop, and anyone who pressures you to forgive in that way really isn’t truly sorry.
But even when a person is truly sorry, you’re still not obliged to forgive. It is possible to rationally conclude that an offense is so bad, that you’d simply rather not deal with the person any longer. You don’t decide this only in the heat of emotion, but even after some of the emotion has died down. You might conclude, ‘It’s not worth the risk to keep this association going.’ Again, people do this with their money. They decide not to invest in a certain stock, for example, or even to give to a certain charity they don’t think is totally honest. We don’t say, ‘How can you be so mean not to put your money into that investment?’ But we routinely do tell ourselves, and each other, ‘How can you be so mean and hateful not to keep being friends with that person even though he did something you view as unforgivable?’ It makes no sense, this human tendency to be rational with our money but indiscriminate with our souls.
Enough about forgiveness. As for holding onto bad friends because of fear of being alone, you have to ask yourself: ‘Are there worse things than being alone?’ Also, consider the toll that being in a bad association takes on you. Every moment you spend in the presence of someone who puts you down, or breaks your spirit (even a little) is a moment that could have spent in self-preservation. The more self-preserved you are, the more prepared you are to recognize a true friend when you find one. Being around negative, hostile or destructive people chips away at your spirit. With no spirit, you won’t recognize, or have the mental energy for, a good friend when you meet one.
This is one reason why people often find it so liberating to exit destructive marriages or relationships. The whole time they stay, they’re afraid. But once they’re gone, they wonder what took them so long.
Most of the world’s evils consist not of man’s inhumanity to man, but of man’s inhumanity to himself. If people resolved to treat themselves better—and consistently so—most of the world’s evils would be minimal.
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