“Umm…” he said.
Jeremy had just told his girlfriend Amanda that he was going to leave her and move to another state for a job offer.
A few months into their relationship, Amanda had been evicted from her apartment and needed somewhere to live for her and her five year old daughter. Jeremy came to her rescue by letting her move in with him, after they made the explicit agreement that it would only be temporary while she got back on her feet.
Unfortunately once Amanda moved in, she never looked for somewhere to live. Instead, she conveniently forgot to pay the bills she had agreed to cover, even though she maintained her well-paying job.
As the months wore on, Jeremy tried to sit Amanda down and talk to her about apartment hunting, but each time, she seemed to magically talk him out of it.
After a contentious year that felt like it had dragged on and on, he finally decided it was over between them. Besides the fact that he felt tricked, he had realized that they had nothing in common. They were too different, and he knew that they had made a mistake by moving in together, way too soon. Instead of telling Amanda that she needed to go, Jeremy stalled while feeling more and more guilty about his decision to date Amanda in the first place.
After a lot of soul searching, Jeremy had come to three important, seemingly conflicting realizations:
1. Amanda was using him but he hated admitting it to anyone (even himself).
2. He let his own guilt and shame for making a bad decision (letting her move in) make him stick around way too long.
3. He wanted to do the right thing. Since Amanda’s daughter was involved, breaking up with Amanda felt even worse. He wondered if he should stay because he had bonded with the child, since Amanda had no qualms about letting him babysit while she was at work.
The point of all of this not to demonize either Amanda or Jeremy. Obviously, enormous mistakes were made.
It’s easy to shriek “GO! RUN!” but understanding exactly why people stick around for months or even years after a relationship’s expiration date is important.
Bad relationships don’t happen all at once, they creep up on us. If they were bad in the beginning, no one would ever do it.
So, why do we stay in bad relationships long after it dawns on us that it’s time to go?
The fatal triad of momentum, guilt and confirmation bias.
Once we start a relationship and put in the effort to keep it going, stopping feels like we’re losing our investment. The realization that we’ve wasted months or years of our life staying with the wrong person is often too much for us to come to terms with.
Once Amanda moved in with Jeremy and he spent a lot of his free time babysitting, letting go seemed incredibly difficult since he had invested so much time and energy in making it work.
Sometimes we fancy ourselves as the other person’s savior. We tell ourselves nonsense like, “They would be so devastated by the breakup that they would never recover.” Hooey. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by continuing a relationship with them because you feel bad about telling them it’s over. Yet, plenty of people stick around, feeling too much shame to admit that they are dying inside.
In Jeremy’s case, the guilt came from not wanting to further uproot the life of Amanda’s five year old daughter. This is not a bad goal, but seriously problematic for a lot of reasons. Namely the fact that if Jeremy continues his relationship with Amanda while not in love and emotionally checked out— the end result is Amanda’s daughter becomes even more attached, making his eventual departure that much more heartbreaking for all.
3. Confirmation bias.
This one is tricky. Confirmation bias is defined by wikipedia as, “(also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.”
What this means for relationships is that once you get into one, you will work hard to confirm that continuing the relationship is a good choice. This natural tendency is helpful when we’re in a good relationship because seeing the good helps us get through the hard times.
Unfortunately this is a disaster when we find ourselves in a toxic pairing. In the honeymoon phase, we often tell everyone (particularly ourselves) how excited we are about our new mate. Then, as the realization hits that the other person is not good for us, we’ll stick around for a while (sometimes a lot) longer in an emotional space of being unwilling to admit that we cut the wrong pony from the herd.
Jeremy wanted so much to believe that Amanda had both of their best interests at heart that he went on a fact-finding mission to confirm it. When I spoke to him about the relationship, he said that he thought he was being taken advantage of, BUT that Amanda did his laundry and was polite to his friends. He looked for every shred of evidence that his choice to date her was a good one.
No one wants to admit flat out that they were wrong. However, saving face, but losing your mind is never a good trade.
What do you think? Have you ever stayed in a relationship too long that wasn’t right for you? Tell me your thoughts in the comment section below.