Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why People Stay Stuck in Bad Relationships

Elizabeth Zelvin

Almost everybody has had at least one bad relationship. I blogged about this briefly a while back in my post about answering hard questions, of which “Why don’t they just leave?” is one. I propose one way out, only partly tongue in cheek, in the title of my mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him. I had a piece in the Holiday 2009 Mystery Scene tying my book to the issue and titled, “Why She Can’t Throw the Bum Out.” But this is one of those questions to which people have chronic difficulty hearing the answer. Both men and women burned in bad relationships go on to make the same mistakes again. And the people around them criticize and judge them, unable to see that destructive relationship choices are not dependent on reason and common sense. So let’s talk about it some more.

At least two different ways of looking at toxic relationships work for me. One is based on attachment theory, a psychological model that focuses on the bond between infant and mother. For healthy development, a child needs to start out life with security about this basic attachment. If mom is absent or unavailable emotionally, children experience insecure attachment. This affects their ability to form attachments in their adult relationships. This may play out in a number of different ways: desperation to latch on and cling to an inappropriate love object; preferring abuse or coldness to abandonment; an unconscious fear of the kind of intimacy in which it’s safe to let down all defenses, because a relationship in which that can’t happen feels more familiar.

Bad relationships can also be attributed to addiction—not sex addiction, which is something entirely different, but love addiction. We can also call it relationship addiction. The 12-step program Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous talks about addiction to “romance and intrigue,” which I think is an excellent way of describing the “high” of falling in love with someone seen through the lens of fantasy rather than the hard light of reality. One key point about addictions is that, regardless of what caused them, they take on a life of their own. The phenomena of craving, increased tolerance, and denial apply as well to love addiction as they do to alcoholism or drug addiction. “Just throw the bum out” is as irrelevant as “Just say no” to someone whose destructive behavior has become compulsive and deeply rooted in the unconscious or “inner child.”

Societal messages that tell women to “stand by your man” and confuse passion, sexual tension, anxiety, danger, and dominance with love contribute to both men’s and women’s difficulty getting out of bad relationships or even thinking they should. And there’s no question that economic considerations and physical fear may play a part in not believing they can. But there’s a lot more than that going on. And I can’t say too often that common sense has nothing to do with it.

In Death Will Help You Leave Him, I take a look at three bad relationships. One provides the matter for the mystery plot: abusive, two-timing, drug-addicted boyfriend is murdered, codependent, long-suffering girlfriend is prime suspect. The second gives the protagonist, Bruce, a conflict to struggle with: he’s attracted to a sweet young woman who might love him, but can’t stop going back to his troubled ex-wife, who manipulates him through both sexual attraction—and charisma fueled by manic episodes and drugs—and his desire to rescue her from suicidal depression. The third is the ex-wife’s own relationship addiction, both to an abusive man and to Bruce, whom she can’t allow to abandon her even though she doesn’t love him any more. Near the end of the book (and don’t you dare peek!), I’ve tucked in evidence that her behavior comes not from cruelty or out of nowhere, but is rooted in the pain of her own past. When it comes to love, one individual can be both victim and oppressor.


Sheila Connolly said...

These are things we need to hear, Liz, if we're creating believable characters. It may not be logical, but it rings true.

Don't readers ever wonder about protagonists who seem to have no intimate relationships (Miss Marple comes to mind), or who have sequential ones, or who can't seem to make up their minds between two (think Stephanie Plum)? The last can serve as a plot device to create tension, but I want to shake Stephanie and tell her, just get on with it, will you?

I'm wrestling with the intimacy issue in my next Orchard book, in which I try to uncover why my heroine Meg has such problems with close relationships, and is so unwilling to trust her own judgment. And make it all fit into a mystery plot.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, you might want to look at what you've said in the previous books about Meg's backstory, especially her childhood and family life. Anything you haven't already committed to can be made to serve Meg's trouble with intimacy. Even a family that the adult remembers as close and happy can have serious dysfunction that only comes out under investigation (a shrink's or a sleuth's).

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm always fascinated (and repelled) by addictions to toxic *groups* -- people who might be relatively harmless on their own, but who join to form a negative force. Angry all the time, suspicious, demanding loyalty, and capable of running each individual's life off the rails. Teenagers get sucked into toxic groups all the time, but so do adults. Even the people you work with in an office can become a toxic group. I guess people get something from these associations -- a feeling of belonging, if nothing else -- but they are frightening.

Marilynne said...

I group some people into "soap opera people." These are people who live their lives as if they were in a soap opera.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I've given workshops about that--what I call the dysfunctional workplace family. It replicates the dysfunctional family of origin. They don't do it on purpose, but toxic is the right word.