Tolerating Bad Behaviour in Relationships: Why Do We Do It?

I read this article/story the other day that I was sent by a client who has been struggling with the dating scene.  I was struck by sadness and fear about people tolerating bad behaviour in relationships while questioning their own reality.  The question that keeps coming up for me is, why do it? Why do we tolerate bad behaviour?

How sad it is when young women, and men, meet someone and have a physical attraction and then start to doubt all of their red flags!  Where did we learn that our judgment and instincts are bad or wrong?  Some of it comes from having made mistakes…and having learned in our culture that one should never make mistakes.  Mistakes are part of being Perfectly Imperfect human beings.  They are not to be ashamed of, they are to learn from.

Popular self-help sites, articles, media and books/magazines are always talking about “patterns” that you’ve developed that may be causing one problem or another in your love life and relationships.  They advise you to be more accepting, smarter, more open and undefended, more this that and the other.  They present this information as if it is easy and clear cut and are universal truths that you too can learn if you read their articles.

What they don’t do (and can’t without knowing you) is help you figure out your own issues that become patterns and triggers for you so that you can find your own voice.  It creates such a distrust of ourselves that we try to borrow what other people are thinking, feeling and doing in an effort to get it right, to be right and we lose sight of our own thoughts and feelings.

A woman came in recently who had met a man on a warm winter vacation last year who swept her off her feet.  Of course he lived in another state and so their relationship took place mostly on the phone or with text and email.  He came to visit her and met her friends and family but never invited her to visit him, he said his wife lived in another city but that their marriage was over.  She started to become suspicious when his contacts slowed down.  She asked questions and he became offended by her questioning him, told her she should trust him and that her distrust was pushing him away.

Because she was already hooked on him, feeling that he was the dream partner she had been looking for, she started to try to make all of his misbehaviour OK.  She thought maybe it was because she had been cheated on before.  She thought maybe she should back off of the questions since it upset him so much.  She reviewed over and over in her head all of the details, looking for a lifeline back to her idealized notion of him.  In short, she started to feel “crazy” and flawed.  Even when he admitted that his wife did not know he wanted out of the marriage, she continued to hear his voice over her own and struggles to let go of him.  He is no longer the wonderful man who called and texted her daily, sometimes going for weeks without contacting her and has the nerve to suggest it’s her problem, not his.

The young woman in the article is doing a similar thing.  From the beginning, there are interactions with the man she meets at her job that make her hairs on her neck go up.  But she ignores them and explains them away as she builds a story in her mind about the “perfection” of him which is clearly a fantasy based on nothing real.  And she’s only 20!  She does not have a long history of bad relationship history to be so doubtful of what she sees and hears.  She wants to please him and not hurt his feelings which keeps her, several times, in a position of coming back even when she’s not feeling it.  It’s as if a stranger’s feeling is more important than our own happiness and safety, which makes no sense whatsoever!  We’re all full of shoulds for them and neglecting our own needs and wants.  She begins to feel a bit like it’s her job to make this man feel good about himself and he becomes a project (another disturbing red flag!).

If someone we are dating is falling for us, even though we don’t reciprocate the feelings, isn’t that red flag enough?  Don’t you think that falling for someone who isn’t feeling the same way is just a sign that you are fantasizing who they are from the get-go?  One of my clients dated a young woman for a while and she was so eager to please and be who she thought he wanted her to be, that he couldn’t figure out who she was.  As he tried to move out of the relationship she sent him texts and emails and snail mail telling him about how much she thought he was the right one and that they were a perfect fit for each other.  Even a year after ending it, he received a card asking him to reconsider.

We are taught in our families, early on, to either trust our reality (what we think, feel and do) or not.  Our peer groups and schools and communities will also influence this.  If we do not learn to trust our reality, we will forever be doubting ourselves and vulnerable to the cons of others.  We will tolerate bad behaviour just as we were taught to tolerate it within our drunken, abusive and dysfunctional family.

What will it take for you to believe what you know?  When someone talks like a duck and acts like a duck, chances are that they really are a duck.  Listen to what people are saying about themselves with their words and their behaviour.  Listen hard.  Be ready to walk away even when you think you have invested a lot in a relationship.  Walk away even if you feel like you’re in love.  You will not be able to pick up the pieces and put it all back together the way it was if the way it was is a fantasy filled creation built by you and the object of your attraction.

Work on your own issues so that you know yourself well enough to stop doubting what you see and hear.  Once you do this you will not be attracted to or attract people who are inauthentic or who don’t make a good fit for you and your values anymore.  We fear that we will never find the right person and that we will live in loneliness forever and die alone and unloved.  This is a big world, full of all kinds of people and many of them are also trying to become the Best Person They Want To Be.  Look for them.  Keep your eyes open.  Keep your ears open.  Think for yourself.


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