As a couples’ therapist, I often see how easy it can be for most people in therapy to easily list patterns and behaviours in their relationships that they don’t want to live with any longer. There are many factors that can influence a person’s desire to remain in a relationship but also red flags that alert us about potential upcoming issues.
Out-of-control tempers: One has the right to one’s emotions and to get angry. But if a person takes out their anger, stress and unhappiness on people who are most likely not the cause of the fury, and whose behaviour they often have no control over — like waiters and people in traffic — one can wonder what will be the limit to such behaviour. Early-warning signs like these sometimes speak of an immature relationship with emotions, an out-of-control ego that gives someone permission to treat others with disrespect or double standards.
Inconsistent behaviour: Inconsistent behaviour often messes with our psyche and may leave us confused, questioning the very relationship that is supposed to make us feel safe. Erratic behaviour and changes in someone’s behaviour might be an indication of inner chaos and instability; it does not offer peace of mind and speaks of unavailability, of causing a constant upset.
Bad stories about exes (and everyone else): Just remember that unresolved past stories might affect your present one. Labelling and blame can bring toxic feelings into any relationship and it is important to make sure that such emotions are openly talked about and dealt with in order not to repeat the same patterns time and time again.
A long-standing history of deceit: If you have proof of a history of lies and deceit and of “compartmentalised” living, it seems logical to expect old patterns to play out in a new relationship. Living a compartmentalised life means moving between different private, intimate relationships in a way that is secretive towards other people; it also means living different lives and shifting the truth while moving from one “box” to the next. The belief that you’re the special one who’ll surely have a different outcome most likely will get you into trouble. The likelihood you’ll also have to be hidden and get lied to is strong. Living openly is the healthy way.
In our human need to be loved, we sometimes get swept up in fantasies and turn a blind eye to the warnings. This might often be the reason why we allow behaviour in an intimate relationship that we would never allow from any of our friends. As a therapist, I use the acronym FEAR – Fix, Escape, Analyse, Rescue – as a summary for the four primary experiences that might keep you in a relationship even though there are obvious red flags, because real fears are at the basis of the decisions not to act.
“Fix” means that regardless of the alerts, someone’s natural response is to go into problem-solving mode. It is the belief that every problem can be fixed, that “anything is possible”, making the person look for possible treatments instead of stepping away.
“Escape” stands for sweeping sensitive topics under the carpet and ignoring what bothers you – although the relationship can look as if “all is okay”, unspoken and unresolved issues create patterns that can be damaging.
In therapy — and I’ve done this in my personal process — you spend hours analysing the destructive patterns in order to understand them. “Analyse” is the belief that if you see and understand the patterns you don’t want, you can overcome them. Unfortunately, this is not always true and understanding behaviour does not always lead to action and resolution.
Finally, you might believe that if you give someone the right skills and environment, that person will change and give you back what you’ve given. This is what I call “Rescue”: You see the little light in the chaos of darkness. This is where compassion — your deeper and sympathetic understanding of another’s often painful experiences — can keep you in the relationship. Feeling sorry for someone and having empathy is the right thing to do to a person in need. But this should never be to the detriment of your own well-being and the rescuer should not become the victim.
The fear of possibly losing a relationship and the loneliness that you think might follow can override logic. A history of losses, rejection or abandonment might also keep you holding on, as the pain of the loss might outweigh the pain the relationship is causing. Yet, you cannot build a relationship on someone’s potential; you can only build a relationship on what you have right now. The questions to ask yourself are: What do you have right now? What are you really getting from this relationship that you value? How does this relationship make you feel? Your focus should always be on what you have, and not on what you might have or think you can create.
No matter what kind of environment or emotions you give someone, if they don’t want to change, your giving will make no difference. Doing so may just give the person a reason to take more. The truth is that nobody can change anyone if they take no responsibility for their own change. You can only change yourself. If you give to receive, you’re only sending the message that the less you get, the more you’ll give.
Similarly, if the interactions with someone you like are confusing you, leaving you wondering or making you feel like you’re always waiting, the red flags are guiding you in the direction of safety. Waiting often means that your needs are not being met and that you are waiting for your partner to participate. Somebody or something is being prioritised and it’s not you. A healthy relationship does not make you wait or wonder.
In therapy, I often find that the energy spent on analysing and understanding negative or toxic relationships can be useful. The important work lies in in-depth knowing of your own boundaries and trigger points. Where and when do you draw that internal boundary where you can convincingly say, “This is enough”? Did you give the person enough opportunities to show new behaviour? And what are you fearful of in the process of letting go?
Listen and respond to the warnings sent by your mind as well as your body — and remember the FEAR formula — fix, escape, analyse, rescue — to protect you from what will neither be safe nor good for you. ML
Stefan Blom is a clinical psychologist who specialises in relationships. He lives and works in Cape Town and is the author of The Truth About Relationships (translated into Afrikaans and Romanian).
"Censorship of anything at any time in any place on whatever pretence has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot." ~ Eugene O'Neill