“Girl, you’ve got options“…is what I say to many women who feel that they must stay in their negative and abusive relationships. Sadly, me saying this is often a revelation to many women. It is not that I don’t also say this to men, however the focus of this post will be about women specifically, because society “programs” women differently. What is it that makes us stay in bad relationships? Why are toxic relationships so enticing for so many? As it turns out, a toxic mixing of our spheres of influence is to blame. Our spheres of influence include our relationship to self, our relationship to family, and our relationship with society at large.
I have discovered that it seems as if one of the main factors keeping so many in unhealthy relationships is low self-esteem, or the relationship with ourselves. “Nobody else will love me the same”, “I will never find someone as attractive as him/her” are things that we don’t necessarily say out loud, much less admit to ourselves. These messages can sometimes be buried deep in our subconscious, which is why they can be difficult to identify. We tell ourselves that we love the person, have never felt such strong attraction, feel as if the other person is “the one”, or–the kicker–that this is the person God intended us to be with. These thoughts can be powerful motivators to stay, but often the real reason is much more subtle. Often we stay because we have low self-esteem.”Wait a minute,” you might say, “I have high self-esteem, or it least it feels as though I do.” Having low-self esteem can often times be hard to spot. Many of us think that self-esteem is how we feel about our looks, talent, or success, when in fact self-esteem has even more to do with our self-worth. Do we feel worthy of the love we deserve? Do we believe that something better actually exists?
For many, it can be hard to believe that a relationship can be better than the negative one right in front of them. This can happen when abuse and mistreatment are pretty standard in the houses we grew up in. Perhaps we were even abused in some way, shape, or form, and in our minds–deep down–we think, “this is what I deserve”. This is how the second sphere of influence, our familial ties, can have such an impact on our dating relationships. We internalize messages of shame, all the while our gut tells us that something is not right about the way we are treated–but it is all we know. Sometimes knowing the streets of hell can feel more comforting that dreaming about the possibility of heaven.
The third sphere of influence that keeps people in toxic pairings is the unhelpful cultural narratives and expectations our society has about gender, sexual orientation, sex, and body image. For women who grow up in the evangelical church, we are told that our virginity is a precious gift that we should save for our wedding night. Not only is this difficult, it is dang near impossible when our culture constantly tells women that we must be sexual in order to be valuable. Women who are sexual must also look and dress a certain way, they must be a certain weight, must have specific body proportions. When respectful men keep their distance from women, this can feel like rejection or disinterest to women with self-esteem issues. This creates some pretty strong abandonment fears that are counterproductive to a healthy relationship. In fact–fears of abandonment can either sabotage a potentially good relationship, or more often than not, abandonment fears can attract individuals who wish to exploit this fear through manipulation. Men, on the other hand, seem to get an entirely different mix of conflicting cultural messages.
So, what is the solution to all of this? These overlapping and often contradictory spheres of influence can really wreak havoc in the lives of so many women AND men. Often, the first step is seeing a therapist in order to identify how these interpersonal and cultural influences may be affecting the individual. Sometimes a little bit of insight and education is all that is needed. However, often times it can take a bit more than just insight and education. We have to identify and change the internal messages we tell ourselves, and we have to change our spheres of influence. Many surround themselves with healthier friends, leave the church, or distance themselves from unhealthy family members. Day by day, new internal messages can emerge:
You are worth it.
You are beautiful.
Your sexuality is not wrong.
You deserve better.
You will be loved.
You have options.
Many of these ideas that I’ve been trying to put into words for years are expressed much, MUCH better this book I have been reading. For those of us who received toxic messages from the church: