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S2 EP145 – Why You Might Stay in an Unloving Relationship

Episode Summary

Is there someone in your life whom you love and whom you keep hoping will change if you love them enough? Are you staying in an unloving or abusive relationship thinking that the problems are your fault? Do you think that if you change your partner will change? Or are you staying for the children? 


Hi everyone. Dr. Margaret Paul here with the Inner Bonding podcast. Today I want to talk about why so many people stay in unloving or even abusive relationships. There are many reasons why people stay, and I will address some of these reasons.

I stayed for a very long time in an unloving relationship, but I actually didn’t even know that it was unloving. Having been raised by parents who believed they loved me but who didn’t know anything about love, I was used to being discounted, made fun of, ignored, unheard, unseen, not cared about. I was used to be the caretaker and expected to give myself up to take care of everyone’s feelings but my own.

It was only when I become very ill 20 years into my marriage that I started to think that something was wrong. And when Dr. Erika Chopich and I met and created Inner Bonding and I started to practice it, I finally realized that I wasn’t being loved and I wasn’t loving myself. But even then it took another ten years before I was able to leave.

There were many reasons for this. One of the main reasons was that I loved my husband, and I was attracted to him. It took me a long time and much Inner Bonding practice to understand that I was very much in love with his essence, but not at all with his wounded self. Our wounded self isn’t a lovable part of us, and we generally don’t like each other’s wounded self, but we learn to tolerate it when it shows up here and there. But in my marriage, I experienced his wounded self most of the time – probably about 85 or 90% of the time, because he was generally angry at me, or completely withdrawn.

Clients who have contemplated leaving an unloving relationship have often said to me that they still love their partner. As we explore, they discover, as I did, that they love their partner’s soul essence, but they can no longer tolerate their wounded self.

Another reason I stayed for so long is that I unrealistically hoped my husband would change. Unrealistic hope can keep us stuck for a long time. I remember reading that many Jews in Nazi Germany didn’t leave because they hoped that things would change, and it was their unrealistic hope that brought about their tragic deaths.

Are you unrealistically hoping your partner will miraculously change? This is the situation Marisa describes:

“I’ve been investing my entire heart in a narcissistic man over the past ten months. During this time, I’ve had the life sucked out of me – I’ve not been tending to myself and instead have abandoned myself to try to make him feel better in the hopes he’ll change, care for and respect me right back. Deeply depressed of late he refuses to seek psychiatric or therapeutic help. I couldn’t stand by watching him drown and finally two weeks ago said he should call me when he finds outside help and is feeling better. It’s been so relaxing not to be insulted, criticized, or bullied or be walking on eggs constantly. I miss him even so and am shocked and hurt that I’ve not heard from him to date. I accept that I was so busy rescuing him that I abandoned myself in doing so. If he contacts me, I’d like to try putting myself first. I’m probably kidding myself, but should I even contemplate giving him another chance? A narcissist is never wrong and is always right as you know. I’m miserable in the meantime.”

Of course Marisa hopes her former partner will change. Narcissists are often charismatic, exciting and can make you feel very special for those few moments when they connect with you. This is likely what Marisa misses. However, her misery is less about missing her partner than about abandoning herself. Even the fact that she is contemplating giving him another chance is making her inner child miserable. If she really wants to put herself first, then she needs to let go of the hope that he will change.

Marisa also hoped that by taking care of his feelings, he would feel better and love her. Often people stay in unloving relationships because they feel sorry for their partner, and meanwhile completely abandoning themselves.

Do you hope that by abandoning yourself and tending to your partner’s feelings you can get him or her to change?

The irony of this is that even the hope of getting another to change through your caretaking is itself narcissistic thinking. The wounded self often believes that “my love is so wonderful that I can have control over getting someone else to ‘care for and respect me.'” I know this one well – I did it for years in my marriage. For 30 years I tried everything to get my husband to change. I completely gave myself up, becoming what I thought he wanted me to be, and all that did was reinforce his neediness and narcissism. When I finally did learn to take loving care of myself, he was so angry at me for no longer caretaking him that the relationship ended. 

People change when they want to change – not because you want them to.

The sad truth is that many people don’t want to change or even think that they need to change. I often work with just one person in a relationship because their partner believes they are just fine and it’s all my client’s fault that they have problems.

Marisa needs to let go of believing that getting back together and putting herself first will change anything. She needs to fully accept that she has no control over her partner’s wanting to change. She needs to accept her complete helplessness over his choices. The fact that she is “shocked and hurt that I’ve not heard from him to date” indicates that she isn’t fully accepting who he has chosen to be. She isn’t accepting that he will just move on to find another woman to fulfill his narcissistic needs. She isn’t accepting that he is not capable of truly caring about her, no matter how loving or wonderful she is. Once she accepts this, then she can move on and learn to take loving care of herself. Once she stops abandoning herself and learns to love herself, then she will no longer be attracted to rescuing an unloving narcissistic partner.

Jennifer consulted with me regarding her 18-year marriage.

“I just don’t know what to do. I believe in marriage, and I have tried to believe in my marriage. But Jake’s drinking has been getting worse and worse for most of our marriage, and so are his rages. Occasionally he has hit me, and last week he pushed me down a few stairs and then locked me out of the house – which is what led me to call you. And then he did the same thing to our youngest daughter who is still living at home. I’m scared of him most of the time now, and I’m scared for my daughter. He gets really nasty and verbally abusive when he has been drinking, which is most of the time now. He is always calling me names and blaming me for everything that goes wrong in his life. And he doesn’t think he has a problem! When I have suggested counseling for us, he laughs, saying that there is nothing wrong with him and that I’m the crazy one. I’ve been trying so hard, but nothing is changing. I keep thinking that if I just do things right, then things will get better.”

I hear this over and over from my clients: “If I just do things right, then things will get better.”

But they won’t, because Jennifer is not the cause of Jake’s abusive behavior and has no control over it, and Jake has no intention of changing.

“Jennifer,” I asked, “What would you do if you were 100% certain that you were not the cause of Jake’s abusive behavior and that there was nothing you could do about it? What if he has no intention of changing?”

“Then I would leave.”

“So what is stopping you from leaving is that you believe that you can do something about it?”

“Yes. He can be so charming at times. So I think that if I do it right, he will stop drinking and be his charming self.”

“Jennifer, not knowing Jake at all, I cannot diagnose him, but he sounds like he may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” I read her the symptoms of NPD and asked her after each one if Jake fit the description. “Yes” she said to almost all of the symptoms. “I suggest that you do some research on the Internet about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as well as read a book called ‘Stop Walking on Eggshells’ by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger. This book is about Borderline Personality Disorder, and Jake may have symptoms of this as well, but much of what this book says about BPD also applies to NPD. This is going to help you decide what is best for you do to.”

By our next session, Jennifer had read the book and done her research.

“There is no doubt about it,” she said, “Jake has NPD and also symptoms of BPD. I can also see how I have contributed to the problems all these years by thinking that his behavior was my fault. I told Jake that unless he is willing to receive help, I am going to leave him, and now I am staying at my sister’s house. He still doesn’t believe me. He thinks that if he is just his charming self, I will come back. But now I know that his charm is part of his NPD, and that unless he receives a lot of help, this isn’t going to change. And I also really know that his behavior is not my fault and never was my fault. He still says that he is fine and will not go for help. I know that I have no choice but to leave because my daughter and I are not safe with him.”

“How are you feeling about this decision?” I asked.

“I feel sad and relieved. I always wanted to have an intact family, so I feel so sad that I’m not going to have this. And I feel sad for him. I still care about him, but I know that he doesn’t care about himself or me. I feel relieved because I no longer feel scared of him and of his hurting us.”

At that time, this was not an easy decision for Jennifer. Yet she realized that even though she still cared a lot about Jake, as long as he was harming himself, harming her and harming her daughter, leaving was her only option. Yet, Jennifer wavered in her decision over and over again, going back and then leaving again, and going back again and again. She could not let go of the hope that Jake would change, and the belief that the problems were her fault.

But there is a very big difference between responsibility and fault.

In my practice, I often hear people saying things like:

“It’s my fault that she asked for a divorce. If I hadn’t worked so much, she wouldn’t have left.”

“It’s my fault that he left. If I had been more sexual, he wouldn’t have had an affair.”

I often hear clients ask, when I point out something they are doing that is having negative consequences for them, “Are you saying that this is my fault?” I respond with, “No, but it is your responsibility.”

What is the difference between responsibility and fault?

Fault implies that you are the cause of a situation.

Your programmed ego wounded self believes that you have control over other peoples’ feelings and behavior, and over the outcome of things. Because the wounded self is deeply devoted to trying to control people and events in order to feel safe, you have to believe that things are your fault in order to continue to believe that you have control. This is where feelings of guilt and shame come from. You feel guilty when you tell yourself that you have done something wrong, and you feel shamed when you tell yourself that you are inherently flawed in some way. These feelings are always the result of believing that you are the cause of others’ feelings and behavior – that you pull the strings on your partner’s unloving or abusive behavior.

If you say, “It’s my fault that she asked for a divorce. If I hadn’t worked so much, she wouldn’t have left,” you are really saying that your choices CAUSED her choices. But not all women would leave because their husbands work a lot. While it is not your fault that your wife left, it is your responsibility that you chose to work so much, just as it is her responsibility that she chose to leave.

Nothing that happens outside of yourself is your fault – other than deliberately trying to hurt others. However, all of your choices and responses are your responsibility.

Responsibility is about the ability to respond and how we choose to respond.

Every situation in life offers us opportunities to respond, and how we respond determines how we feel and what we attract to us.

Our responses come from one of two possible intentions – to love or to control. Choosing our intention in any given moment is the essence of free will. Therefore, we are fully responsible for the negative consequences to ourselves when we choose the intention to control. But, regardless of your choices, you have no control over a partner’s intention.

Al, one of my clients, sought my help when his wife, Allison, informed him that she was leaving the marriage. Al had chosen to be mostly controlling in his marriage. He chose to respond to situations that he didn’t like with anger and blame, hoping to have control over getting Allison to do what he wanted her to do. When something didn’t go his way or Allison did something he didn’t want her to do, he would yell, threaten, and demean her.

Allison had tried to control Al’s anger by giving in to him. When that didn’t work, she tried just walking away. But nothing she did had any effect on Al’s controlling behavior, and finally Allison decided that she didn’t want to live this way anymore. She moved out and asked for a divorce.

Was this Al’s fault? No, because he was not the cause of Allison’s decision to leave. Another person might have made any number of other choices. For example, one of my friends, Benjamin, has a wife who frequently rages – sometimes treating Benjamin as Al treated Allison. But Benjamin never takes it personally. He has no desire to leave.

While it is not Al’s fault that Allison decided to leave, his choice to be angry and controlling is his responsibility, and he is responsible for the consequences of his choices. Telling himself that it is his fault keeps him stuck being a victim, but his willingness to take responsibility for his choices gives him the freedom to learn and grow, which will likely lead to change.

Next time you hear yourself say, “This is my fault,” try changing your words to “This is my responsibility,” and notice the difference this makes! Blaming yourself keeps you stuck, but once you are willing to take responsibility, then you have the freedom to learn and grow.

And if you find yourself staying in an unloving or abusive relationship, try focusing on responsibility for your choices rather than blaming yourself and telling yourself that all the problems are your fault.

Often a client will tell me that they don’t want to leave because of the children. I was certainly in this situation – not wanting to break up my family and believing it was better for my children to have an intact family. Now I know that one of the best gifts we can give our children is being a happy parent, as well as role modeling a loving relationship, and I wasn’t doing either. Would my children have been better off if I had been able to leave earlier? I don’t know the answer to this, but I tend to think they would have. And I know that many of the children of my clients would be way better off if the parents separated than to continue to be subjected to an unloving or abusive relationship.

Many people stay in unloving relationships out of the fear of being alone, and this often stems from self-abandonment. While it’s often not wonderful to be alone, when you are loving yourself and connected with your spiritual guidance, you don’t fear being alone, and in fact you would rather be alone than continue to be in an unloving or abusive relationship.

Of course, if you are financially dependent, then leaving an unloving or abusive relationship is very challenging, and you will need help in finding your way out.

Many people who are in unhappy, unloving, or abusive relationships seek my help asking if there is hope for their relationship.

Lauren asked this question in one of my Inner Bonding Community presentations:

“I have been married for 12 years. Our marriage has always been a struggle of various forms. I have gotten to feel so empty and resentful that I can hardly look at my husband in the eye let alone be loving to him. I feel my inner self tell me its time to be done. But my mind tells me differently because of our wonderful children. Trying to find out if there is hope for our relationship or if I can truly feel love/intimacy for him without sacrificing my own health?”

What I said to Lauren is, “I don’t know enough about your relationship to know whether or not there is hope for your marriage, but what I do know is that there is much inner work for you to do before deciding that it’s time to leave.

“The first telling statement is, ‘I have gotten to feel so empty and resentful…’ I know you believe that your emptiness and resentment is about your husband, but it’s not – it’s about your own self-abandonment.

“You feel empty and resentful because you are not taking loving care of yourself. If you leave the relationship before learning about how you are abandoning yourself, which is causing these feelings, you will take your dysfunctional patterns with you into your next relationship.

“The next telling statement is, ‘I can hardly look at my husband in the eye let alone be loving to him.’ Your inability to look your husband in the eye or be loving to him sounds to me like a projection of not seeing your own essence and not loving yourself.

“When we see and value our own true self – our own soul essence – then we are able to see and value the essence of others. Right now you are seeing your husband through the eyes of your ego wounded self, which says to me that you are seeing yourself through the eyes of your ego wounded self. We cannot see our own or another’s essence through the programmed eyes of our wounded self.

“Until you do your inner work to learn to see and value your own essence, it is unlikely that you will be able to look your husband in the eye.

“Because you are probably abandoning yourself rather than loving yourself, which is leading to your inner emptiness, you have no love to share with your husband. When you learn to fill yourself with love, then you will have love to share.

“Once you are filled up with love, then you can know whether or not there is hope for your relationship. There is a good possibility that when you are loving yourself and making yourself happy, your relationship will change for the better. But even if it doesn’t, at least you will not be taking your self-abandonment with you into your next relationship. And learning to love yourself rather than abandon yourself is the very best role modeling you can give to your children.

“I suggest that you let go of the outcome regarding your relationship and focus on the process of learning to love yourself – which means learning and practicing Inner Bonding. By learning and practicing the Six Steps of Inner Bonding, you will gradually stop abandoning yourself and start loving yourself.

“Your health is determined more by whether or not you love yourself than by any other factor. Leaving the relationship without learning to love yourself will not necessarily improve your health. You might feel relief for a while, but self-abandonment takes a huge toll on health. Also, the problematic patterns of behavior are likely to repeat if you have not healed.”

Sometimes a relationship is unloving because you are not loving yourself, and others tend to treat you the way you are treating yourself. I often recommend that, unless a relationship is physically abusive, to stay until you do your own inner work to learn to love yourself. And, if then the relationship doesn’t heal, you will have the strength to leave it. You will have the strength to stop having unrealistic hope, and to stop caretaking your partner, and to no longer fear being alone, and to find a way to take care of yourself financially.

Learning to love yourself is the path to personal power and freedom, and also the path to loving relationships.

I hope you join me for my 30-Day at-home Course to learn or deepen your Inner Bonding practice: “Love Yourself: An Inner Bonding Experience to Heal Anxiety, Depression, Shame, Addictions and Relationships.”

You can learn so much about loving yourself and creating loving relationships from my recent books:

And we have much to offer you at our website at

I’m sending you my love and my blessings.

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