Sometimes we wonder why we seem to date the same type of person or find ourselves in the same situation over and over. Is our picker broken? Why do we miss the red flags? Why is it so hard for us to walk away from people that treat us poorly?
We’ve all been taught the value of setting goals and reaching them. “Stopping” or “giving up” is perceived as defeat and a failure. Knowing how to stop and when to stop is more complicated. In fact this phenomenon is so prevalent and misunderstood that a term was coined to describe it: goal disengagement. Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein suggest we have difficulty disengaging as the result of intermittent reinforcement. They argue that the infrequent positive feedback, aka bad boyfriend/girlfriend behavior, increases our likelihood of continuing the behavior despite the lack of a consistent positive payoff. In other words, we may remain in a toxic relationship because once in a while we might feel happy or our partner is nice to us occasionally.
Sunk cost fallacy
Sometimes we stay in a relationship well past its expiration date because we convince ourselves that we have invested so much time/money/energy/etc into it already. This illogical rationale is called the sunk cost fallacy. We ignore red flags or dismiss our doubts because we rationalize that our investment outweighs the risks.
Loss aversion is a popular concept in behavioral economics. The basic premise is that we care more about losses than gains. This causes us to hyper focus on deal breakers in relationships rather than red flags. Instead of looking for what we want in a partner, we look for the absence of what we don’t want. The idea of potentially ending or losing a relationship, even a bad one is so terrible that we remain. The basic idea is that losing something feels worse than gaining something. One bad breakup can outweigh all the good memories.
I am reminded of the Albert Einstein quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”. Often we hold on to old behavior patterns, or relationships, that no longer work for us out of routine and familiarity. Familiarity breeds comfort but also complacency. As human beings we crave comfort. We seek out things or people that are familiar because that familiarity is comforting. We can end up in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and behavior patterns that impact our relationships, emotional and physical health and careers.
How we feel about ourselves, those around and the world we live in are what we call our “core beliefs”. These ideas usually are formed by childhood experiences and become fixed or automatic. They help us make sense of the world around us and help us predict the future. They can be triggered automatically by events or interactions with others. Often, we tend to interpret events and interactions with others in a way which confirms our core beliefs.
When someone is abusive or treats us poorly, they can strengthen abuse-related beliefs. The beliefs can confirm, in our mind at the moment they act abusively, that the behavior is “right” (when in fact it is not). As we know from the different pathways into abusive behavior, people can get into the habit of behaving in a particular way. The cycle of abuse continues, and serves to trap the person on the abusive behaviors pathway.
How do we break the pattern?
Self care is more than just getting a mani/pedi or binge watching your favorite show on Netflix. Self-care can mean setting boundaries with people and commitments to maintain your emotional and mental well-being. Sometimes those boundaries include no contact.
Take small steps
As humans we do what works for us-even if it does not achieve our goals. Familiarity breeds comfort. We persist in unhealthy behaviors because they are familiar and we find comfort in the familiar. When we push ourselves to change we venture into unfamiliar territory and challenge those feelings of comfort. Only then do we make real, sustainable change. Make small changes. When someone behaves badly let them know. If Your partner hurts your feelings, tell them. Change your experience by changing how you react.
Know when to walk away
Sometimes we walk away from people not to teach them a lesson, but because we finally learned ours. One of the most difficult things to realize is when to cut our losses. Knowing that we are not responsible for managing others’ behaviors or emotions can be freeing. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to know when to walk away.