Home > abandonment, Outer Child > Can’t Let Go of a Bad Relationship?

Can’t Let Go of a Bad Relationship?

Do you know someone who stays in a bad relationship? What hooks them? The standard answer is that they don’t feel good enough about themselves. They don’t feel they deserve better. Their have a low sense of entitlement.

While self esteem is certainly a factor, many of these people started out feeling much better about themselves than they do now.

Being constantly criticized, rejected, neglected, or abused eventually pays its toll. The low self-worth you see is not always the CAUSE of their being unable to leave, but the RESULT of having been treated this way. Once they feel low about themselves, they lose the strength to get out.

But there is more to it. They have become traumatically bonded.

A traumatic bond is created when pain is inflicted into the attachment. This bond is stronger (just like epoxy glue is stronger than rubber cement) than a non-traumatic bond. The more traumatic the bond, the harder to get out.

There are examples of this everywhere in nature and science. Researches found that when training a duck to “imprint” them, when they accidentally “stepped on the duck’s toe,” the duck imprinted them more than before. Science has conducted myriad experiments that demonstrate the power of “pain” to strengthen the bond. It’s the principle fraternities use in hazing where they humiliate or hurt their pledges to instill greater loyalty in them.

But there is still another factor which really cements people to the abuser. They get hooked by the “intermittent reinforcement.” The abuser, every once in a while, will give them what they need, i.e. “a pat on the arm” or saying “love you” or “bringing home a paycheck.” It’s intermittent.

If you ever studied classical conditioning (Pavlov’s dog and all of that), you may remember that if you want to “train” a rat to respond a certain way, rather than giving a steady reward (i.e. sugar pellet), give it only intermittently. Intermittent reinforcement is more powerful than steady reinforcement.

This explains the paradox of relationships. If your partner mistreats you in all kinds of emotional or physical ways, you run the risk of getting deeply hooked in.

You’d think it would work the other way – that if your partner made you feel secure, safe, and comfortable, you’d have a hard time leaving. But the irony is that many people feel freer to leave someone who has made them feel secure. Ever hear “nice guys finish last?”

But if they are made to feel chronically insecure, heart-sick, anxious, or hurt, they can get caught up in the drama of the abuse and locked into the dynamics of the relationship– especially if every once in a while, their partner gives them a little crumb of love — intermittent reinforcement.

If you are in a traumatic bond, you not only suffer from your partner’s criticism, blame, betrayal, unreliability, or neglect, but you suffer from beating yourself up for allowing it to happen.

You feel guilty for not being able to leave. Your friends may get fed up with you for being so stuck. Even your therapist loses patience. You feel judged. You feel weak. You feel ashamed of yourself.

Someone responding to the unhealthy relationship described in my last blog wrote:

I was happy to receive this message because it confirms the bind so many people are in. The more infrequently the “crumbs of love” are offered, the more hooked you are. You become conditioned, like a rat in the cage.

  1. Michelle
    November 8, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    This is tough to read, yet it really rings true. Please write a follow-up (or point us in the direction of one) that explains how the traumatic bond is broken. I assume it is analogous to breaking any other addiction. Right now, I may “walk like a duck and talk like a duck” (whose foot has been stepped on), but I am a human being who wants to live a life independent of this traumatic bond. All signs (minus the intermittent reinforcement) clearly say he has left me. Now, I desperately need to completely let him go.

    Thank you so much for your work. It just may save my life.

  2. Melaine Adams
    November 8, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    So true.iv bn experiencing the same thngs in my relationship nd i feel powerless 2 leave

  3. Bernadette Coffey
    November 18, 2010 at 8:40 am

    I appreciated Michelle’s comments (above) and also the article…so difficult/heart breaking/traumatic etc just to start and then continue to make the break. The ‘crumbs’ are just that. Thinking about the ex-partner can seem obsessive at times and then you feel bad about doing that.
    Thank you for your work also and the Journey from ..to Healing book is great.

  4. Jenni
    April 23, 2011 at 1:30 am

    I am so desperate for more on this I have been living this for 5 years and I left a healthy, safe and secure marriage for this person who convinced me I was unhappy and now after relentless abuse I am weaker than ever and can’t leave even though he is seeing another woman (named Michele, by the way) hope it isn’t the same. He leaves and comes back and gives me those little love crumbs that I have been starving for and I can’t deny him. He know it he has his cake and eats it too. I know all this I have a degree in psychology and I still can’t break free, I am obsessed. I have lost my job because of this relationship and my daughter is growing up basically on her own. She sees me in bed most days unless he comes by then I am up and moving to cook for him or do whatever will win his affection. I have no dignity and I am teaching her the worst lesson ever. I disgust myself but I feel absolutely helpless to stop it. He has drilled it into me that I will never find another man like him and that I should be happy that he still helps me financially. This has destroyed my life and I don’t know how to get it back. I have tried everything not answering his calls not answering the door but eventually he gets to me. He has even gone so far as to go to my daughters school and pick her up so I would have to talk to him and once he starts talking it’s over for me I am in submissive mode. He has someone else why does he still want me?

    • Selena
      November 19, 2011 at 7:06 pm

      I was in exactly the same situation as you – had a fantastic marriage but feel into this other one that was very emotionally abusive – he blames me for his behaviour! its been lik this for three years – on and off – when he is in my presence my strength is out the window! he’s trying to move away from us too – as its gone on too long and we jst dont work – it wasnt working – he saw his emotional abuse acceptable! ive been through all the necssary avenues to move on – bt its me that jst doesnt let go – im not happy at all wen i am round him, yet i want this person that has no respect etc at all for me! i dont know what to do anymore! i have two beautiful boys that this will be having affect on them too! i know this but it doesn’t keep me away from him! i dont understand why i want this! – counsellors and all hav worked with me on this – yet i still dont move on – how have you been since writing your blog – whats helped etc – if only it was that easy

  5. matt brooks
    November 29, 2011 at 1:12 am

    your comments made me feel like crying im in the same situation with a married woman who knows im crazy over her weve had an affair for5 yrs and she never calls,is always busy,and doesnt show me any attention,i tried roses,a fireplace,candles and she walks passed me to watch tv..i was crushed,and constantly has guys texting her,i ran for a year got better and got married to a great woman just to have her find me and pull me in again..now im cheating on a great wife who shows me all kinds of love,for a gf who never shows me any,and i hate being like this!!! i dont feel like a man at all anymore…she is so cold and yet i chase her everyday just hoping for an i love you,and sex i know just wont happen…i want to give my all to the right woman,and not beg for the wrong one,whats wrong with me??i feel your pain hon and hope you get peace like i hope i do..my name is matt and i could use the support and a friend who understands.4232484656 text or call if you ever want a friend..and god help us both hon.we need it

  6. Hopeless Chris
    December 27, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    I’m in the same boat as everyone else on this post. Mine doesn’t even help me financially. I’ve lost a job & my home because of him. As a result, I had to send my oldest son to stay with my brother & me & my youngest had to stay in a shelter until I was able to get another place. He didn’t visit me at all while I was in the shelter but…as soon as I got another place he was right there. I tried to ignore him when he called & refused to talk to him but he used my car as a way to make me communicate with him. The title is in his name & I was giving him the money to pay on the car but he didn’t so they were looking for the car to repossess it. Since I moved they didn’t know where I was but he did. He threatened that he would tell them where they could find the car & then I wouldn’t be able to get to work anymore. I accepted his call and he was on a mission to win me back & won. Afterwards, he went back to the same bull all over again & now I’m stuck. Just can’t seem to let go of him. My kids hate his guts & has lost respect for me as a result of this relationship. Even with all that, I can’t seem to let go. Is there anyone with any answers. He constantly accuses me of cheating but I haven’t been with ANYONE since we started dating. Everything I do is suspect, I can’t even go to work or take my kids out to eat without him accusing me of cheating. I can’t take it anymore, I need a way out. Everytime I think about it though, I get so depressed.

  7. Sue
    February 16, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    I feel so much for myself and others feeling this way. My ex who won’t move out is breaking my heart every minute of every day. I feel the shame and obsession, obsession with what I though we were and had, whether it was ever real, whether any of my relationships with men have been real or if they just wanted money, greencards, whatever, I feel addicted to his presence even though it is so painful to me. And he is just cold. Utterly cold. I wrote him a loving Valentine’s day card, that I would always care about him in spite of everything. He said, “thank you.” I feel like a ghost, like he stole me from me. And I’m so depressed I want to die.

  8. Sue
    October 3, 2012 at 3:10 am

    If I was a borderline then I think that symptoms of that would leak to other relationships. It has been a long painful process but the first step towards forgiveness has been to acknowledge that he is batshit crazy. Really, he’s nuts. He is narcissistic to the point of insanity. I think it would be much more helpful for people on this page to read up on narcissists vs. self-blame borderline. Someone can inspire you to call them names by being horrible to you without remorse. The anger he inspired in me was terrifying – and I’m dealing with my anger issues, but being angry and hurt by truly horrid behavior does not make you clinically ill – it just means your pissed off and need to get out. Narcissists trick and manipulate people (it’s who they are) into believing they are loved, they are in a good and ‘special’ relationship, by the time you figure out what is really going on it’s too late. You love them. I still love him, even though I can see more clearly now that he has an ocean of inner darkness. He still manipulates me – the cat is with him for the time being, so he calls to say he can’t find her or she seems sick… anything to unbalance me and make me afraid.

    • Michael
      October 3, 2012 at 3:22 am

      How about he’s the one that is borderline… they make your head spin…

    • Debra
      June 6, 2013 at 10:31 pm

      I agree with your post Sue. I have found myself ‘hooked’ in a relationship, and I’ve been too weak to walk away. Love does not hurt, love does not wonder, love does not starve. These men and women who are taking advantage of people who think they ‘love’ someone, do it because they can. My fellow, we’ve been seeing each other since May of 2009. He came out of a 31 year marriage, he was 48 I was 39. I fell hard for him fast. He is the most narcissistic person I’ve ever met. I’m not beauty queen by any means, but I’m no ugly duckling either. He’s always made comments about my weight, my looks, my dress etc. He’s no prince charming either by the way. He is money focused, very into himself etc, classic narcissistic traits.
      I know this is terribly unhealthy for me. Tells me all the time, he doesn’t want tied down, but doesn’t want me to leave, flirts with women in front of me etc. He thrives on womens attentions. I am no fool, I see what’s happened. I’ve allowed it to happen.
      He doesn’t show any interest in any of my 3 children, 23, 21, and 17, nor my 2 grand babies, me on the other hand, I’ve welcomed his 2 grand boys into my home and heart full force. Not to mention his son and daughter in law. He gets angry at the drop of a hat, he does work hard. He keeps me hanging on.
      I have changed so much over the course of our relationship for the worst. depression has set in, sadness etc. I am the only one who can change this, I know this. The problem is, I don’t feel like I’m strong enough. I keep thinking to myself “he will realize that we’re good together”.. I tell myself that, but honestly I don’t believe it. I finally moved out last July 2012, rented my own place, and still done for him left and right, for the last 7 weeks, I’ve been at his house 24/7. I get the verbal abuse all the time, the emotional abuse, the lack of abuse etc. I have allowed myself to be taken advantage of.
      The part that my heart and brain that loves, is stubborn.. And that makes me angry at myself.
      So you see, it’s the strength to run, that I need to find.. I’ve found it before in past relationships, I just need to find it again. He does make me feel secure at times financially, but I know, he’s abandon me in a minute if his bank account was threatened. I don’t believe he’s cheated, come close I’m sure, but not cheated, yet. A sad world we create for ourselves…. debraray41 at yahoo

  9. sue
    December 2, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    It’s been awhile. Almost a year I’ve been out of it and life is so much better. He still tries to worm his way back in, but for the most part I steer clear in spite of the immense pity I feel for him. Finally, I’ve learned to pity myself enough to stay away from the insanity.

  1. February 7, 2011 at 7:10 pm
  2. January 24, 2012 at 8:01 pm
  3. July 22, 2014 at 12:00 pm

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