Do you find yourself in relationships that are fraught with unhappiness? Do you seem to make the same mistakes over and over? Do feel like you’re unlucky in love, but you don’t know why?

Consider Alice, who always seems to end up as the other woman. She’s currently in another relationship with a married man, Joe. She has to settle for being available on his timeline. She can never call or text him without fear of his wife finding out. She just has to wait for him to contact her. And when they are together, they can never socialize with friends. They have to keep their relationship secret.

Why Are You Staying In A Toxic Relationship? Nancy'S Counseling Corner

Alice insists Joe loves her—they have a wonderful physical relationship. They were instantly attracted to each other. But he can’t leave his wife—he says she has a long-term debilitating illness. And Joe and Alice have had a long-term relationship that works great for him. But it’s going nowhere for her.

When I asked Alice why she stays in an unsatisfactory relationship, she answered, “I feel good when we’re together. We are so close, so compatible. It’s great.”

“But when you’re apart?” I ask.

“Then I feel terrible wondering when his wife is going to die. You know, never knowing how long I have to wait until we can be together. I never even know when he’ll call. I’m always kept dangling. It’s awful.”

“Then why do you stay,” I ask.

“Because I love him.”

When we talked further, I discovered she loved her father, too. But he was in and out of her life, and she never knew when he’d show up or disappear. She was always kept dangling by him, too, but she loved him. When she grew up she repeated the same dynamic in her relationships with men as she had with her father.

Everyone grows up learning the patterns of relationships in our nuclear families. These familiar patterns, even when they hurt us, are patterns we look to replicate in later life. That’s because they engender feelings and emotions we know and feel comfortable with.

If Alice had found a relationship with someone who was constant and reliable, she would have been overwhelmed by it. She would have felt like she was in alien territory; she would have felt off-kilter. Out of sorts.

So she felt right with Joe. Safe with him. Because that’s what she was used to. But that wasn’t really the best for her in the long run. Once she understood she was seeking out a relationship like what she had with her father, she was able to consider why she always landed in unhappy partnerships. And then she could begin to take steps to develop healthier relationships in the future.


Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: