By: Danny Brooks
Why do people return to relationships that they know are bad for them? There are many reasons and I can’t possibly cover them all. I want to focus on something I learned in going to an Al-Anon meeting for a homework assignment. For those of you who don’t know, Al-Anon is not Alcoholics Anonymous; it is actually a support group for people affected by alcoholics in their family. I had to attend this meeting for a substance abuse counseling class I am taking, but it was very enlightening and related to what we teach in schools about grooming (manipulation).
The main thing I took away is that people think they can change other people when we are really powerless to do so. This applies to trying to change someone abusing a substance or abusing a person. We have no control over others. Al-Anon is very upfront with the idea that it is just as much a sickness to try to control those around us as it is to be addicted to alcohol. I heard personal stories of people trying to get their alcoholic partner to stop drinking and the person who was “helping” had so much investment in the person that they became a controlling, manipulative, unhealthy person all because they had the good intention of helping the other person.
It turns out that if you are dating an abuser, a groomer, or a substance user, the only things you can do are the following: set boundaries, dump them, or make yourself a better person. Notice that all of those decisions have everything to do with you and nothing to do with them. If we maintain the false and maladaptive belief that we can control others, we will actually hurt those we are trying to help and end up hurting more ourselves.
Another reason people stay in relationships that are unhealthy is an economic principle called sunk cost. Many people will say they don’t want to leave a person because they have already invested so much time into helping them that they want to reap the reward. Some people even worry that if they dump the person then someone else will get to benefit from all their hard work when the person finally changes and gets better. What is the false belief here? That the person will get better for anyone except themselves. They may never change. They may only change enough to convince you to stay. You may also find someone better for you that requires no work as soon as you dump the person who is hurting you. Most people believe they won’t find any better. That is a lie.
So to understand this, I have to explain sunk cost. A sunk cost is a cost that is already paid. It’s a ship that already sunk to the bottom of the ocean. It is time or money that you can’t get back. If I bought a concert ticket and I knew there were no refunds, but the day of the concert it was cold and rainy and miserable and I didn’t want to go, what should I do? Most people would suck it up and go anyway because they don’t want to feel like they wasted their money. However, if you truly felt like you would rather stay home and going sounds awful, why would you waste your time if you already wasted your money? So that’s what a sunk cost is and that is why people feel like they can’t leave a person that they already put in so much time with.
Should it matter how much time you already put in with them? If you are unhappy and would immediately be happier if you dumped them, isn’t that the logical choice? Isn’t it a safer choice? I’ve had my car for years and I love it, but it is old! I’m talking 215,000 miles old. When it stops working, I don’t care how much time I have put in with it. It would become an unhealthy relationship to depend on that car to get me to work. It will always let me down. I will have to see that unhealthy relationship for what it is, dump that car, and shop for a new one.
So don’t go back to a toxic relationship. Don’t think you can control people. Don’t think that people are going to change for you. It’s not worth it. There is better for you.