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Coming to Terms with the Reality of a Difficult Relationship

“I don’t want to believe it!”
Female Client

Over time, I’ve worked with many people in difficult, if not toxic or abusive, relationships. These have included women married to confusing men on the Autistic Spectrum (formerly called Asperger’s Disorder), men married to angry women with Borderline Personality Disorder, and women married to verbally abusive men. With few exceptions, these people have trouble coming to terms with the reality of who they married. “I never realized.” “He wasn’t like that in the beginning.” “I felt sorry for her and felt I could really help her.” “I don’t believe it!” “I don’t want to believe it!” and the ever-popular “What do I do now?” In this article, we’ll explore some of these situations, why they occur, and what to do about them.

It might be interesting to note that two of the people I’ve worked with in this context, including the person I quote above, have been therapists themselves, both much more experienced than me. When you’re up close and personal with someone, even a highly seasoned expert has trouble seeing red flags or doesn’t want to. It often takes someone who stands “outside the fishbowl” to see how murky the waters are and what is the true nature of the person’s partner. So, how can non-experts expect to stand a chance? Yikes!

Love is Blind

It’s often said that we don’t fall in love with a person, we fall in love with our idea of that person. We are blinded to the reality of a person by the image in our mind of who we want them to be or hope that they are. A fairly accurate cliché says, “Men think women won’t change and then they do; women think men will change and then they don’t.” We begin a relationship with these types of expectations. It’s not until later on in a relationship that some small aspect of reality begins to leak into our fantasy. We begin to have subtle inklings that something’s just not right. We begin to wonder what’s going on. One question that many people start to ask is …

Is it Them or is it Me?

You might be asking, “What did I do to cause them to be that way?” Clearly your fantasy person would never be like that on their own. Right? What did you do? Well, I respond in most cases by saying that you didn’t really see them, you only saw what you wanted to see. Now, some part of you is seeing them for who they really are.

Or, you’re starting to believe what they’re telling you. A client asked me very sincerely, “Am I the abuser?” Her partner told her this in a masterfully convincing way. She was so convinced that she actually entertained the idea and was worried about it. It may take a while for her to believe me, but I told her that the mere fact that she’s asking that question is a fairly clear sign that the answer is no. Very few real abusers ask themselves that question or even come anywhere near to considering their own contribution to a relationship issue. Instead, they brainwash their partner into thinking the partner is the abuser and they’re the victim. More about this here.

Roadblocks to Believing

There can be many reasons why you don’t see or believe the reality of your difficult partner. For many, it’s tough to imagine doing what one would have to do to either stay in the relationship and continue dealing with the difficulty or to leave the situation. So, denial becomes your new best friend. “If I just put it out of my mind, it’ll get better. It’s got to!”

Denial is the first step in grieving a great loss, according to Elisabeth Kűbler-Ross. The loss of a fantasy is nothing less than great. The loss of a great love, a great future, a great lifestyle, a cohesive family, the intimacy you always wanted, and on and on. So much loss! So much grief! So much reality staring you in the face!

On a similar note (and shifting the mood, if nothing else), the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance often comes into play in these situations. For those who didn’t take Psych 101 in college, I’ll take a stab at explaining. Defined by its discoverer, Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas in your mind simultaneously. When used in the context of this article, you may strongly believe (belief = idea = cognition) in your fantasy about your partner or you may have invested so much of yourself and your life into your relationship, it may be uncomfortable (to say the least) to hold both the fantasy and the reality of your partner (or your investment) in your mind at the same time.

When this happens, we naturally try to get relief from the discomfort. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are motivated to reduce their discomfort by either changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, which I will refer to as the “reasonable approach,” or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors no matter how unreasonable they might appear to others. I’ll call this the “rigid approach.” It’s my job to shift people from rigid to reasonable. Wish me luck!

OK, Now What?

Let’s imagine that you’ve moved away from your fantasy enough to see the reality of your difficult partner and feel ready to take a reasonable approach to address the situation. What do you do then? First, congratulate yourself for taking an enormous leap in personal growth. You’re amazing! And whatever you need to do going forward, you can do it! OK, great, but what is it?

If your difficult partner is abusive or puts you in harm’s way, then implement a safety plan. This should include physical, emotional, and financial safety, plus the safety of your children, if you have any. A good therapist can help with this, as can an abuse hotline counselor (call 1-800-799-7233 or go to website

If you don’t have one already, begin to develop a support group for yourself. This doesn’t have to be large, just supportive. Fill it with people who are not judgmental of either you or your partner, are not opinionated about what you should do, and are willing to simply listen to you as you figure things out for yourself.

Begin taking steps toward independence from your partner. This will help you regardless of whether you stay or leave. You’ll become your own person with your own life and become strong enough to make whatever decisions you need to make. Write down all the ways you’re dependent on your partner. Then, for each item on your list, write down steps you can begin taking to undo that dependence. This might take a while, so be patient.

Learn all you can about whatever is going on with your difficult partner. The more knowledge you have, the more power you have as well. Learn about what your partner does, why they do it, and (most importantly) why it’s not your fault. If you have children, learn about how to talk to them about it. There are many resources available, too many to list here. I’m happy to help you with this or you can use the internet.

Continue to focus on your own personal growth, and return to activities, friends, careers, learning, etc., that are meaningful to you. A good therapist can help you with this. You may consider couples counseling. However, before you do, please see what I’ve written here. And remember, if you’re in an abusive situation, be careful not to put yourself in harm’s way until you can ensure your own safety.

Lastly, start making some decisions about your life and your relationship (in that order). Get the information and advice you need to make these decisions, possibly from a therapist, a divorce coach or mediator, supportive friends and family, and so on. Then, live your life as best you can. I wish you well in this regard.

Copyright 2018 Daniel J. Metevier

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If you don’t have weights at home, try using canned food or the psychological burden of simply existing in the world.Lila Ash, New Yorker cartoonist Well, you

Dr. Dan is no longer taking new clients, but remains available to current and former clients.

To find a therapist with openings in their schedule, you may wish to search the Psychology Today Therapist Directory. It enables you to search for people who take your insurance, have relevant specialties, and more.