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Why Men May End up - and Stay - in Unhealthy or Toxic Relationships

Tips on how to recognize and address issues to improve your relationships

“She hit me in front of our kids,” my client whispered as soon as our session had begun.

His story is one I’ve heard many times: a man in an unhealthy, toxic, or abusive relationship that he can’t seem to leave. This particular client was smart, personable, charming, and well-off, yet he’d been in unhealthy, toxic, or abusive relationships, and then this marriage, for more than half of his life.

Unhealthy, toxic, and/or abusive relationships, for our purposes, have unbalanced power dynamics, and the relationship is emotionally, and sometimes even physically, harmful to one or both partners.

The men I’ve worked with have stayed in these relationships at the cost of themselves, their self-esteem, self-confidence, self-respect, joy, career goals, and even their sanity.

But why would men end up in these types of relationships? Don’t they most often have more resources, ability, and freedom to be able to leave one? Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why.

Low Self-Esteem Low self-esteem can be a major contributing factor to men entering into an unhealthy relationship. Men who inherently think they’re bad may choose relationships where they believe they’ll be “punished.”

They may also think that an unhealthy relationship is all that they can get or “deserve,” and so they may stay in the relationship out of fear of being alone or not finding anyone else who will accept them as they are. This lack of self-confidence can make it hard for them to recognize when their partner is manipulating or abusing them, as well as cause them to doubt their own judgement about whether the relationship is healthy or not.

If this is you, start with overcoming your low self-esteem with positive self-talk. Your inner narrative can influence your actions. It’s why you stayed in situations you knew weren’t good for you: because you thought that was the best you could get.

Your identity is not made up of your mistakes. You deserve to be loved and cared for the way you love and care for others. You are the man someone has been praying for.

Fear Of Commitment Some men may enter into a toxic relationship because of their fear of commitment. They may have difficulty opening up and expressing their emotions and so instead opt for a partner who is controlling and possessive — someone who won’t put any pressure on them to open up or reveal too much about themselves.

This type of person may be more appealing to someone with commitment fears as it allows them to keep a distance and not emotionally invest while still being “in a relationship.”

This can lead to an unhealthy dynamic where the man feels like he can never truly express himself without fear of judgement or ridicule from his partner.

If you’re unclear whether this is you, evaluate how comfortable you are in expressing your wants, needs, and feelings. Do you tend to walk on eggshells? Fudge the truth, lie by omission, or outright lie to avoid saying how you really feel? Or do you often make jokes or sarcastic comments that veil truths?

Men who don’t have commitment fears can clearly express their feelings, wants, and needs because they know we can’t have truly intimate, loving, and healthy relationships if we aren’t or can’t be vulnerable.

You can work on this by addressing what’s been holding you back from commitment and learning how to communicate assertively, like Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. Look up books on emotional intelligence or overcoming people-pleasing/codependency, like Aziz Gazipura’s Not Nice.

Lack Of Education About Healthy Relationships Finally, many men don’t have proper education about what constitutes a healthy relationship, which means that they may not even realize that their relationship is unhealthy until it’s too late.

Our parents and other caregivers are most often our relationship role models, and often our adult relationships will modeled after what we saw growing up. If their relationship wasn’t the healthiest, then ours won’t be later on either.

Without proper education on what makes a healthy partnership, men may not understand how to recognize signs of an abusive or manipulative partner and instead remain in the unhealthy situation until it becomes unbearable for one or both people involved.

If you want to learn how to have a healthy relationship, find some men in your life who have relationships you admire. While we can’t judge the health of a relationship by just what we see on the outside, we can get some insight on what should be or shouldn’t be acceptable in one.

You can also learn more about healthy relationships in regards to Attachment Theory in books like Attached by Amir Levine, or healthy relationship skills like in Couple Skills by Matthew McKay.

All too often, men find themselves stuck in toxic relationships due to various factors such as low self-esteem, fear of commitment, and lack of education about healthy relationships. It’s important for everyone — regardless of gender — to understand what makes a healthy partnership so that they can identify when something isn’t right and take steps towards improving the situation if needed. With knowledge comes power — power over our own lives and our own choices — so use it wisely!

If you need more help in recovering from unhealthy, toxic, and/or abusive relationships, check out my new book, Reclaim & Recover: Heal from Toxic Relationships with a 7-Step Guided Journal.

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