Why we stay in dead-end relationships – The saviour complex
Updated: May 14, 2020
Unraveling the Mystery
Many of us women find ourselves in the same relationship with a different man, time and time again. We truly believe that this time we have fallen in love as we experience a deep sense of bliss, passion, and satisfaction, right at the beginning of the relationship. We tell ourselves and others, “He is wonderful”, “he is really sweet”, “he is so caring”, “we can talk for hours and hours”, “We finish each other’s sentences”, “and we have such wonderful connection”. The high of being in a new romance and the soaring love hormones feel wonderful and we convince ourselves that we have found the one. After all, the way he makes you feel, the way he talks to you, the way he looks at you makes him feel utterly irresistible.
But it isn’t long before the waves come crashing down. Suddenly the romance feels stale and exhausting. The connection feels dull and distant. Something has changed and you don’t quite know what it is, yet it is painfully familiar. The high of being the queen of someone’s world has come to an end. And here you are once again trying to figure out wholeheartedly and none-stop what went wrong. He is distant and indifferent. Yet, his indifference is appealing to you, not in a satisfying way, but in a familiar way. You work harder and harder to try to understand what happened. This becomes your new project. Figuring out what went wrong and how to get things back to the way they were.
You tirelessly get to work and start the process of unravelling the mystery. You start to look for clues. What happened? Where did the connection go? Why is he so absent all of a sudden? Is it me? May be I need to change. You desperately go above and beyond to save the brief experience of true love that you had convinced yourself you had felt.
In the process, you learn that he is not sure what he wants or needs at this point in his life. He is not even sure about the relationship. He is not ready to commit or doesn’t know if he is ready to commit. Or he commits in his own way and on his own terms. You accept and conform to all his spoken and unspoken terms and conditions wholeheartedly, regardless of your own wants and desires. His indifference only makes you work harder. Working hard at becoming the woman you think he wants you to be. You figure, if you do all the right things and are supportive of him and he sees how wonderful and caring you are, he will for sure want to commit to you. You will show him that you are different than the other women he has been with. You are special and you have something to offer him. If you become the ‘perfect’, ‘sweet’, ‘understanding’ woman, you can get the romance back.
You can swear you have been here and done this before and you know how it ends, yet you are determined to see it through once again. This is your mental model of intimate relationships ‘Men are non-committal and detached and women need to be the glue that gets them to commit and attach’. With this belief we form our relationships.
You, “The Saviour”
You will always have a gut feeling that something is not quite right. You feel disrespected, you feel depleted, and you find yourself living in the fantasy of your partner’s potential. Only if he would change this, or get help, or would realize how amazing he is, everything would be great again. It is then that you become his therapist.
You feel that sweet satisfaction of being the ‘helper’ which gives you a false sense of importance and grandiosity. You fantasize about being the heroin who will help him find his direction and path and as a result will find you so irresistible and fall in love with you all over again. Or you get a thrill from being the detective, analyzing your every move, trying to figure out what went wrong and figuring how you can make it right. Or alternatively, you become the psychotherapist and spend a lot of your time trying figure what he may be thinking or what is going on in his psyche for him to have suddenly turned this way. You may try to link his current behaviour to what you know of his past, may be his mother didn’t love him, or may be his dad wasn’t available. By this time you have become obsessed with your new mission.
Once again you tell yourself, “He is a great guy”, “he has a really good heart”, “we connect on such a deep level but he is not ready for a commitment”. And you know what, all of these statements are probably true, he is probably a ‘great guy’. But the problem you are faced with has nothing to do with him and what kind of a person he is, this is about you! Yet, you forget about all your own humanly flaws and the idea that may be there is a reason you have attracted this man in your life. A perfect distraction from the work you need to do on yourself, the only person you can actually change!
As the guru who knows exactly what is wrong with him and what he needs to do fix it, you give him highly intellectual lectures about what you think he should do and how he should be in the relationship. You seem to have all the right words and ideas, however, you have trouble taking your own advice and you don’t uphold your standards of what relationships should be like. So you go on. You have built endurance and stamina, yet you become numb. You are now more engrained in the belief that this is how men are. It is like running a marathon. You are depleted and you just don’t care, you go on because the cost of stopping seems very high. You would rather be doing all this work than reflecting and going deep and asking yourself the question of why am I in this relationship again.
The Important Question
So the relationship continues on his terms. He leads you on in thinking that you are the wise helper. He confides in you, he tells you all that he has done; his failed relationships, his addictions, his flaws. Things that you had so clearly promised yourself would be deal breaker for you. Yet you find yourself, drawn to him even more. He is so imperfect, so incredibly imperfect. But his imperfection is appealing to you even more. Before you know it you are dancing to his beat, yet once again. If he feels close and wants to be with you, you show up. If he wants his solitude, you move away. If he doesn’t want to commit and wants to be casual, you become casual. You lose your standards. By staying in what will not work.
His vulnerability gives you a sense of purpose. There it is I can help you, accept you, and be what you need, you will see my worth and you will love an appreciate me. You start planning things out in your head. May be he needs to go to school, or get a job, or start believing in himself, or be more confident. Or you think you can fix his commitment issues. Secretly you think, only if he could fall in love with me again, I will make him the happiest man and he would not be afraid to commit.
There is a deeper and darker place inside him that knows he has you hooked. It may not even be in his awareness but he has got you hooked. You are now dancing the tango with him. The tango that starts out with a beautiful rhythm, with passion, with hopes and dreams but eventually drags you to the beat. You are addicted, you can’t let go. The force is strong. You are so deep in this now that you are calling it unconditional love.
But be careful, this is not love. Let’s be honest, it comes from a place of deep pain in both sides. The deep pain which is numbed with a sense of purpose that you need to save him. It comes from a place of feeling like you are better than him and can help him. But little do you know you are being taken for a ride.
You spend days, months, and even years of your precious life in the hopes that he would realize his potential and to also appreciate you for showing him his potential.
It is simple; you are working so hard for him to realize his potential. The potential that your partner has is for him to realize. It has nothing to do with you. It is a big waste of life for you to sit and wait for that potential to be realized. The truth is that it is absolutely out of your hands and that is precisely why you are so depleted and exhausted in this relationship.
So you ask yourself, why is this happening? Is there anything inherently wrong with me for finding myself in the same relationship with the same guy only with a different face time and time again?
Adult relationships fulfill our attachment needs in adulthood (Refer to this great blog by Dr Lisa Firestone to learn more about how our attachment patterns form our relationships). We have a primal need to be attached, cared for, and to belong. In infancy and childhood this need is met through our connection with our caregiver. To oversimplify (there are definitely other factors involved) this, often times the quality of the relationship we have with our caregivers parallels the quality that we seek out in our adult relationships. If we have had a strong bond and attachment and our needs have been met, we are more likely to seek out and form healthier relationships later in life. However, if we have had less strong bonds with our caregiver we are likely to recreate that in our adult relationships. It may be dysfunctional but in a strange way it is the only thing that we can make sense of. It makes us unhappy but we feel safe and secure in the familiarity of the chaos and dysfunctional patterns.
We often attach to our partners from a place of wound and pain as opposed to from our healthy higher self (To find more about different attachment styles, check out Patterns of Attachment by Mary D. Salter Ainsworth). I often hear that people say, but we have a great connection. Yet, I also hear that those same relationships lack respect and regard. People are emotionally closed off and cannot be vulnerable with each other. As a result they are left unfulfilled. They lack authenticity and people find it difficult to be themselves and to shed their masks in the relationship.
They contemplate leaving and yet there is a force that keeps them connected. It is the same force that keeps them connected to an abusive parent. It is not unconditional love, it is the lack of ability to hold regard for oneself. Because somewhere along the way we have been convinced that this is all we deserve. It is important to make peace with the fact that no one will change because they love you. In fact if anyone ever says that be weary.
Change is absolutely possible. But on one ground and only one ground and that is for a person to come to the true realization that they have got to make a change and for them to be proactive and make the change on their own volition. By you being in this pattern with them you are enabling their behaviour. So it is time to take the focus off your partner and focus on you. If you are in a relationship that is not working for you, chances are you need to have a moment of honesty and authenticity with yourself and see what keeps you in this relationship. Take a good look within and see what needs to change in you, not in your partner.
Why is it that you are wasting your own potential and energy on something you have so little control over?
That is the question you should be asking and putting all your focus and energy on that very question.
I have seen it time and time again in my counselling practice that when people have this realization and actually shift the focus on to themselves and do the therapeutic work, amazing things start to happen in their lives. They actually start to feel more confident. They repair their attachment wounds. They feel free and liberated and empowered in their relationships and day to day lives. And amazingly they start attracting the partners that reflect their new state.
I suggest that you check out this blog by Dr Mary Lamia where she talks about ways to rescue yourself from such dead-end relationships in her book The White Knight Syndrome.
Sabrina Golchin is a mother, wife, entrepreneur, writer, university instructor, public speaker, workshop presenter, therapist, and parent coach who lives, works, and plays in Woodbridge, Ontario. She holds a Masters in Counselling Psychology. She is the proud owner of Life in Harmony Counselling Services www.lifeinharmony.ca which provides counselling services to Children, Families, Parents, and Individuals. She provides in person, on the phone, or on Skype counselling sessions.
You can follow Life in Harmony on Facebook or Instagram, or contact at firstname.lastname@example.org