If it’s easy getting into a relationship with an exploiter, getting out isn’t always so simple. What makes the getting out so difficult?
In retrospect (if we’re lucky enough to say “in retrospect”) it seems like it should have been a no-brainer. In truth there are many reasons it can be hard to leave a destructive relationship and destructive person. I’ve addressed several of them in previous posts, and the LoveFraud community in general has addressed this theme comprehensively.
But here I’d like to consider a less-appreciated factor.
I regard it as the factor of habituation. Optimally the best time to end a relationship with an exploiter is the very first signal you get that something is amiss. The next best time to leave the relationship would the second signal that something is amiss.
When we don’t act on these early signals, increasingly we are less likely to act on subsequent ones. One of many reasons for this is the process of habituation.
Habituation is basically how, through repeated exposure to something initially uncomfortable, even highly disturbing, we adjust to it. We are built, it seems, to habituate to unsettling situations and experiences.
And the key to successful habituation is exposure. Sustained exposure to almost anything increases our tolerance of, and comfort with, it.
Consider what happens when we’re willing to endure the initial shock of cold water in a lake, or pool. Our sustained exposure (non-flight) gradually results in our bodies’ adjusting, or habituating, to the cold water, which begins to feel less cold, maybe even warm.
This is great news for someone with a social phobia. We just have to be willing to intentionally expose ourselves, repeatedly and sustainedly, to disturbing social situations, and quite likely we’ll experience a gradual reduction of anxiety.
Unfortunately the same thing can be said of abusive, exploitative relationships. The longer you expose yourself to, and repeatedly tolerate, the abuse, the more habituated you become to it.
Alarming behaviors that initially signaled our self-protective response (like flight) gradually lose their activating properties as we habituate to them. The avoidance-flight signal particularly—in the face of repeated, sustained exposure—dulls and/or we become less responsive to it.
Heeding the avoidant-flight response, in other words, can be critical to our safety and self-interest. It is great to confront and conquer avoidance when the avoidance hinders our personal growth; but it is dangerous to do so in the face of real, violating circumstances.
When I work with partners of sociopaths and other abusers, I find that habituation to the exploiter’s abuse often has occurred over time and contributes to the inertia that keeps the exploited partner in the relationship.
Of course there are often many other (and sometimes more compelling) reasons that one stays in a relationship with an exploitative partner.
But habituation to the abuse, I believe, is not only real, but sometimes helps explain why an otherwise dignified individual would tolerate behaviors that, from the outside—that is, from the unhabituated’s perspective—should be (or should have been) no-brainer deal-breakers.
When relevant I encourage clients to examine this factor in their analysis of the indignities they’ve sustained sometimes for years in relationships with disturbed, violating partners.
Paradoxically (and precisely to my point) their suffering was often highest early in the relationship before, through habituation, they grew slowly more numb and inured to—more tolerant of—the abuse, and thereby less motivated to do what was advisable at the outset—flee.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)