Cognitive dissonance — the mixed perceptions and feelings that result from inconsistent experiences — helps to explain why people find it difficult to leave toxic relationships.
On the one hand, the toxic partner tells us they love us; on the other, they engage in behavior that is cruel, disrespectful, or exploitive. Our brains work overtime trying to make sense of these mixed messages —and in the process, we often stay longer than makes sense; in the meanwhile, the toxic partner continues to benefit from our attention, support, and resources.
Here are three mixed messages that toxic partners often create through their words and actions:
- They are brilliant, extraordinary, charming — and pitiable
Think of this as the “wounded superstar.” This person is appealing in so many ways, but unable to support themselves because of some fatal flaw. Partners become attracted to the charm, then vulnerable through their desire to rescue and to support someone so wonderful to overcome their bad breaks and achieve their full potential. It’s great to support our partners, but rescuing and becoming responsible for them creates the groundwork for exploitation, imbalance, and resentment.
- Totally into you — and totally disinterested
Many survivors of toxic relationships believe they had found true love because they had never experienced such intense interest from someone else before their toxic partner arrived. Because of our culture’s romantic storylines, we can misperceive “love bombing” as falling in love. Once we become comfortable and, indeed, hooked, on their attention, the toxic partner backs off, disappears, ghosts us, or becomes far less available and interested. A vulnerable partner may experience withdrawal and begin to “play chase” to re-engage. Once this happens, the power in the relationship lies with the toxic partner — until their target decides to end the game.
- Really great with money — and totally broke
Many toxic partners show up giving the appearance of being well off and able to indulge you with expensive gifts and experiences, or they share early on that they “come from money.” After installing an initial impression of wealth and financial success, they reveal that they have fallen on hard times, have a temporary cash flow problem just as they are about to make it big, or have been the victim of someone else’s irresponsibility. Of course, they are happy for you to help them out. And if you have bought into their lovefraud, you just might, at great peril to your own financial security, goals, and health.
Consistency vs. inconsistency
It’s true that all of us have our inconsistencies. However, solid partners are more consistent than not. They are consistently responsive, consistently responsible for themselves, and consistently clear about who they are and what they want, even as that is evolving. When people are mostly consistent, we relax; when people are mostly inconsistent, we become caught up in solving the riddle of how to return them to consistency: how to get their steady love, or how to solve their crisis so that life can be good again — until their next crisis or they withdraw again.
When we are ready for something healthier, more functional, and less exploitive, we realize that these are not the most helpful questions to ask. Instead, we begin to ask, “Is this relationship contributing to my health, welfare, and happiness?” and “What am I avoiding by focusing on rescuing or re-engaging my toxic partner?” and “How can I have the best life possible?”
When we begin to ask these questions, we begin to let go of the cognitive dissonance created by a toxic partner’s erratic, exploitive behavior or mixed messages and start to come up with clear answers that serve us well.
About the author
Amber Ault, Ph.D., MSW, coaches people in the US and EU who are leaving or recovering from toxic relationships. She is an instructor for Lovefraud Continuing Education and will offer a five week online Roller Coaster Relationship Recovery Seminar & Support Group starting September 24, 2016 through amberault.com. Dr. Ault is the author of The Five Step Exit: The Skills You Need To Leave a Narcissist, Psychopath, or Other Toxic Partner & Recover Your Happiness Now, available on Amazon.com.