Why Smart People Accept Unacceptable Relationships

Beyond BoundariesWhen I (Dr. Townsend) guide people through a process of examining previous difficult relationships, the one question I have found most helpful is this: What was the “payoff” in your choice? In other words, what good things did you think you’d get when you began a relationship with that person?

We wind up with difficult people for a reason—there was something we valued, wanted, or hoped for. And because the need was strong, we may not have paid attention to something unacceptable in that person’s character. We either minimized or denied some sign, some reality, some warning light that all was not well. And the character problem ended up being a bigger deal than we thought.

When smart people accept unacceptable relationships, they tend to see traits and abilities in others that they think will make life better for them. We see positive aspects of a person’s psyche that we are drawn to or feel we need. A longing for them dulls an awareness of that person’s darker side. For some period of time in the relationship, the person may have had the following:

  • Warmth: She was gentle and nurturing with me
  • Affirmation: He saw the good in me
  • Safety: He did not condemn or judge me
  • Structure: She was organized and got things done
  • Humor: She helped lighten the burdens and cheered me up
  • A great family: His relatives were much healthier than mine
  • Drive: She was focused and knew where she was going
  • Initiative: She took risks and was brave in making decisions
  • Competency: He was talented, and I needed his talent in my organization
  • People skills: He handled people better than I did, so I depended on him
  • Intelligence: She was smart, and I needed smarts in my department

In the toughest cases, the trait is simply that “he liked me.” That is, sometimes people feel so alone and desperate that they are grateful just for someone to be pursuing them, no matter what that person’s character may be.

We have an ability to spin the truth when it comes to our relationships. When we want something so badly that we ignore reality. Love is not blind, but desire can be. Here are some examples of how we spin the truth:

  • You allowed him to control you because you were weak and afraid.
  • You ignored detachment and disconnection because she was a nice person.
  • You minimized irresponsibility because she had a great personality and charm.
  • You put up with his tendency to divide people on the team because he was a good strategist.
  • You didn’t pay attention to childishness because she was needy, and you felt protective.
  • You let him into your life because you were compliant and guilt-based, and he was free and a rebel.

Do you see how the problem occurs? It is an insidious process. It tends to occur slowly over time. The good aspects are generally apparent and right out there. The bad ones don’t come out until later, when the euphoria wears off and the honeymoon is over. We are simply not aware of the repercussions while we are in the middle of the relationship. Instead, we are focused on solving problems, improving things, questioning our own judgment, and trying to be positive about it all. It’s not until later, after we have some distance, that we can gain clarity and perspective on the true dynamics of what went on.

Here are a few questions to help you review your relationships and gain some helpful insights:

  • What drew me to this person?
  • What led me to think this person had what I needed?
  • When did I first notice a significant problem in the relationship?
  • How did I minimize the problem in order to get the good from the person?
  • What was the result of minimizing the problem?

The information you gather here will help you avoid these issues in future relationships. This doesn’t mean that the other person has some plan or agenda to hook you in. This occurs sometimes, but certainly not always. In most cases, difficult people are responding to their own issues but remain unaware of them or the impact they have on others. I say this to prevent you from feeling like you were sucked into a trap. Most of the time, both parties are in a dysfunctional dance, and neither one knows what’s going on. The difference now is that you can choose to stop dancing so that your future will be better than your past!


If you’ve been burned by a bad relationship, don’t let the past repeat itself. Read Beyond Boundaries and discover how to tell who you can trust and learn the keys to know when you’re in a healthy relationship.


  1. Susan says

    I can relate to #2. I ignored signs of detachment and disconnection and, as a result, these only got worse. Now I can see why I married him and how things have deteriorated. We have been married almost 40 years and those issues are still a problem in our marriage. I feel unloved and uncared for most of the time. This information helps for future relationships. But how about present relationships that exhibit some of these characteristics?

    • Robyn Lucas says

      I am wondering if he had those capabilities to love and affirm when you two got married.. I know some men that didn’t receive those “tools” in their toolbox when they were growing up. It’s something they had to be given, before they can give. I am hoping that as you’ve vested your life to this man, that you look outside of your husband’s capability and receive that much desired love, affection and affirmation from a small group of women, who will lift you up, pray for you, affirm you and fill up your love tank so much that you are overflowing with joy. It’s inspiring that you are so committed to your husband; you can experience so much gladness through others that it will overflow to your husband and fill him, too! God’s blessings to you, sister… Praying that you seek out a small group of women to join and share life with. It sure made a difference to me!

    • Sam says

      Hi Susan,
      Yes, I relate to #2 as well. While dating, I noticed that my husband was silent and “disconnected” a lot of the time, which really bothered me as I found myself constantly asking him if anything was wrong. This was very uncomfortable for me as I am a more gregarious personality. We’ve been married 28 years and his quiet nature has enabled him to hide things from me over the years, and has created some boredom for me (unfortunately) in our marriage. I notice this article talks about having better ‘future’ relationships, but I agree with you in asking, what about our current, most significant relationship?

  2. says

    There are two things that can solve the problem of being in one of these relationships and both of them require that you establish and defend some boundaries. When you have decided exactly what is wrong and what you will/won’t tolerate, either your partner will respect those boundaries and make appropriate changes in his/her own behavior or you will be forced to do whatever you’ve decided you need to do to protect your boundaries, possibly even leave the relationship. I’m not a professional, but I work with people in relationships with people with bipolar disorder. (Bipolar makes it harder for them to see and accept boundaries which is a reason I started following the Boundaries people).

  3. Linda says

    This is a great topic and a very important one, because letting unacceptable people into our lives for the reasons stated is how predators get in. Be assured, these monsters know exactly who their prey is. They have a list of things they look for.

    Get educated, be watchful, and know what your own personal weaknesses are, because we all have them.

    There’s a reason why Jesus said be wise as a serpent BEFORE He said be harmless as a dove. We must protect ourselves and while the church may disagree with this, I have the right to protect myself. I don’t want to be prey again.

  4. Byron says

    Wow, so insightful. Filing divorce papers tomorrow after a too short marriage of 2 years. Made so many of those mistakes !

  5. Boitumelo says

    Robyn Lucas thanks for such a wonderful advise. there`s nothing more than to get your love tank filled by the people that God brings next to you and take the same love home. *thumbs up*

  6. Boitumelo says

    Thanks Lucas for such a beautiful advise and I can assure all others that it is practical. I have seen it happening with me and it gave me peace


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