Why Smart People Accept Unacceptable Relationships

Beyond Boundaries

When 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.

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  • Ann on

    Dear SEA,

    I hear you loud and clear. I look back 35 years and see that I was needy and scared. I married a man who was abusive from the start- even before we were married.
    Over the years, counselor after counselor, I kept looking for solid advice to help me with the emotional abuse. Two counselors did advise divorce but I still felt conflicted because I thought I was at fault a lot of the time. Until….
    I read “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage”, by Leslie Vernick and “ Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft!
    You are right when you say the church needs enlightenment to the tragedies in many marriages. The emotional, verbal and physical abuse is treated entirely wrong when the abused person is told to be nice, respectful, kind, understanding towards the abuser. I read L &R too years ago. I finally realized I was enabling bad behavior for years. It is time to stop it! Call the abuse for what it is. Call the police if there is even a verbal threat, ( some police don’t consider verbal abuse seriously- I know because I called the police one night).
    Do not go to couples counseling with the abuser. It is not about the marriage. The problems are within each individual. Why did I pick a man with bad character qualities? I have issues. I am now getting better counseling which has taught me to see through the fog of verbal and emotional abuse. I want the truth to be revealed that a lot of churches and many Christian counselors don’t know how to properly identify and confront abuse.

    The church should be the first place a woman can go to find refuge. Sadly, it is not a refuge most of the time.


  • SEA on

    I don’t mean to be rude. I’m sure your intentions are good in recommending this Love and Respect book, as were the intentions of the ppl who used it for a marriage seminar at our daughter’s church, and her intentions were good when she gave it to her father who for the first time in our 36 years asked me to read something regarding our relationship. I bought into it and I sent copies to 6 or 7 ppl with gushing reports of how it helped my marriage. I once again changed and he didn’t. Basically the book is about men need respect (sex whenever they want) and women need praise of their man (equated to approval and love). I was still trying to make what was a miserable existence into a marriage, so I tried, but I didn’t know what I was really living with. One friend I sent a book to said she’d return the book to me because that was the most immature man she’s ever read. And from her that’s saying something. That was two years before I found out my husband was having affairs with two women we knew well. He had been up to this for 20 of our 38 years. As I recovered from that I realized the L&R book only enabled an already emotionally abusive man to do more harm to me. He demanded sex no matter how badly he had treated me and I conceded bc L&R said I should. Demanding I do things he’d learned (I now realize) from his psychopathic mistress who he visited for sex 3-4 times a month while I was working. I threw the book in the trash bc it’s garbage. And I still believe that.
    And now to address the boundaries book and this post. I usually agree with Cloud and Townsend. But the counseling community and the church at large are missing something very important and in the process adding more abuse and pain to the lives of millions of ppl like me and the many other women I am now finding live the same horrors of covert emotional abuse with no aid from any source. Until now… thanks to Leslie Vernick, Lundy Bancroft and Shannon Thomas! My husband and millions like him are mentally ill, narcissistic, sociopathic and/or psychopathic. They absolutely do know how to hide this for years as they court the object of their affection. Many are the product of families that are capable of hiding it and protrayimg themselves as upright Christian ppl. There is nothing Christian about their behavior. Every single person involved in my husband’s betrayal and cover up was claiming to be Christian and going to churches regularly. And to suggest to a survivor who literally was fooled during courtship, or until it was too late to back out bc they had made a covenant bond of marriage, or a betrayal bond was established, that she/he just missed the clues beforehand bc they were so enthralled with this mentality ill person is just heaping more abuse on to an already wound individual. You seriously need a disclaimer for this post C&T. And you need to get caught up on what the authors mentioned above know about this epidemic of hidden and hideous form of emotional abuse. You may be right where ppl are dealing with ordinary relationship issues. But with the types of ppl I’ve had to endure you are dead wrong.

  • Holly on

    Sadly I had too short of a second marriage (8 months), but I became unhealthy after it taking 6 years in my first marriage to get healthy! Loving ourselves and being loved for who we are, and having peace in a relationship is most important! If there is no peace, this is confirmation that there is a big problem that must be addressed!

  • Ellis on

    I have found the printed and audio books written by Drs. Townsend and Cloud very helpful. I am recovering from a cult-like church that I was member of for 13 years. I discovered the books in 2017. They helped my identify my mistakes using Biblical wisdom, which was helpful, because I believed in Christ, and I didn’t want to leave The Church, just this local body. I put it off because of fear and manipulation. I left after a near-fatal car accident. I would love to read a book entitled “Boundaries in the Church,” although that topic is addressed in many of their titles. There are so many “churches” who are developing and spreading doctrines of men, rather than the Words of Life. I think people think that professing Jesus and an absence of theft or sexual abuse means its a good church, but there are other warning signs that you won’t be growing in knowledge and love according to Christ’s means (sanctification by Holy Spirit, bible reading and prayer, not doing things under duress…)

  • Boitumelo on

    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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