I’m going to go ahead and say what we all know is true: Relationships are hard and break-ups are even harder. Whether it was a happy relationship or a toxic one, the ending of any romantic endeavor can bring up painful emotions—unsettling even the chillest of us.
This process gets even more confusing when we actually know the relationship isn't right. I mean, honestly, shouldn’t we just be able to move on when logically we know the relationship is a terrible fit—understanding that this move is better for all parties involved? Ah, if only it were that easy! Emotions are not logical. You can know that a man is bad for you and still not be able to move on from him.
There are a lot of reasons why women stay with the wrong men. And while there isn’t a one size fits all answer for why this happens, there are common themes and biological reasons that make it hard to walk away.
The Fear of Being Alone
In my professional experience as a therapist, as well as my own personal experience, I have found that the No. 1 reason women stay in unhappy relationships is that of fear. Fear of loneliness, fear of feeling guilty, fear that you’re making the wrong choice. I sit with women on a daily basis who admit to staying with their partners because they are scared—scared that this might be as good as it gets for them. This line of thinking is incredibly pervasive and also severely flawed. But I get it; I’ve been there too.
As I’ve written about before, I hated being alone. Being alone meant I had to be with my own feelings. Being alone meant I couldn’t distract myself from my problems so I chose to take care of my partners. Being alone meant that I was fat, ugly, unworthy, and that I wasn’t good enough. Blah blah blah! Of course, it was going to be hard to initiate a breakup if it meant having to sit in all of that discomfort on my own. That former version of myself was fine with the familar—although the familiar was a perpetual thorn in my side, constantly causing me pain.
I know, this was not a great approach (I'm in the future, too). But for me, and I think for most folks out there, break-ups are an emotional roller coaster that a lot of us would just rather avoid.
Biology Binds Us Together
There are hard-wired, biological forces that make it hard for us to end a dead-end romance. First and foremost, we all have an innate drive to attach to someone. It’s crucial for our survival. Attachment is a very powerful force—not just mentally and emotionally—but physically, too. Our brains are wired to make sure we remain connected to our mate, as it increases one’s chance of survival. In far more primitive times, it literally meant life or death.
In our independent, modern age, however, ending a relationship doesn't hold the same weight. Most people will not die because they don’t have a mate, as there are no saber-tooth tigers lurking outside our doors. But there is still a primitive part of our brain at play, which makes a really difficult decision all the more difficult.
Here’s how this biochemical process works: Multiple reward circuits in our brains are involved in the attachment process. When we are physically close to our partner (or simply in a brand new relationship) our brains reward system kicks in and secretes powerful neurotransmitters. Hormones like dopamine (the pleasure hormone), serotonin (the mood stabilizing hormone), and oxytocin (the relational bonding hormone) surge and this cocktail of hormones is an immensely rewarding experience.
When we break up, this gratifying experience is replaced by a painful sense of loss—yes, even when we know he wasn’t a good fit, and yes even if we know he was actively a bad fit.
Just Like a Drug
When we break up, our body has a physical stress reaction. On a chemical level, our serotonin (mood stabilizer hormone) drops, our cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) increase, all while our neurotransmitter dopamine (pleasure hormone) is making us desperately crave for our ex, producing norepinephrine (the hormone that makes you highly excitable). That’s all fancy speak for the hormones that make you anxious and energetic are high, and the ones that help you feel calm and stable are low.
The brain goes through withdrawal, just like a drug addict would during detox. And just like with drugs, the one thing that can take your pain away is to “use” again, aka reconnect with your partner. (And our tech-savvy world makes this easier than ever). This is actually why people find themselves getting back together again and again. It helps them feel safe. It also explains why we have that rush of addiction to a person who is bad for us.
The reward center of our brains craves instant gratification, but unfortunately, this part of the brain is not great at making rational decisions and judging long-term consequences. Hence, the result of getting back together with the dude you know you don’t want to be around. It's not just romanticism making you idealize your ex—it's the brain, too.
What We Can Do
Understand that in time, the chemicals fade. Whether falling in love or out of love—our brain moves on. Still, even empowered with this information, it’s crucial to know how to support yourself at this time because your brain will be sending out messages like, “Call him! Text him! You miss him! Why did you even break up with him, you idiot?!”
Here are a couple ways you can protect your heart from your head:
- Make a list. Literally, write down all of the reasons he is not a good fit for you. Read it every single time you get the impulse to reach out to him. Put it on your mirror. Tape it on your fridge. Wherever you're going to read it.
- Lean on your community, family, friends. Your natural instinct may be to isolate and sulk in private, but this is probably the worst thing you can do. Engaging with community increases your feel-good hormones and supports your healing process. Text your friend anytime you have the impulse to text him.
Most importantly, just because it doesn’t work out with someone doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. Don’t go there. Most relationships are a bridge to get you to the person you are more compatible with, assuming that you learn and grow from each relationship. So instead, just try to relax and have fun, and realize that your biological instincts aren't always the best guides when you are trying to discern the right fit.