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Emotionally Trapped

"I can’t endure you, I can’t change you, and I can’t leave you."

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Relationship partners suffer in these relationships because they feel unable to resolve this conflict. Most of them started these partnerships with high hopes for long-lasting fulfillment, but can no longer pay the price it is costing them to continue.

In my four decades as a relationship therapist, I have met many people who live in this state, often not being able to justify to themselves or others why they stay.

Caveat: There are relationship partners who do not have the option to physically leave their relationships. Those situations are often multi-leveled entrapments that cannot be easily solved. This article cannot address the complexity of those terribly sad dilemmas.

If you are able to physically leave a relationship but find yourself unable to do so because of your emotional attachments, you may be able to escape those kinds of entrapments if you understand why you sustain them.

Though every emotionally entrapped relationship is different, they have core similarities. The partners who feels controlled within them often describe their partners as seemingly two different people, one whose qualities they still are attracted to and one who hurts them without apparent remorse.

Torn between these two behavioral extremes, they feel sought after and desired in some moments and discarded or derided in others. They want to, and need to escape from the invalidating and erasing behaviors, but cannot let go of those that make them feel desirable.

These are some of their common comments:

“He can be so incredibly loving at times, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, he baits me into a fight. Then he turns into a different person, someone who is out to win at any cost.”

“She is the most incredible sexual partner I’ve ever had. Yet, after we make love, I can always predict that she’ll start finding fault, any kind of fault. It’s as if she needs to erase me.”

“First, he makes me feel like I don’t exist, no matter how hard I try to connect. Like I’m in the way and a burden. Then, just when I’m ready to get out of the relationship, he begins courting me like he did at the beginning. I’ve never known anyone that charming. I just don’t get it.”

“She’s my best friend and then, without warning, my worst enemy. I’ve made every change she wanted, but it’s never enough. Just when I think I’m in the clear, she rips me apart for the ways I disappointed her. I know I need to just get out of this relationship, but maybe it’s me who is the problem.”

“I know I should get out of this relationship. She is incredibly emotionally costly, up and down, crazy and sane. I never know which person I’m going to meet when I go home. She’s always apologizing but nothing ever changes. She’s a truly good person inside and I keep believing she doesn’t mean it, but, Christ, it’s so damn hard sometimes.”

“He’s an angel and a devil. When he’s kind, he’s almost too nice, but watch out when he gets pissed about something. It could be anything at any time. Then watch out. Here comes the meanness. And it’s meant to hurt. He seems to be fighting some inner demon that I become to him.”

If you are a relationship partner who feels emotionally entrapped, there is a way out. That liberation can only occur after you first look honestly at what might be keeping you there.

Here are the nine most common reasons you may find yourself unable to leave an emotionally entrapped relationship:

1. You Are with a Partner Who Is an Addict.

If you may be involved with someone caught in the throes of substance abuse, you are likely to see wild fluctuation of behaviors.

Those differences can turn desirable people into enemies, depending on what substances they are using and where they are in their addictive cycle.

Your experience of your partner as two people is real. One may act significantly differently when using or when sober. You may feel seduced by his or her sincere promises to quit, only to watch another relapse. Your entrapment is the belief your partner’s sober side will triumph over time.

2. Are You Protecting Others?

If there are other people, such as friends or family members, who might face the love/wrath of your partner when you leave the relationship, you may be buffering those that might suffer if you leave. Have you chosen to sacrifice yourself in order to protect them and keep telling yourself that it is the only choice you have?

3. Are You Reliving Past Trauma?

Are you a person who, as a child, only knew love when it was accompanied by hurt? If that is true, you may truly believe that you deserve punishment as a price for love.

If you’ve internalized those patterns, you may inadvertently bait your partner to act mean to you after he or she has made you feel nurtured, to feel somehow more in control. You’ve been taught to expect that love and anger will always alternate in a consistent pattern, and feel helpless to expect anything else.

4. Are You a Love Addict?

Are you a person who is in love with love and will pay most any price to experience it, even if the cost is painfully high? If you fall into that category, you may be willing to endure any discomfort as long as the love part of your relationship remains intact.

These partners tend to maximize desirable behaviors and minimize those that are painful. They make a practice of rationalizing why the relationship is worth it, even if, inside, they know it may not be true.

5. Are You Trying to Save Your Partner?

Are you in a relationship with someone who tells you he or she has never felt loved and you will be the one who rectifies this terrible situation?

Some people truly believe that, if they just love deeply and long enough, they will be the one who can make the difference where all others have failed. Their partner has just “not met the right person who can make him or her whole.”

6. Does Your Culture Require You to Stay in the Relationship?

There are cultures that require a partner to stay in a relationship no matter what the cost. Mostly that burden falls upon women, but can also happen to men who are expected to suffer for the sake of their beliefs.

If you are limited by those constraints, you may not have an honorable way out of an emotionally entrapped relationship, even if you are suffering.

7. Is It About Your Pride?

It is very human to not be seen as a quitter or someone who has made a foolish decision. When anyone has celebrated an ongoing relationship to friends and family, it is often hard to tell people that the relationship is not what it seems.

If that is happening to you, your long-term coverup can be terribly embarrassing to share. You are likely to be judged in ways that can add to your humiliation.

It will be even harder if you add self-blame to what you’ve done. Then it’s others and you against you, a hard situation to endure.

8. Do You Feel Like “Damaged Goods?”

When you’ve been on the other end of a seductive/rejecting partner for a long period of time, you may have come to doubt your own reality and blame yourself for your inability to rebound. You may feel like you are the problem and will only fail in the next relationship. Better to keep trying to make this one work.

You may have worn out your supporters who are tired of trying to save you from yourself. Those who genuinely care for you cannot stand by forever and watch you continue to take the emotional heartbreak you’re enduring. Their declining support may contribute to your feeling of no longer being worth saving.

9. Are You Afraid of What Your Partner Might Do if You Leave?

Sadly, many partners of devoted captives need them, use them, and may, oddly, actually love them. They often believe that their partners will never seriously consider wanting out and are angry when they do.

Though it may be true that they could “act out,” if you leave, your living in fear cannot continue to control your behavior. Even if your exiled partner could become a stalker, immediately find a new partner, plead for re-entry, or threaten you in some other way, you cannot let that deter you from liberating yourself from emotional entrapment.

Your fear can destroy your courage, and your courage is needed for you to find freedom.

Trust that your continued belief that you can change an emotionally-entrapping partner is your biggest enemy. Hope that there is a better life beyond that fantasy. Trust that people who love you will help you when you’re ready. And trust that you can only become who you were meant to be if you free yourself from a relationship that has no hope for change.

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