From Selfless to Selfish: 1 Reason Women Remain in Bad Relationships

(Update: All the posts of this series have been collected into one piece, Seven Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships, and How to Defeat Each One of Them.)

You know how when your driver’s license expires, you put off going to the DMV for so long you end up on “America’s Most Procrastinating”? And why do you so resist getting a new I.D.? Because, pleasant-wise, it ranks right up there with getting your hair caught in an egg beater.

And that’s just getting a new card identifying who you are. How much more painful is it to acquire an actual new identify?

A new identity is what a lot of women think they’re going to have to assume if they force a break-up with their man. In their heart of hearts, many women believe that initiating and securing a permanent separation from their former Mr. Right means irrevocably transmogrifying from the Selfless Conciliator they’ve always been, to a Selfish Terminator they never imagined themselves being.

Whether via nurture or nature, a lot of women identify themselves as Uplifting, Self-Sacrificing Healer. Their understanding of who they are is deeply vested in their fulfillment of the role of dutiful daughter, supportive mate, loving mother. They’re the ones to whom others turn for comfort and counsel. They heal. They support. They sustain. They forgive. They sacrifice. They reconcile. They … well, take to the role of Emotional Martyr like Flipper takes to water. Which in a great many ways is certainly a beautiful thing. Where would any of us be if none of us knew how to put others first?

But you take a woman whose identity is inextricably bound up with her self-image as a Sacrificing Giver, put her in the position of really having to choose between herself and the man to whom she once pledged her love, and what very often happens is her internal life splits. She’ll have no idea what to do. She’ll have no internal emotional paradigm for assuming the role of Xena, Relationship Terminator.

Selfless, she knows. But selfish? Not so much.

I think I’ll leave this here for now. Maybe for each of these seven reasons women stay in bad relationships I’ll do two posts: the first for defining the problem, and the next for articulating its solution. Trying to do both in one post will make that post too long. So. Two for each. Sound good?

If you think anyone you know might benefit from this series, please pass it along to them. Thank you.

The follow-up to this post is From Selflessness to Selfishness: Go, Xena, Go!

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter.

  • Alva

    Oh my goodness you couldn’t be more right! I’m going through this right now, and even though its an unequally yoked relationship that I know I should terminate, I just feel so horrid about hurting him. Thanks for the help

  • Jeannie

    So timely,

    I am recently separated from a 10 year marriage to a man I met in church. Even though most of our marriage has been my putting up with an alcoholic, emotionally abusive he**, it took me years to get up the nerve to leave him. Because, I did not want to be selfish. Even when it crossed over into occassional physical abuse I couldn’t make myself go.

    Now I am raising my girls in a peaceful, calm nuturing enviroment. I am s-l-o-w-l-y rediscovering who I am after years of compromise of my most integral core. I know in the long run this is so much better for the girls and I. But I still struggle with massive guilt over hurtng him. Our conversations on the phone always consists of how much he loves me and how much it hurt him when I left.

    It leaves me feeling selfish and mean. At one point I asked him, do you realize what it took for me to do this? I just wish he would consider, seriously consider what he put all of us through for so many years. I just wish I could stop focusing on not hurting him and feeling so selfish all the time…


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