Leah is a 27-year-old high school teacher who has been dating George, a 32-year-old attorney, for 14 months. They see each other twice a week, and they "have fun" together, eating at their favorite neighborhood restaurant, going to movies, occasionally going to Jazz clubs. But George isn't interested in seeing Leah more often and seems uncomfortable when Leah suggests taking a trip or spending the weekend together. Leah is successful professionally, is loved by her students, peers and principal, and is studying for an educational administrative degree while working full time. She would eventually like to become an assistant principal, get married, and have kids. Despite her many successes, Leah often feels anxious, is unsure of herself, and is generally a "people pleaser."
Jenny is an attractive, driven 33-year-old advertising executive who graduated from a prestigious university. She is climbing the corporate ladder and is recognized by supervisors and peers for her achievements, yet, she is always filled with self-doubt. For the past five years, she has been dating Mike, a 36-year-old accountant. Jenny and Mike's relationship is filled with turmoil and chaos. Jenny suspects Mike has had affairs, but when she confronts him, he always denies it. She ends up believing him, even though he has lied to her about other things in the past. Mike is critical and rejecting, often making harsh comments about Jenny's weight, her neediness, and her reliance on her friends. The more Mike judges, the harder Jenny works to get his approval. When he becomes particularly demeaning, Jenny gets depressed, anxious, and detaches. Only then, when Jenny pulls back, does Mike shower her with love. This cycle repeats itself every few weeks.
Millennial women have professional opportunities and life choices not available to generations before. They are pursuing higher education in greater numbers than men. They are building their careers or are grappling with finding meaningful careers, and they've learned how to assert themselves professionally. Yet the extraordinary women like Leah and Jenny that I see in my practice, engage in unhealthy and often damaging or abusive intimate relationships. These women frequently suffer from anxiety and depression and have low self-worth, much self-doubt, difficulty making decisions, and fears of being alone and of being rejected. True intimacy feels terrifying and foreign. Although they desire stability and commitment in relationships, they do not feel deserving or worthy of a good partnership.
There are many reasons why such successful women struggle to establish intimacy, which is beyond the scope of this article. In a nutshell, some had judgmental and "difficult to please" parents, others had overprotective and intrusive parents who may have meant well but ended up hindering their children's ability to make decisions for themselves. Some have had parents who themselves engaged in unhealthy relationships. Some were bullied by peers and struggled socially, and in extreme situations endured trauma such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse.
Making matters worse, many millennials seek relationship advice from peers who are often struggling themselves, and they rely on electronic means to communicate and "work" on their relationship difficulties, rather than developing essential in-person conflict resolution and communications skills.
So how can a woman in this situation begin to develop meaningful healthy relationships? She must come to understand not only why she is in an unhealthy, abusive, or unsustainable relationship but also the part she is playing in maintaining the dysfunction. And she must find a way to step back and form an honest assessment of her relationship and its future. Below are some common mechanisms, behaviors, and beliefs that enable people to stay in or accept an unhealthy relationship. By becoming aware of these mechanisms, women can begin to make direct changes and approach relationships with insight and strength:
1. Denial (to one self and to others) is a powerful mechanism. Women often deny how dysfunctional their relationships may be or that they have unmet needs. Their first task is to become fully aware of the kind of partnership they desire and what behaviors they can and cannot accept in a relationship. Jenny believes that emotional abuse is not acceptable, and she learned to recognize Mike's frequent harsh judgments as abusive.
2. Fear of conflict. When people who are conflict-avoidant sense a possible confrontation, they become anxious and do whatever they can to avoid the situation and reduce their own discomfort. They may "walk on eggshells" to avoid discussing their needs or "protect" themselves or their partner from experiencing difficult feelings. It's all too easy to stay in this comfort zone, maintaining the illusion that a relationship is functional when it's not. To understand why their relationship was stagnant, Leah needed to learn to discuss her feelings and desires with George and ask about his future intentions.
3. Fear of being "too needy." Some women want to please and care-take, pushing their own needs aside (often telling themselves, "I want to be there for him"). They fear becoming burdensome, difficult, or demanding. They believe that being a "good girlfriend" means not asking much of their partners and, as such, they often ignore their own needs.
4. Trying to change a partner. Many women believe that they will be the "special" woman who will "cure" their partners of their neuroses or of their inability to commit by being patient, accommodating, loving, and emotionally available. They are addicted to the challenge, and, often, to the drama that goes along with such a challenge. Jenny believed she could get Mike to change his behavior toward her. She felt good when he was loving, and fragile when he was judgmental. Because she did not see Mike's own difficulties with emotional intimacy or how threatened he was by her success, she did not realize he would continue to put her down, no matter how she acted. Instead, her self- worth became diminished. Jenny succeeded in all "projects" throughout her life, and it was hard for her to give up the Mike "project."
5. Fear of abandonment. Many women are afraid of being alone, and they believe that there is "nothing better out there" than their own flawed relationship. Often, they have been in unhealthy relationships for years, and they replicate these relationship dynamics over and over again. It is necessary for them to recognize that their own choice of partners and behavior within the relationship plays a role in the dysfunction.
6. Attracting the wrong men. Partners who are judgmental, critical, or not emotionally available (at best) and are abusive, dishonest, and manipulative (at worst) are attracted to women who have difficulties asserting themselves and who suffer from low self-worth and fear of abandonment. These men often seek out such women because they accept and tolerate those behaviors. The girlfriend who always "wants to please" will not challenge, assert herself, or make demands.
7. Being "addicted" to drama. For some women, a huge adrenaline rush accompanies relationships that have extreme high and lows. These women experience healthier relationships as "boring" and will often sabotage them. In the short-term, and during ones' twenties, these volatile relationships may satisfy an emotional need (such as for excitement and passion), but they are not sustainable in the longer term. A person cannot successfully run a household and raise a family while experiencing constant emotional drama.
Leah learned in therapy to recognize avoidant behaviors, and she started to communicate more effectively. Her relationship with George fell apart rapidly after Leah brought up her desire for deeper commitment. But she realized that, even if George had been willing to commit, they were still not a good fit for each other. It was difficult for Leah to "take space" and have "needs," however, once she knew what those needs were and learned to communicate them despite feeling anxious, she was able to make more conscious decisions, develop a stronger sense of herself, and form a new healthy intimate relationship that lead to a happy marriage.
Jenny was able to break up with Mike, a process that took many months. She no longer engages in abusive relationships, either personally or professionally. She learned to value herself and made the choice to become a single mother. She is a loving mother, and she's satisfied with her professional life and family life. Recently, Jenny started to date again, and is able to approach dating with strength and insight.
Leah and Jenny's work in therapy took time and effort, and the process itself was at times painful. But they felt tremendous relief after leaving their destructive, emotionally- consuming relationships, and as they became more assertive and self-confident, their anxiety diminished. As they discovered, psychotherapy can help a person make smart life choices, approach relationships from a place of strength and comfort with oneself, and foster self-acceptance and respect for one's own feelings and needs.
Dr. Merav Gur is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City and an adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Pseudonyms were used to protect patients' identities.