Why It's Hard to Break Up with a Bad Boyfriend or Girlfriend
Basic learning principles explain why people keep betting on bad relationships.
Bad relationships can have an addictive quality that makes it hard to break up, or to stay broken up.
Patterns of reward help explain the difficulty in saying goodbye to a bad partner.
Relative shifts in a bad relationship paradoxically can make it more appealing.
“There’s something I should probably mention,” Maggie told me near the end of her therapy session. “I … got back together with Mark.” My eyebrows went up as I failed to keep my neutral therapist face. Mark had proven himself to be a bad boyfriend—he lied, secretly kept in touch with exes, and often dismissed Maggie’s feelings—and she had already ended the relationship three times. But eventually, she found herself back with him.
I recognized a common pattern in Maggie’s relationship with Mark. Most of the time he was a lousy partner—but not always. At times he could be great: affectionate, complimentary, considerate. He knew all the right things to say to Maggie, and when things were good it felt like she was meant to be with him. “I don’t know if I’m ready to give up what we have together,” she said. But the good times never lasted long. Soon Mark would withdraw, barely responding to Maggie’s texts, and she would feel bewildered and hurt by the reversal.
Mark’s bad spells were beyond the normal ups and downs of a healthy relationship, and he was clearly bad for Maggie. What made it hard for her to break things off for good?
Gambling on a Bad Relationship
Most bad relationships aren’t always bad. Sometimes a partner who’s bad for you can do good things, as Maggie found. Laboratory studies with nonhuman animals (for example, rats and pigeons) have shown that it’s really hard to stop a behavior, like being with a bad partner when it occasionally pays off.
Learning scientists call this pattern of reward a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. A reinforcement schedule describes how often a behavior (such as pushing a lever in a cage) leads to a reward (such as getting a food pellet). Ratio means the reward is given after the behavior is repeated a certain number of times, and variable means the reward is unpredictable. Sometimes it comes after one press of the lever, sometimes after five, and other times after 20.
Research has shown that a variable ratio reinforcement schedule leads to very persistent attempts by the animal to get the reward because the next try might pay off. One more press of the lever might bring the food. One more round of slots could hit it big. One more try with that partner could lead to their best version.
The Power of Comparison
The inconsistencies of a bad relationship create another paradox: The bad times make the good times feel even better. That’s because your brain is highly attuned to relative states—when things go from good to bad, or from worse to better. When times are good with a bad partner, you experience the reward of not just the positive but of the removal of the negative. It’s such a relief that they’re finally treating you well.
Getting rid of an unpleasant state sends a powerful signal to the brain’s reward centers, which leads you to repeat whatever made things feel less bad. This process is known technically as negative reinforcement because it makes a behavior more likely (reinforcement) through the removal (negative) of an aversive feeling.
If you keep trying with your partner, eventually things will probably be less bad, which will feel good. What’s more, we’re wired to have very positive feelings for people when they exceed our expectations or contradict the negative view we had of them (think of your feelings toward Snape from the Harry Potter series). The psychological reward and good feelings toward your partner make it that much harder to break up once and for all.
How to Break the Cycle
Recognize these patterns. Just seeing what keeps you hooked can help to break the spell, making it easier to say goodbye to a bad boyfriend or girlfriend.
Keep a balanced view. Watch out for the mind’s tendency toward selective remembering—minimizing the negative and accentuating the positive about your partner (or ex). Recall the reasons why it’s best to end this relationship. It might be helpful to ask close friends or family members to remind you of why this isn’t the person for you.
Put safeguards in place. Don’t underestimate the power of the pull that keeps you attached to a bad partner. Take action while your resolve is high to minimize the chances you’ll fall into old patterns in high-risk situations, like when you’re out with friends and you've had a couple of drinks, or your ex texts you late at night saying “I miss us” and that they really need to talk. Consider deleting their contact information and blocking their number and email to protect yourself from unwanted contact. These measures were a key part of what helped Maggie to finally end her bad relationship for good.
Beware of rationalization. Watch out for mental tricks that lead you back to this person: This time will be different. Or, I can tell they’ve done a lot of work on themselves in therapy. People can change, but often these ways of thinking prevent you from seeing that this person is still bad at being your partner. Take a hard look at what your mind is telling you, and avoid making impulsive decisions you’re likely to regret.
Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author specializing in mindful cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).