advice: when you know better but just can’t help yourself

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I am a guy who regularly reads your blog, and I always think ‘Why can’t I find someone as cool as her?’ I love the way you see and think, and for the many ways you make the day brighter.

I am in a pretty f’d relationship- if you can call it that, with a woman who I can’t seem to let go of. We met about two and a half years ago and sort of clicked, but even then I knew it was probably best to keep walking. In my town this person is well known as a basic train-wreck and has a long and colorful history, from being thrown out of restaurants and bars, from being 86’d from casinos- that’s the term we use in Nevada when a casino tosses you out and doesn’t invite you back. She is a huge type A aggressive, very volatile, loves drama and it’s like being strapped to a bomb. Add to that she is abusive – verbally criticizing me and basically making me feel worthless. She’s been with many guys and keeps many ex’s still in close contact. This is a person who is pretty toxic, both inside and out.

That last paragraph is what I’ve lived through and had all my friends live through for awhile. Obviously they all say ‘run, don’t walk!’ and I know that this is what I should be doing.

My question is why do you think a person keeps putting their hand over the flame? Why does someone who knows better keep going back, getting hurt, feeling bad about themselves and vow to not go there again, and after a day or so, think that the next time will be better, she’ll change, she’ll realize I am worth it. I am wondering what makes a person willingly stay with someone who is clearly not the one- or not even close to the one.

I am an ardent fan and appreciate any advice. Thanks.

straight up advice

Why do we keep putting a hand over the flame? Because we do a lot of stupid shit. Then, hopefully, we get to a point where we’ve been there, left that, and we face new stupid shit. Only we hopefully get better at “failing.” People stay in unhealthy relationships for lots of reasons. You can name them yourself: money, sex, fear of what others will think, fear… a lot of fear. Fear of being alone, fear we won’t do any better, fear of regretting our choices, fear of mistakes, fear of screwing up your kids even more. What’s worse, then we go around judging people for their choices instead of really examining our own lives and choices. Or we judge ourselves too harshly, thinking we’re failures instead of embracing our mistakes as lessons, as tools to better ourselves. Sometimes we tread water for years.

We’ve all been here, if not with love, than with something equally as addictive. This is a struggle within you, and the dynamic with this woman is your addiction. Look at the situation you’re in and hold it up to any addiction to see it for what it is.

Example: None of your clothes fit, you’re miserable, your friends are sick of hearing it. You swear to yourself it’s enough. You rid your home of processed foods, restock your vegetable drawer, walk into Weight Watchers, sign up for a personal trainer. You write in a journal, this time it will be different. This time, you’re done being unhealthy. You formulate a plan, set up your meals for the next few days. You wake up the next morning, and it all somehow goes out the kitchen window when you find yourself devouring a bowl of cold ziti with your fingers, as you lean against the refrigerator door. “What am I doing?!” I’m here to tell you that it comes down to two things: respect and habit, with willpower as the meat of the sandwich.

This goes for many addictions, though not all because some addictions, we know, are chemically based, that it’s your body that must detox. With love, you need to create new pathos–you literally need to change the way your brain functions. Through science and brain mapping, we now know that this is possible to do simply by changing our thoughts. But doing so, working on this new thinking strategy, needs to become a habit, so real PHYSICAL changes in your brain structure can be made. I will address the details of this in a followup post.

As for respect, I’m not talking about her respect, or lack thereof, for you. I’m speaking about respecting yourself. What does that mean? It means, when you’ve set out a plan for yourself (“I’m simply not going to do that tomorrow”), and you follow through with that plan (I didn’t do it!), you’ve shown respect for yourself, and that simple act BUILDS self-esteem. We feel good when we follow through on promises we make to ourselves. And we feel like shit when we don’t respect ourselves enough to follow through. Repeat that line to yourself. Because when you wrote, “Add to that she is abusive – verbally criticizing me and basically making me feel worthless,”  you got it wrong. She’s not making you feel worthless. You are. You’re allowing it because you’re not following through with what you know is right for you. You’re not respecting yourself.

As a sidebar, I’ll also add that no one really makes us feel. People say what they will, and it’s up to you, as an adult, to examine it, turn it upside down, and to determine if what they’re saying has any merit. You get to decide what to do with it.

Day one, you admit, “even then I knew it was probably best to keep walking.” But you didn’t. Ask yourself why? Specifically, which of your needs were being met? Did your involvement with her make you feel important (Wow, she wants me!), did you feel needed, feel entertained or even more alive? Was it the excitement of a new relationship, fearing there wouldn’t be another one as passionate? If you wanted to believe that you were special, that if she changed it was because of just how amazing you are, ask yourself why you need to prove to anyone how amazing you are? Make a list.

Then, in another column make another list. Which of your needs are being met now? Have the needs being met changed, or are they still the primal needs you’ll always want met? Next ask yourself How can I fulfill these needs without her?

We complain that someone else isn’t meeting our needs, but we never ask if we’re meeting our own needs.  “I need to feel…”  Fill in the blank.  I’ll be happy when…  Now dissect it.  I need respect.  I need validation.  I need to be loved more.  I need to be accepted for who I am.  Then ask yourself if you’re doing it.  How can you, each day, alone, give yourself that need?  I know what this sounds like.  Self-help vomit.  I know.  But it works.

Another sidebar: provoking change in anyone isn’t what makes you amazing. You’re amazing because there’s no one else just like you, no one. That’s what makes you amazing, not what you do or how much you earn, or how hot the girl on your arm is.

My advice to you is to go cold turkey. The first four days are the hardest. After that, it’s much easier. It isn’t easy, I know. My God, I know. But you will come to a point where you realize “I don’t want to live like this anymore.” Once you’re there, it’s all about follow-through. Get through it in four day increments, setting up little rewards for yourself along the way. Go ahead, bribe yourself. Whatever works. The most important part in all of this is to build your esteem by setting attainable goals for yourself and following through with them.

go ahead, ask


If you have questions or need advice on anything from where to eat to how to get over the bastard, just email your question to my advice email address.



  1. Author

    I’m heading into Manhattan now for an appointment with “THE DOCTOR” of failing crotches everywhere. I’ll post replies later! Nervous!

  2. I think there are a few possible reasons:
    1. Great sex
    2. Addiction to the other person
    3. You subliminally like feeling this way
    4. You’re trying to “save” her
    5. You grew up in a home with this type of relationship
    Pretend you stay with this woman. Marry her. Have children with her. Your children are going to grow up witnessing the way she puts you down. They are going to learn that behavior, and when they’re old enough they’ll start putting you down. Then they, too, will continue the cycle and become abusers.

    No one is going to stick up for you if you don’t stick up for yourself. It’s hard—really hard—to end a relationship where you feel comfortable. But we all get through it. You will, too.

    1. I would agree with all of these – well said – and add to #4 – possibly to avoid fixing your own issues. Choosing a broken partner to fix is SO handy for those of us who enjoy procrastinating on that front!

  3. Accepting bad behavior and poor treatment can usually be boiled down to low self-esteem. Sometimes (often), people stick with the “devil they know” out of fear of being alone. Just bail, man. The worst part of being with the wrong person is that when/if the right person comes along, you’re unavailable.

  4. I think there are many likely reasons for this behavior — and probably the truth is a combination of them.

    1) It is exciting. It annoys you, frustrates you, humiliates you — but it never bores you. This can be hard to let go of.

    2) Right now, you are on the inside of a combative situation. This gives you a certain amount of attention. But even more than that, you know very well what will happen when you are on the outside of this situation — there will be words and threats against you. Leaving that can be difficult.

    That being said, you have to figure out a way to untangle yourself from this drama. In my humble opinion, the best way to do this is a clean break and a lot of willpower.

  5. When I was in college, I spent 3 years in a toxic relationship with a first class A-Hole. He was verbally abusive, rude to my family and friends, and cheated on me multiple times. Why did I stay? Because I loved him, I believed he loved me, and I was afraid of what life would look like without him. Also, he did improve certain aspects of his behavior over time (after each of a thousand break-ups) so I did feel that he was capable of change. I didn’t want to put the time and effort into the relationship just to have him become the better version of himself for some other woman. Stupid, I know. Anyway, finally one day, I’d just had enough. He said something really insulting to me (though no more insulting than usual) but I was just done. And in fact, that’s what I said to him “that’s it. I’m done.” I didn’t yell or scream, there was no drama, I was just finished.

    I never went back to him. I dated a few guys after that, before falling in love with the man who is now my husband and father of my child. With him, I have an incredibly healthy, supportive relationship. He is kind, and good, and has never ever said or done anything to hurt me. I am so grateful that I found the strength to get out of that toxic relationship, because what I have now is so much better.

    My advice is to walk away. Just be done. Know that you deserve better and that better is waiting for you. I’m sure you love this woman and she loves you, but sometimes love simply isn’t enough. Just know that you can do this. Dig deep and find the strength. Best of luck!

  6. I used to be like this. The trick is learning how to be alone. To be your own best friend, so to speak. When you are around someone so much, it’s hard to know who you are without them. You fear the unknown of living without them, living alone. Trust me, end it and keep it ended. No phone calls. No emails. No nothing. This sounds like the kind of person who will take any opportunity to suck you back in to her world of drama. And you keep getting sucked back in. I know its hard to quit cold turkey, but it’s like smoking. The worst week is the first week. After that, it gradually gets easier. 6 months from now you will look back and wonder what the Hell kept you there that long. Then just be by yourself for a while, let it heal before you jump into another relationship. Otherwise, you’ll likely punish the new gal for the stuff the last gal did which is unfair to the newbie. Knowing you can make it on your own is a very powerful feeling. Not fearing being alone is the best thing I’ve ever learned in my adult life. I won’t be alone forever, I’ll find my guy. But if I don’t, you know, I know its not the end of the world, because I know I can do it on my own if I have to! Good luck!

  7. I would hazard a guess that you have bad self esteem and therefore don’t feel you deserve good treatment so you punish yourself by staying addicted to this drug of a women.

  8. I read a few lines into this and thought: he’s a codependent. She sounds like an alcoholic or addict of some kind. And I only say this because it sounds so familiar. Like, from my own life familiar.

    Get to a 12-step meeting for Codependents (CODA) or, if she’s an alcoholic or addict, go to al-anon. It sounds as if you need real help, not just advice.

  9. Perhaps being with this person allows you to stay out of actually being vulnerable in a ‘real relationship’ because you know this one isn’t ‘real’ and going to work so you are subconsciously protecting yourself.

  10. My guess is the guy thinks that this is the best he can do. So, like other commenters have said, it’s a self-esteem issue. Men have them, too. We all want the best for ourselves. Unfortunately, your brain can screw with you and tell you that these horrible things are what you deserve. That’s the real problem.

    I’m sure they have a few things in common that make them a great couple or make her girlfriend material. Problem is, there’s obviously not enough of them and the bad outweighs the good. So, when your psyche is screwing with you and saying “take what you can get” it’s easier to focus on their good qualities and justify staying because you can see past the heaps of chaos and know that there is a nice person under there somewhere.

    The reader is obviously smart enough to know that this relationship is wrong and that there’s a problem, so that’s great… already better off than many people in bad relationships. That’s half the work already.

    He needs to commit to finding a good therapist that can help him understand himself so that this pattern doesn’t happen over and over again, and it will without some fundamental change in himself. Our bad choices don’t have to be life sentences.

  11. One line of what you wrote stuck out for me: “she’ll change, she’ll realize I am worth it.”

    Sounds to me like you are caught in a “thrill of the chase” situation here. You think you can change her, you think your undying love and the fact that you are a special snowflake, not like the other guys she’s been with, will make her into the person you think you want her to be. But the fact of the matter is, if she became the sweet and loving woman you think you want, the chase would be over, you’d get bored, and then you’d be done with her. Either accept that you love the drama or reach the point where you can’t take it anymore and walk away, but stop pretending you’re not feeding a need of your own.

  12. Find a distraction. A hobby. Something to fill your time until you aren’t thinking about her all of the time. Honestly, she won’t change; at the least you can’t count on her changing. She doesn’t have to be all bad to justify a break-up. Look at it as she isn’t right for you and move on. There are plenty of charities that need the free help. Pick one and busy yourself. I always hated when people said “when you least expect it it will happen.” But for me it was true. And when I met him I saw the things we didn’t have in common and a friend said “if you are thinking of these things a month from now you’re right. If you aren’t then I guess they don’t matter.” He was right. It shouldn’t be this hard if it is “right.” Good Luck! We’ve all been there to some degree or another.

    1. Author

      I like the distraction idea, too. Whatever gets you through it. For me, it was photography classes and sneaking away to spend hours movie hopping in theaters to watch other people deal with drama.

  13. This question at once baffles and distresses me. Usually we see it from the woman’s point of view, and at first I thought this was an ironic post meant to cause people in general, and Stephanie in particular, to examine their own relationship. But maybe that isn’t so.

    On the assumption that my previous assumption is wrong – please get some help. Abuse, no matter where it comes from, is not acceptable. Period. Shaming you, embarrassing you, ridiculing you – not okay.

    One thing that’s been ringing through my ears on a daily basis lately is this simple phrase: “You have to teach people how to treat you – you’re in charge.” Take that to heart – get away from the toxicity – go find a place to get some therapy and some peace with yourself. When you’re healthy, you will attract healthy – until then, you’re just digging your hole deeper and deeper.

  14. Maybe on some level you’re addicted to drama. Or maybe you like the feeling of being the stable one, the hero. Do you happen to have a mom or sister who is like this?? Maybe you’re afraid of loneliness…but you have got to either see this relationship for what it is, a roller coaster with no stability or future and be ok with that, or you have to make a clean break. Imagine if you spent the energy you spend chasing this trainwreck on self-improvement or finding someone new (the former often leads to the latter).

    I had a toxic person in my life that I was convinced I was in love with. For years. I eventually went cold turkey. It was really freaking hard…I had a withdrawal period where I longed for a “fix” of one of his witty texts or a call or email or just meeting for one drink…but I stayed strong. And then, something started to happen…I made new friends, pursued new interests, and realized that, once I wasn’t investing so much on all that drama, my life had become stable and fun…who knew??? I eventually phased him back in in small doses…now we probably IM briefly once a month. I miss the rollercoaster sometimes, but I am much much much happier now.

  15. I don’t think anyone’s mentioned this yet, but I think some people stay with partners who are bad for them because they don’t want to admit to the world they’ve made a mistake. They’ve chosen the wrong partner. Their judgment isn’t very good.

    I know that’s how I felt when I had to break-up with my first long-term BF (four years together). I really didn’t want to admit that I’d chosen an option (in this case, a partner), and it didn’t work out. For whatever reason, I felt like if I broke up with him it would reflect on my character.

    I eventually did break up with him, of course, but it was a hard pill to swallow.

  16. an ex friend of mine keeps choosing asses for boyfriends/lovers because her mother treated her like crap her entire childhood. She was always comparing my friend to her siblings and making sure she knew she didn’t measure up to any of them. So now this ex friend continues to pick LOSERS who beat on her, steal her belongings, not to mention her self respect and she lets them. She took the bait when they first indicated they liked her and for her, anyone who likes her is good enough. They prove the mom wrong. Never mind if the guy is a bum. The “love” message is all she wants to hear and she’ll never hear it from her mom so she takes it however she can get it. It’s so sad. She’s an ex friend because I can’t stand the parade of losers. There’s been backsplash from these losers onto me and I got tired of it. Tired of hearing how horrible they are treating her. Tired of hearing about their loser children and how much she dislikes them. She’s created this prison for herself but I let myself out of that cell and I walked away. Maybe that’s not a good friend but I couldn’t fix the stupidity. Only she can fix herself. If she does, then maybe we can revisit this friendship option.

  17. Thank you Stephanie, and to everyone who responded.
    It is a self-esteem thing with me, I know that. For whatever my reasons- dysfunctional family and childhood, relationships that didn’t pan out, feeling the clock ticking and weighing options that should not even be considered… all of it. These are excuses for my personal bad judgement and I can’t justify them any more. I needed to hear that from all of you.
    I chose the wrong person. Someone who was never good for me, but was good because I wanted them to be good for me. I hung in. I got pounded into the ground for it, not willing to accept the obvious. Being able to accept it and move on is freeing.

    I’ve gone cold turkey. It feels fragile, but good.

  18. I absolutely agree with your statement about no one being able to make you feel a certain way, that it’s up to you how you respond. Sounds obvious but can make an enormous difference when you really make the effort to live that way, consistently, over a period of years.

    I have witnessed close friends go through a period where they each went back to a toxic relationship repeatedly. In all four instances it was at least partly a case of getting over a recent betrayal, & to somehow blunt the pain with attention from someone they each felt superior to. At least, that’s what they all have said after the fact. For three of them, at least, it was just a matter of time, to heal from the betrayals & then dump the toxic fix.

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