Michele O'Mara

Putting Up with Disrespect

Filed By Michele O'Mara | January 12, 2010 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: cheating spouse, disrespectful partner, imago therory, lesbian love advice, lesbian relationships, relationship advice

Why does a female continue to date a female who constantly cheats and lies to them and totally disrespects them?

~ baffled

Dear Baffled,

There's a variety of reasons that might motivate someone to stay in a relationship when they are being disrespected.

One of the theories about this that I find plausible is the Imago Theory of relationships. The Imago theory says this: We are drawn to people who help us recreate what is familiar from our childhood, so that we have the opportunity to "heal" those wounds as an adult.

Think about your greatest frustration, hurt or fear as a child. Once you have that in mind, fast forward to your life today. What do you find most frustrating about your relationships today? (We can recreate what's familiar in our work relationships, our friendships, and our most intimate relationships). The frustration you felt then, is probably very similar to the frustration(s) you experience still today.

For example, if you grew up in a family where you did not feel valued, were often mistreated, or your feelings were disregarded, you may have internalized the belief that you do not deserve to be respected; that you are not worthy. Fast-forward to adulthood and you may find that when you are with close friends or your partner, you often feel disrespected or mistreated.

That's part one of this theory (we recreate what's familiar). Part two, is that we tend to respond to these familiar hurts in the same way we did as a child.

Think about how you responded to your childhood frustrations. What did you do to protect yourself? Did you talk back and argue? Did you go to your room? Did you stay busy with friends and occupy your time outside of the home? Usually, the coping responses we learn as a child, stick with us as an adult - even if they stop working! If you felt disrespected and mistreated as a child and your response was to isolate, feel bad about yourself, and become depressed, for example, then that is likely what you are still doing today when you are mistreated.

Our life experiences shape our mind. Our mind shapes our feelings. Our feelings shape our behaviors. And unless we stop the cycle and examine any or all of these, we tend to do the same thing over and over again, getting the same results.

So what's the key to changing all of this, you ask? The trick to healing these wounds is to use this information about your childhood to heal your current relationships. It is useless to use this information: 1) to blame your parents, or anyone else; 2) to make excuses for your behaviors or your feelings; or 3) as justification for why you are the way you are and to not work on changing!

Instead, once you identify what triggers your hurt (i.e. "I feel disrespected"), and how you are responding (i.e. "I just put up with it), you can start making small changes in how you respond. If you don't stop to reflect on what isn't working, it's unlikely that it will ever change.

In a nutshell, women who stay with lyin', cheatin', no good partners are likely recreating what's familiar to them. Remember, they are recreating how they felt (not the exact circumstances that created those feelings), so the partner may appear to be different from her family of origin, but how she feels when she is with her, is the same. Until she chooses to stop the cycle of what's familiar, nothing is likely to change.

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Beautiful column, Michele.

I really think this plays out like you say it does. I've noticed it several times in my own life.

While you say that one can make "small changes" and encourage people not to use the info as an excuse to continue bad behavior, what kind of changes should be made? Can you go a bit more in depth on that part in the instance of a disrespectful spouse?


I guess I was too literal in answering the question about why women stay, and didn't expand on how to fix the issue. So much to say, so little time. :)

Typically people who tolerate misbehavior have not developed the personal boundaries necessary to protect themselves. I describe boundaries in detail at: http://www.bilerico.com/2007/08/boundaries_whats_that.php

Boundaries are the building blocks of self-esteem and personal identity (which are closely connected). When we exercise boundaries (i.e. "it is not okay to lie to me, do it again and this relationship is over") we are systematically shaping our life. We are teaching others how we will be treated, what is acceptable and what is not.

Boundaries keep us safe. A boundary informs someone else that they have trespassed and that we are not okay with it. So a small step might be to send a consistent message that you are no longer going to tolerate being lied to. You can request to seek counseling for your relationship.

If the partner rejects this invitation, a second small step would be to get support (probably in the form of therapy) for yourself so you can build personal strength to take bigger steps.

If you do not have the strength to set boundaries, or start taking small steps to say "no" when you mean no and "yes" when you mean yes - then you'll need to enlist someone to support you.

"Domestic Abuse"

That is what relationships like the one described by "Baffled's" question really are. Perhaps she would be better served with a "theory" that has a long history of tried and true application. The imago theory suggests it is somehow the victim's responsibility to try to "fix" this relationship.

While I agree that people are on some level attracted to people who seem familiar (i.e. "You're just like my father", etc.). However, to suggest people like "Baffled" are somehow responsible to not only understand the intricacies of the such a relationship, but then make whatever adjustments to themselves to be able to accomodate a person who is in all likeliehood an abusive narcissist would be difficult even for a trained professional. It may be just as effective to suggest the abuser is the victim's "Karmic Responsibility".

Without intensive therapy "Baffled" will remain as confused as she was when she wrote you. Confusion (or even worse) is even more likely if she actually trys to apply the theory you suggest without the help of a professional familiar with imago.

Even women in counseling have great difficulty dealing with the instablity of an abusive personality like the one in described by the questioner. To buy into the notion that they have some kind of control over people who abuse them condemns people trapped in abusive relationships to the endless cycle of abuse by selling them on the idea that the abuse is somehow "their fault".

I dont believe that the application of the theory was suggesting that it is the victims job to fix the relationship, but rather to take ownership and control of her life.

I did not get the impression from Michele's article that suggested that the victim had any responsibility to make accomodations for the sake of a relationship. It appears moreso that she was stating that if an individual wants to stop the negative cycle they have to own their experiences and do some indepth reflection into why they make the choices they make (e.g. someone who consistently dates people who criticize and isolate them from their friends).

This isnt to say that the individual "brought it on themselves", the blame for all abuse rest solely on the abuser. However, there is healing that needs to be done on the part of the abused and that work starts at home.

The imago theory suggests it is somehow the victim's responsibility to try to "fix" this relationship.

Whose responsibility is it to "fix" a relationship? When someone lies and cheats and they are with a partner that tolerates that behavior, why would she (the liar) change?

Presumably the liar is also wounded - why lie if not? Like attracts like. One person's abusive tendencies mirror perfectly another's willingness to tolerate mistreatment. Both are victims, both need help. We can not "fix" others, we can only fix ourselves. Even in couple's counseling - the only thing we can fix is ourselves. Ideally, however, we do that with the support of our partner, and the help of a trained professional.

To buy into the notion that they have some kind of control over people who abuse them condemns people trapped in abusive relationships to the endless cycle of abuse by selling them on the idea that the abuse is somehow "their fault".

We are in 100% agreement that no one can "control" people who abuse, but the abuser themselves. Fault is not a word I use. I find responsibility to be a far more empowering word/concept. We can only fix the things for which we are responsible. So if I a believe I am only 10% responsible for what ails my relationship (or my life for that matter), I've only empowered myself to fix 10% of what's wrong. I will always error on the side of empowering the folks with whom I work to take responsibility (NOTE, this is not a synonym for "blame" or "fault") for their lives. Otherwise, I am another in a long line of disablers...

Lastly, I strongly agree with your contention that many women / and men for that matter, may need counseling to assist them in getting out of an unwanted cycle of abusive behavior within relationships. And I would add that it's unrealistic to think that that will happen without the lied-to, cheated-on, person first acknowledging that: 1) they are fed up, and 2) they are willing to get help.

Excellent and thought provoking comments that apply to non abusive situations as well.