Unhealthy romantic relationships are commonly understood as toxic interactions between psychological influences and environment. That’s valid, but I’d like to offer an additional perspective. Individuals often spot the red flags of a manipulative or controlling relationship, yet they stay in it because it offers an escape from reality and even morality.
A quick note: This article is the result of conversations with friends and acquaintances regarding their experiences, as well as personal conjectures concerning the topic. It’s not a personal manifesto or account of my own relationship(s). Also, for the purpose of efficiency and consistency, I’ll refer to the unstable partner in this scenario as “D” and use male pronouns to identify him.
An unhealthy relationship offers a sort of alternate reality. D may use extremely romantic language, profess his love almost immediately, attribute superlatives to both his love and beloved at early stages, and use cliches that are about as accurate as astrological signs. The language and fervor appeal to the ear, despite their apparent falsity. We enjoy the fantasy, so we prolong it. By contrast, real, healthy love—romantic or otherwise—requires more effort. It’s not an abstract absolute. It’s substantiated within the context of experience and conflict. This complexity, however difficult, makes the connection more uniquely personal and legitimate. There’s room for the individuals to grow and develop. It’s also more difficult to discern the subtleties of healthy love, due to its complexity. Giving and recognizing this type of love involves close reading and careful translation.
In the case of “easy” love with D, it may seem as if less work is necessary to sustain the relationship, because the devotion is so apparent. But those like D who offer love quickly— labeling themselves as devoted, sacrificial lambs—are usually the quickest to make demands in exchange. They’re loan sharks, quick to give and merciless in seizing their returns. Escapism from reality transforms overtime into detachment from reality like a sad, quiet wave from a car speeding away. As D increases control and grows more possessive, it’s not uncommon that he isolate his “beloved” from family, friends, and potential acquaintances. In essence, the romance begins to control reality.
A moral escapism can also occur in unhealthy relationships. There are two primary modes of being for those who choose to remain with D when they learn of his malignancy: villains or victims. Realizing the harm being done to them, an individual either become aggressive or passive. In the case of the first party, escapism from morality, or extreme moral relativism, develops. The attention, charisma, and even absurdity of D is too compelling to reject, yet his behavior causes pain, conflict, and degradation. The aggressive responder, then, decides that D offers something that can’t be lost, while simultaneously recognizing that D’s behavior is harmful. The villain establishes that the relationship must be maintained, but D no longer deserves respect. Additionally, in response to the rising conflicts between guilt and hurt, one’s moral vision begins to split. The lies the villain tells to protect the relationship, both to D and to others, seem to be forgivable casualties. Also, the way D is treated appears forgivable because of the ways he inflicts harm. The aggressive response equalizes the relationship, falling into the escapist morality that’s really just a guise for selfishness.
Maybe for some people such an approach is morally allowable, considering D has ceased to act humanely. The relationship becomes an exchange of needs, isolated from all of the other healthy relationships in one’s life. However, escapism isn’t entirely within one’s control. It cultivates an attitude of selfishness and superficiality that further distances healthy relationships from toxic ones. Escapism will undermine one’s self-image, and it will expose one to further harm. From the perspective of both villain and victim, escapism will allow someone to believe themselves reduced to D's same level of dehumanization.
We should know better than to fall into these relationships, but we enter them because they offer us an escape from lives we perceive as boring, painful, or loveless. Something compels us that’s more important than morality, stability, or safety. So, we toy with fantasy and extreme moral relativism until we realize that their insubstantiality cannot ground us. At this point, the relationship—or rather, the contract that has emerged from what was originally a relationship—fails. For the sake of self-preservation, by recognizing the morality and realism that are essential to our identities, we bring the contract to an end.