Why Didn't I End It Sooner?: The Self-Discredation Cycle in Relationships

Everyone struggles with self-doubt, especially when making decisions surrounding a romantic relationship. Should you ask for his number first, or is that too assertive? Does double texting make you look desperate? Is it going to be seen as “bitchy” if you end things at a certain time in the relationship? What will others think?

It’s not always easy to trust your instincts, especially when your mind is also questioning what is “socially acceptable,” or feeding you irrational thoughts that stem from feelings of fear and insecurity. I’ve been in several relationships where I felt considerable anxiety and stayed longer than I should have because of my tendency to overthink. Sometimes, if I was anxious enough, I could even build a pattern of self-mistrust and start doubting whether my issue was “big” enough to be a red flag, or even an issue worthy of conflict instigation. I could even convince myself it was okay to put up with things that I later realized were making me incredibly unhappy or anxious. It’s easy to do, and I know many others have experienced this as well.

However, I strongly believe that it’s not okay for those of us who suffer in these ways to keep pretending there is no issue, and hope for learned self-doubt to go away when we find the “right person.” While it’s a nice thought, I know that I don’t want to wait around for someone to “fix” me. The issue of staying too long in ill-fitting relationships is a learned practice, and I believe that it occurs when you establish a pattern of self-doubt and confused coping skills which I’m calling the “Self-Discredation Cycle.”

The Self-Discredation Cycle

The Self-Discredation Cycle begins when negative thoughts seem to indicate that there is something to worry about in your relationship, which ruminate until you start to spiral and don’t know what to do about them. For example, a partner doing something you disapprove of may make you wonder if they’re the right fit for you, but you then question whether it was a one-time thing, or start making excuses for it, because you don’t want something to be wrong.

You can choose to address or suppress the negative thoughts, but you tell yourself that addressing them may lead to unnecessary conflict. Therefore, suppression becomes the norm because of three predominant thought processes: you care about them, you want everything to be okay, and you can justify the behaviour by believing “love is hard,” “you have to compromise,” or “you’re making a big deal of nothing.”

Once the practice of suppression is in place, it can cause you to use repeated soothing thoughts as a coping mechanism, which suppresses the anxiety by claiming that everything is okay and your unhappiness is unjustified. For example, a common worry that young women seem to encounter is, “What if they’re not replying because they don’t have feelings for me?” This worry can be met by the soothing thought, “They don’t want to hurt you, just put a bit of trust in them, you’re upsetting yourself for no reason.”

This part of the process in itself can be positive and constructive because in a healthy relationship you can openly address the issue with your partner and realize that there is truly no reason to worry. In other words, you can receive the proper effort from your partner to prove that you have nothing to fear. However, by telling yourself that you’re upset “for no reason,” and therefore minimizing the issue and invalidating your feelings, you can also build a pattern of self-doubt that will cause the Self-Discredation Cycle in less healthy or ill-fitting relationships.

The Self-Discredation Cycle takes the creation of self-doubt, as a result of soothing-based coping, and builds on it. By establishing a pattern of suppression when you encounter an anxious thought about the relationship, you can begin to negate actual, valid issues under the same rationale of “everything is okay.” Thus, you begin using self-soothing thoughts as the automatic response to unhappiness, treating rational worries caused by a real problem with the relationship as irrational overthinking. This process is what caused me, and I would bet many others, to stay in relationships that were ultimately creating unhappiness and should have ended earlier.

It can be so easy to justify staying in relationships by burying your anxiety under a false sense of safety, created by the soothing thoughts that had before helped build a healthy, trustworthy relationship. The cycle can also cause you to further distrust yourself, making it impossible to make serious decisions, like ending a relationship that you’re convinced is perfectly healthy and normal.

For me, it wasn’t always that my partner was treating me poorly or was a bad person, but rather that the division between what we needed in the relationship, or who we were as people, was just too great to allow us both to be happy. Luckily I’ve improved at recognizing this process and been able to end relationships, and my partners have always seemed to understand, if not felt the same way. However, this same story can have a much more dangerous ending for others, and it is incredibly important for everyone to be able to recognize this self-doubt suppression cycle, whether you’ve had this experience before or not.

It is possible to feel a certain level of anxiety in a healthy relationship, and work past it with your partner. As long as the relationship is still serving everyone involved, and no one is being dishonest with the other, or themselves, it has worked before. However, when the unhappiness becomes so much that you begin to suppress valid feelings of worry or upset, you need to recognize that you’re unhappy and reflect not just on whether it is worth remaining in the relationship, but also how you got to this point. If it was the Self-Discredation Cycle, I would encourage you to actively work on it, because it is learned behaviour and it won’t always “go away with the right partner.”  

What You Can Do About It

I would encourage anyone who has experienced self-doubt issues and overthinking to focus on the importance of your own feelings and recognize the worth of your own happiness. Relationships take two to tango, and if only one partner is happy, no amount of suppression can make your unhappiness okay.

So look for the signs! If you have an argument, take note of how they react to (respectful) conflict instigation and resolution. If you find yourself self-soothing, try not to make it your go-to coping mechanism for all relationship unhappiness. Don’t just forget about it if they never apologize, or if they always think they’re right, or if they make you feel inferior in any way, even accidentally. If a song about toxic relationships reminds you of them, run. And above all, do not let your feelings get pushed aside by your own coping mechanisms—there are enough people out there who will make you feel inferior; you don’t need to be one of them.

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