Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Question of Loyalty in Unhealthy Relationships

“Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” ― William T. Sherman
            One of my friends once described me as being a fiercely loyal friend, which I still take as among the highest compliments I’ve ever received. My sense of loyalty comes from my dad’s consistently steadfast loyalty to everything and everyone in his life as well as my mom’s severe attachment to her loved ones. Loyalty is one of those things I not only value in myself, but even in my enemies. When I encounter people I dislike, but then see the way they have their friends’ backs, I can respect them. Similarly, when I encounter someone who has no loyalty to anyone or anything but themselves, they lose my respect. It’s just that important to me.

            I’m writing about this because I have always struggled with letting people go, but in recent years I think I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve learned to release the people who are toxic to me or who no longer want me. It’s difficult, but I think it’s healthy to let those people go. Yet, there is still the part of me that believes in sticking to the people I love no matter what.

            And I guess that’s where the struggle lies - as much as I value loyalty, the aspect that I struggle with is when do you stay loyal and when do you walk away? How much loyalty is admirable and in what circumstances, and when does it become self-neglect? Loyalty means that you stick by someone even when it’s costly to yourself. I think this area is very hard to navigate.

"I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. "Don't you leave him Samwise
Gamgee." And I don't mean to." - Lord of the Rings
            The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEOP) describes loyalty as, “… primarily a certain ‘stickingness’ or perseverance—the loyal person acts for or stays with or remains committed to the object of loyalty even when it is likely to be disadvantageous or costly to the loyal person to do so.” The epitome of this definition, and also I think one of the best examples of loyalty, is Sam from Lord of the Rings. He was one of the most loyal friends who stayed by Frodo’s side to help him carry the burden of the ring. Despite Frodo mistreating him, falling to temptation, and the many external obstacles they faced, Sam “stuck” to Frodo until the end even when it wasn’t in his best interest to do so.

            The history of loyalty in civilization has been crucial to our survival and to keep societies alive. It is so important that disloyalty and betrayal are among the highest offenses we can make against one another. In Dante’s Inferno, there is a hierarchy of sins and the bottom circle of hell is reserved for those who betrayed their closest relationships. The Old Testament is also “continually occupied with the fickleness of human commitments, whether to God or to each other” (SEOP). The SEOP explains that from medieval to early modern uses of the word, “loyalty came to be affirmed primarily in the oath or pledge of fealty or allegiance sworn by a vassal to his lord.” It is to pledge our allegiance to something or someone, meaning we will serve when called upon, or in other words - be there for them.

            The SEOP begins its entry about loyalty saying, “Loyalty is usually seen as a virtue, albeit a problematic one.” There is argument about whether it is a true virtue, because if it were, then were Nazis virtuous for their loyalty? Or any hate group for that matter? In a scope closer to home, I wonder how virtuous it is to stay loyal to a relationship that is not good for you, whether it be friendship or romantic. This is something I personally struggle with when it comes to my friendships that I don’t want to let go but that have stopped being healthy.

            The SEOP warns that, “the decision to commit oneself loyally may be rational, for one need not (indeed, ought not to) enter into associations blindly, or—even when they are initially unavoidable (as with familial or national ones)—accept their demands unthinkingly.” Meaning, we shouldn’t give our loyalty blindly. There are people who deserve our loyalty and people who don’t. But the whole point of loyalty, I believe, is that once you commit to being loyal to someone, the very definition means that it will be always and no matter what.

            So, who deserves your loyalty? This standard might be different for everyone, but I think there are a few important qualities to look for:

  • Someone who is loyal to you
  • The person who has your back
  • A person with integrity
  • Someone with your best interests at heart
  • Those who care about you
  • The person whose flaws you can accept
  • The people you can’t imagine your life without
            For me, I’m loyal to those in my life because I’ve chosen them carefully. There is something in each of my friendships that has proven that they love, care, and support me. When this is no longer the case, then it’s probably time to address what has changed. If over time nothing improves, or the relationship becomes more unhealthy, then it is time to let that relationship go. But first, I always want to try. Relationships require work and there are always ebbs and flows. Sometimes you may feel distant or neglected, or you may be the one being neglectful, but I don’t believe in walking away until it’s the last option.

            Giving your loyalty to someone who doesn't deserve it will only cause you harm. Sticking around to someone who has mistreated you since the beginning in the hopes of things changing is blind loyalty. It is not admirable. In fact, I would go as far to say that it is pure attachment based in fear. You are sticking to that person not because they add to your life or you add to theirs, but because you are afraid of what you’ll be without them. 

            Of course I'd like to clarify that there is a difference between sticking to someone you can't imagine your life without, and staying with someone because you're afraid of what you'll be without them. The people you can’t imagine your life without are those who add something completely fulfilling to you that there would be a vacancy in your heart if they were not in your life anymore. 

            Being afraid of what you’ll be without someone means you aren’t healthy enough on your own. Maybe you aren’t financially secure on your own. Maybe you depend on them emotionally because you have no one else who will listen to you. Maybe you’ve grown so comfortable having someone take care of you that you are afraid of taking care of yourself whether it’s emotionally or in other ways. Either way, you are afraid of walking away because of an unhealthy dependence you have on that person. That is not true loyalty, and sometimes it can even turn into accepting abuse.

            Some would say that loyalty means you stick it through no matter what. Those are the best relationships. But even the SEOP says there are terms to end loyalty, such as when there is serious failure on the part of the person we’re loyal to, or that our loyalty may be overridden by our greater loyalty to someone or something else. I’d argue that serious failure looks like two things – abuse (physical, mental, or emotional) and cheating (which I would say is a form of unintentional abuse).

            On the website, there is a list of different types of abuse and descriptions for what it looks like. Briefly, they are:

  • Physical abuse – “Physical abuse is any intentional and unwanted contact with you or something close to your body. Sometimes abusive behavior does not cause pain or even leave a bruise, but it’s still unhealthy.”
  • Emotional/Verbal abuse – “Emotional abuse includes non-physical behaviors such as threats, insults, constant monitoring or “checking in,” excessive texting, humiliation, intimidation, isolation or stalking.”
  • Sexual abuse – “Sexual abuse refers to any action that pressures or coerces someone to do something sexually they don’t want to do. It can also refer to behavior that impacts a person’s ability to control their sexual activity or the circumstances in which sexual activity occurs, including oral sex, rape or restricting access to birth control and condoms.”
*There is also financial abuse, digital abuse, and stalking, but you can learn more by visiting their website.

            When I started the relationship I’m currently in, I began reading a book called Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. This book taught me what appropriate boundaries are and how to set them early on, which I did. I think part of the reason that this is one of the longest relationships I’ve ever had, and definitely the healthiest, is partly thanks to this book.

            One of the lessons the authors of the book repeat over and over is people make mistakes. Sometimes someone will get angry and snap at you. Maybe at the beginning, the person you’re dating isn’t aware that they are pressuring you. The authors emphasize that if a red flag happens once or twice, watch out for it and address it. If the disrespect or inconsideration becomes a pattern, that’s when there is a real problem. At that point, you have two options: make it clear how you feel about the treatment you are receiving and set a boundary or leave. Either way you are either helping your partner to grow or dodging a bullet. Above all, never accept any kind of physical abuse or pattern of any other type of abuse.

            When I think of loyalty, boundaries, and abuse, I think of the 86 year old man that my mom takes care of. His wife died almost a decade ago, but they were married for over 50 years. It sounds so admirable, the reality of the situation is less so. They met each at the age of 23 one May and were married by September. He was an alcoholic for the first twenty years of their marriage. When he was about 40 years old, she finally told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, she would leave him. She took him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and he’s never touched a drop of alcohol since then. He says he didn’t know how bad he was until she threatened to leave. Then he says he spent the rest of their lives making it up to her.

            I’m sure he must’ve if they stayed together, but I wonder about her story. Having a woman that loyal is a quality that I think many men want – that woman who will deal with their bullshit no matter what and still stick around and be there for them. It’s one of those iffy admirable qualities, because though I think loyalty is important, I also wonder how much someone should deal with before it’s best for them to walk away. 

            On the other side of that, we admire loyalty so much because we know we are all flawed and have qualities that are hard to deal with. Having someone stick it through with us means we know we always someone to depend on. Someone who leaves when things get rough is not usually someone we want in our lives, because we can’t depend on them. Yet those people who leave might have more self-respect than most people, which is also admirable. Walking away from a relationship all comes down to how much you are willing to tolerate and accept. This is completely personal and depends on each person individually. 

            As for me, I am very selective with who I get close to, because once I choose to attach myself to someone, I never want to leave them. My longest friendship started with this little short girl named Melissa when we were in the first grade. We grew up together like sisters, constantly fighting and had a love/hate relationship. Around high school we both realized that if we had met then, we wouldn’t be friends.

            Somewhere around high school and college, we reached a point of the most unhealthy time in our friendship. We were adding nothing to each other’s lives, but instead met each other with lots of hostility and contempt. I felt like she always put me down and I think she felt I was condescending. This was the time we could’ve ended our friendship, but to be quite honest, I don’t think either of us thought about doing that. Why? Maybe it was mostly our history and the fact that we grew up together. But really I think it’s because we knew that no matter what, no matter how bad we were fighting or how angry we were at each other, if either of us ever truly needed the other, we’d be there without hesitation. So, we learned to address our problems, apologize, make amends, and move forward. Now, she is pregnant with her first child, engaged, and she asked me to be her maid of honor. She said if her and her fiancĂ© were religious, she’d ask me to be the godmother too.

            There was another friendship I had for almost as long with a guy who spent years being in love with me. I never returned the sentiment. Our friendship was good up until we reached college. I was tired of him loving me, so I did things to hurt him, hoping he’d fall out of love. That didn’t work. It only made him stop caring about me, while maintaining his stubborn feelings. Our friendship grew so unhealthy that progressively over the course of three years it became completely one-sided. He stopped caring about anything I had to say, but still wanted me to listen to him. He was mean to me, and I didn’t feel like being so great to him anymore. After his graduation, I reached a breaking point and felt that I had given that relationship all I could and was no longer receiving anything in return. I had to leave.

            This relationship was a lot easier to end, because unlike Melissa, me and this friend never made amends. I would address the way he treated me and how he didn’t care about me, but he never fixed it. This relationship now had a long pattern of mistreatment that I didn’t see changing. Despite the fact that we had known each other since fourth grade and had also been through a lot together, I had to walk away. He was no longer a friend I could rely on, and I no longer wanted to be someone he relied on.

            My dad has often told me that in relationships you have two options: If you want someone in your life you have to accept them as they are, and if you can’t, then you have to be okay with not having them in your life. I’ve always thought that was a really good clear cut way to look at relationships. I had to learn to accept Melissa as she was, just as she learned to accept me, but over time I could not accept the neglect from the friend I walked away from. 

            How much you are willing to tolerate has to do with where your boundaries are, which I think depends on how healthy you are. Healthy people have healthy relationships. Unhealthy people accept unhealthy relationships. If you are staying committed to an unhealthy relationship, it’s probably because you are already so okay with your own unhealthiness. The more unhealthy treatment you accept from yourself or another person, the more you are willing to tolerate, which is not a good thing. Sometimes it’s loyalty that enables to keep certain people in our lives. Sometimes it’s insecurity, fear of abandonment, and other unhealthy attachments that won’t let us leave. Which is why it’s important to ask yourself, if there is someone in your life who may not be good for you, are you keeping them around because you are afraid of losing them? Or is it that they have already earned your love, respect, and loyalty, so you are willing to get through the hard times?

            Very recently one of my friends ended our friendship and I still don’t know how to deal with it. My mom has the belief that friends don’t break up, despite the friendships she no longer has. The way she sees it, they are just put on hold, but whenever it is healthy for them to be friends again, or if those people seek my mom out, she will be there.

            Similarly, when talking to my dad about friendships I have ended or ones I’ve accepted are over, he says to keep trying. I tell him they were bad friends. He reminds me that I have to accept people as they are and people can change. My dad has had the same friends since he was like 6 years old. His newest friends he acquired at the age of 18, and though he doesn’t talk to or see many of his friends anymore, he insists they are still friends. One of his best friends fell into addiction again, so my dad doesn’t talk to him anymore, but says they are still friends. Friends he hasn’t seen in years, he says they are still friends. And I think both him and my mom view it the same way: these friendships are just on hold but not ended.

            In truth, I think I see it the same way too. There are the friends that slowly dissipate because of distance, and then there are the friends who I think are just put on hold. Most of my friendships are lifelong and very deep. There are a couple of friends I've had that needed to be let go of because of the continual pain they inflicted on me. But for the most part, I think of the few friends who are no longer in my life and I know that if they ever wanted to be my friend again, or if they ever needed me, I’d be here.

            At the end of the day, none of us is perfect. We will hurt and get hurt, whether intentionally or not. Sometimes I even think of loyalty as two people willing to deal with each other's flaws, because they know the other person does the same. It’s like when me and my best friend Melissa had to address all the unhealthiness in our friendship. Neither of us thought of leaving. We knew we had to grow and commit to treating each other better for our friendship to survive. But we decided to keep trying because we have always had each other’s back, defended each other, and have always been there for each other when we could be. That, to me, is loyalty.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Loyalty
What are the Different Types of Dating Abuse?


  1. This blog definitely made me think of my many friendships that I can say are on "hold". Everyone is busy but those friendships that truly bring you up and are there when you need them, those are the friendships you grow to treasure.
    I recently spoke with my cousin about this topic, she went through a rough time during her teen pregnancy at 16. She refused to tell her parents out of fear and when she turned to her friends they out casted her out of the circle. She felt lost. Scared. Turned out all she had to do was walk five feet to her sister's room and to give a call to her cousins that lived down the street at the time. The people that were there for her weren't even her age. They were the ones that were there during the sleepless nights. During the days that she didn't go to school because of embarrassment and mocking.
    Loyalty to friends (be it blood or those you consider family) is one, if not the greatest quality someone can have in their arsenal.
    Great blog! Can't wait to read the next one.

  2. Great insight on Loyalty! Loyalty can mean a lot of things for different reasons, but you're right, none of us are perfect and maintaining loyalty has a lot to do with chosing to be there for someone through those imperfections. Thank you for sharing! :)