Does your partner frequently make promises to change something when you confront them about it, but they never actually follow through? Is there a confusing inconsistency in your relationship that feels ongoing but is difficult to describe and happens so often that it’s hard to remember specific instances? Or, perhaps you find yourself in a constant cycle of broken promises that leave you feeling hopeful for positive change but ultimately leads to disappointment when you find the situation back to where it started. If this sounds at all like your relationship, you could be experiencing “magical thinking.”
Magical thinking is a form of Covert Emotional Abuse where the abuser tries to make the victim believe that the relationship issues and abuse will go away with a simple apology when in reality, it requires much more work than saying, “I’m sorry.” This violates the victim’s sense of hope and willingness to forgive. Victims can also engage in magical thinking when they take on feelings of guilt for expecting more than simply a verbal apology. The abuser may even try to guilt the victim for wanting more. If your partner says things like, “I said I was sorry, what more do you want?” or, “You’re being demanding and unforgiving. I apologized for that already,” they are likely trying to make you engage in magical thinking believing they’ve changed when they haven’t.
Verbal commitments such as apologizing and then telling one’s partner you will do better can provide them with a temporary false sense of security and manipulate them into staying in the relationship. While authentic apologies are good, “I’m sorry,” means nothing if there are not tangible and measurable action steps that follow those apologies to affirm that the partner is willing to change, build trust, and foster healthy conversations. Sometimes apologies and empty words can become routine and habitual and are not always brought with malicious intentions. While disagreeing with your partner and apologizing is not inherently wrong, it is essential to become conscientious of what happens after the apologies and promises.
Magical thinking tends to be understated, easily unnoticed by outsiders, or even those in the relationship. Becoming educated on Covert Emotional Abuse tactics like magical thinking can allow us to advocate for ourselves and invite a healthy confrontation with our partner. The first step in this process is awareness. Take a close look at the following examples of magical thinking. As you read through, think about the relationships and situations in your life. Do you recognize any of the characteristics of these scenarios?
But when Marissa reminds him of the commitment he made and how she wants him to honor it, he says, “Don’t you want a husband who works hard and makes money for our family? I have been so busy I haven’t had time to plan anything. I’m sorry; I’ll do better next week.” Marissa then places the blame on herself for asking too much and not appreciating her husband’s hard work when he has not been willing to compromise or put in the effort. The cycle continues to repeat. In this scenario, both Marissa and her husband are engaging in magical thinking.
But Sarah continues to hang out with Steven alone. This makes Michael feel even more confused because Sarah seems intent on not wanting to hurt Michael but she continues to engage in something she knows upsets him. He feels torn between wanting to trust his girlfriend and being confused because her words do not match up with her actions.
Without a plan for changing behavior, no amount of remorse or guilt is going to transform the situation. Forgiving your partner is important, but it can become less automatic when behavior doesn’t change. Choosing to stay committed in the small things will lead to staying committed in the more significant things, so it is important to remain consistent. Magical thinking might not seem “abusive,” but broken promises are evidence that it is so.
No one has a perfect record and can be entirely consistent all the time. However, we can become excellent communicators, choose honesty, and admit when there is an expectation or promise we cannot meet at the time. Magical thinking works both ways, both from the abusive one as well as the victim’s perspective. Consistently wishing things will get resolved or do better later or that they aren’t in need of firm boundaries is toxic and rarely leads to positive change.
Please know that if you believe you are experiencing magical thinking in the relationship, even if it is the only Covert Emotional Abuse tactic you recognize in your relationship at this time that it can still be harmful and does not mean help isn’t warranted. We encourage you to check out our resources below for additional clarity concerning your situation. Furthermore, consider seeking individual therapy from someone who is well-experienced and qualified in Covert Emotional Abuse.
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