“Boiling Frog” Syndrome and Why People Stay in Bad Relationships

Have you heard of the Boiling frog syndrome? Despite working as a Psychologist for nearly two decades I hadn’t heard of it until fairly recently.

Apparently, the expression originates from a fable about a frog that gets put into boiling water.

Upon encountering the hot water, the frog would, by reflex, jump out and save itself from dying.

If on the other hand the frog is placed in cold or tepid water that gradually gets heated up, it will fail to perceive the danger and hence get cooked to death.

From the research I have done, this is because the frog uses up all of its energy when trying to adjust to the ever-changing temperature of the water.

When the water then starts boiling, the energy depletion is such, that he/she simply does not have enough energy to jump out from the pot.

What killed the frog?

When first hearing the story, you might naturally conclude that the hot water kills the frog. This is of course partly true.

But upon reflecting more deeply, we can see that the determining factor of whether the frog dies or not lies in its ability to exercise judgment to exit the pot timely.

Failing this, it will be cooked as a result of the lack of resources required to help itself.

The metaphor of the poor frog translates well to a range of situations that we humans find ourselves in from time to time.

A bad work situation, a case of physical pain or debilitating illness, or as I will focus on in this article — an unsuitable or destructive relationship.

This metaphor recognizes that our adaptive tendency to adjust to situations can sometimes turn out unfavorably. Compassionately we can begin to see how we may sometimes stay stuck in dreadful relationships, jobs, or other life situations.

Even at times when the negatives are staring us in the face.

The gradual habituation to a dangerous or destructive situation numbs our senses to it and makes us unable to ‘jump’ out and exit on time.

Red flags of ‘boiling frog syndrome’ in a relationship

1. You find yourself rationalizing and ‘adjusting’ your expectations and boundaries for someone.

At the beginning of the relationship, you might have had a strongly negative response to certain behaviors of your partner.

Over time, you got so used to them that you barely notice them anymore. You might even tell yourself that he/she uses, for instance, control and jealousy because they love you so much.

As the relationship progresses, you fail to recognize that you deserve better. In some situations, outright horror scenarios from other relationships are brought in for comparison, to pacify the inner conflict.

Reasoning such as ‘At least they are not beating me’ or ‘my ex was even worse…’ might be used as excuses to remain in the relationship.

Just like for the frog, it is often easier for people to stay and adjust than it is to jump ship upon the early encounters of a problem! You might tell yourself to try a little harder or wait and see if it gets any better.

When doing so, most people fail to recognize that they simultaneously anaesthetize to the damaging effects of their situation.

2. You would react if a friend of yours told you about a relationship of the type you are currently in.

It is often easier to see clearly situations that pertain to other people, than those that we are involved in ourselves.

Ask any Psychologist!

When we are sufficiently detached from a situation or a person, we can often see behavior- patterns, reactions, and entire situations with complete clarity.

Our attachments create emotional ‘filters’ through which we view our own situations. In the case of destructive relationships, this might result in self-delusion and denial. If you would view the situation you are in as bad for someone else, it probably is not good enough for you either. Period.

3. You are so busy adjusting yourself that you forget your own needs.

When in a stressful and unsettling relationship, chances are that (just like the frog in the story) you are too busy accomodating and editing yourself to even recognize your own needs.

Relationships that feature controlling behaviors, powerplays, or trust issues are examples of situations that will keep you on tenterhooks.

Rather than spending the energy on staying aware, and staying accountable to your own decision-making process, you might find yourself just going along, all while hoping that things will get better. You are basically adjusting to the ever-changing temperature in the relationship, just like the frog during the heating process.

This brings your energy levels down and makes you less rather than more, able to take action steps to support yourself.

4. Clinging to the relationship has immobilized you from taking action on it.

Many relationships end up falling apart as a result of imbalance.

One partner is investing more into the relationship, or one is keener to grow and commit. Some relationships feature an outright abusive dynamic in which control and abuse are part of everyday life.

Let’s not forget; Most people do not go into a relationship expecting to sit tight during maltreatment. It is common for destructive scenarios to emerge over time as they are often masked by tactics of gaslighting and manipulation.

It can be challenging to understand how you could ever have allowed the situation you are now in to persist to this point. The sense of neediness and desperation might significantly alter the picture of what feels ‘normal’ and ‘good’.

To make a comparison, a bottle of water will be more appreciated during a walk in the desert than during a walk in the neighborhood where water is in abundant supply. Make sure that your state of deprivation does not dictate how ‘grateful’ or ‘happy’ you feel for acts that should come naturally in a healthy relationship.

Getting out before the water boils: How to make the jump?

1. Jump up and look down — is this a relationship you would have opted in for if it was offered to you as it is now?

Human beings are known to habituate to any type of situation; be it good or bad.

For instance, consider your excitement levels upon arriving at a new fancy holiday location. Then check it against your feeling on day 7. You might still love the place, but the excitement is long gone.

Likewise, and often more concerningly, we also habituate to bad situations. In order to regain perspective on a bad situation, it can be helpful to take a panorama view of what is going on.

Ask yourself ‘Would I choose to enter the relationship in the shape that it now has?’ If the answer is ‘no’, you probably have come to accept a bad situation.

2. What am I most scared of?

The unknown can often seem more frightening than a bad situation that is familiar to us.

As a Psychologist, I frequently watch people snap back into what is experienced as a ‘comfort zone’ — even when that zone could not be further from an objective sense of comfort.

Additionally, some people have never had a healthy template for relationships installed to start with. This does not change the facts: Pain is still pain! If a relationship feels bad, try to view this as a signal that something is wrong and that you need to remove yourself from the situation in order to see it more clearly.

What if I am already ‘par-boiled?

It may be that you are reading this and realizing that the ‘heating process’ has been going on for a while and that your relationship ‘thermostat’ is so out of whack that you have remained in your situation despite your better judgment.

Just know that it is not too late! The fact that you are gaining awareness and recognizing where you went wrong is a critical first step to get yourself out of the ‘pot’, even if it means crawling and grasping for the edge of the wall to get yourself out!

It is always going to be painful to acknowledge that something we have believed in has not been serving us well. Be gentle and supportive of yourself, but do take yourself by the hand and start planning for your exit.

Take time to heal and understand

If you have been stuck for a while in a destructive relationship, chances are that your senses are indeed blunted.

You have failed to recognize a bad situation for what it was. Chances are that your partner (or ex-partner) was someone who felt ok watching your defenses wear thin, while they managed down your expectations gradually.

This type of damage does require healing. Going from one bad relationship straight into another relationship (even a decent one) is risky business. You will be likely to bring those same blunt senses into the new dynamic. Entering even a positive relationship while still ‘par-boiled’ and unhealed will result in difficulty deciphering between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

You might have now learnt that you should jump out quickly, but now fail to recognize that the water isn’t even hot. Arriving traumatized to a new relationship will often result in hyper-reactivity.

Something that can sadly assist in sabotaging an otherwise great relationship by ‘jumping’ before there is a risk of getting burnt.

Retrain your senses by going on a dating-hiatus

So; Instead, take the time away from dating and try to spend some time identifying what you would actually want and need in a relationship.

Take the time to write it down. It will help to spend some extended time with yourself while figuring this out. Spending time with people is how we get to know them. It is no different when it comes to getting to know yourself.

Start focusing on how you would like to be treated and how it would feel to be treated with love and respect. You might find that the items on the list will appear unrealistic or impossible at this present time.

This is because the idea of having your needs met currently feels incongruent with the value you are placing on yourself. It is not a reflection of you wanting for too much.

When you feel unworthy- it can feel alien to be loved and cared for. While you are writing and exploring; also compile a list of non-negotiable boundaries and behaviors that you will never tolerate again.

How to get out of the low self-worth trap?

Most fears can be traced back to low self-worth.

The inability to value oneself can often give rise to a sense of scarcity in relationships as well as in other situations in life. We might believe there is not enough good out there for us.

This type of belief can run havoc with your life and compel you to cling to the most empty of wells. In order to shift this mindset, you will have to do a bit of ‘fake it til’ you make it’.

Begin by telling yourself that you are enough and that you deserve better. Then act on this belief (even when you don’t actually believe it).

You have to keep doing this consistently to notice a difference.

Yes, it will feel like taking a massive leap of faith. In time, your feelings will start to catch up and you will actually start to feel more worthy.

It can be tempting to think that you can ‘get away’ with remaining in a bad relationship.

If you peel the surface of this type of thinking, you will likely find that it is a thought pattern guided by a lack of love for yourself, paired with the fear of not ever being ‘chosen’ again.

It is important to note that a bad relationship is bad regardless of whether or not someone else is waiting to take you on. Focus on having a good relationship with yourself first!

Key Takeaway

The metaphor of the boiling frog is not a perfect solution for unhealthy relationships.

As a metaphor, it does however explain well how the process of a bad external situation can gradually diminish our ability to deal effectively with it.

If you are finding yourself in the dismal position of the slow-boiled frog- take a leap of faith and just jump out.

Trust that at least the view from outside the pot will give you greater clarity on the situation, and preserve your ability to determine where you go next.

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