Dumpster fires and why we love them

Ever walk away from a situation and wonder how it even happened in the first place? Everything about it goes against who you are and what you believe in? Or maybe you have watched a friend spiral down a path holding a bouquet of red flags? 

We all, at one point in life, have committed to a bad decision with inexplicable devotion, bravely pushing through conflict and warning signs, for the potential. The clinical term for this is situation is “dumpster fire.” As in: “my last relationship/job/house remodel was such a dumpster fire!”

Why does this happen? Initially the draw begins when we are depleted and the fire offers something we need. We ignore the smell because we crave the warmth. We believe the mediocre excuses and the false intimacy because we don’t want our own story to be challenged nor do the required work to mend ourselves. Their flaws make us feel better about ourselves. It’s ugly, but true. Often the intensity of the relationship’s beginnings distracts us from feeling lonely, hurt or bored. Sometimes it taps into a bigger belief pattern of not deserving, not being enough. Often the connection comes following a life event that has left us questioning our worth. Our false belief that we need to earn love is activated and we have purpose and hope.

Once we are hooked the focus on the desired outcome overrides our risk aversion. We believe what we want- not what the evidence shows us. Because the initial connection comes following trauma the level of oxytocin (normally present when falling in love) is even higher. This higher level of invincibility hormone, paired with the desired outcome of love, starts a pattern of perceiving red flags as shared obstacles for us to overcome. Cue the hairband ballad and false belief that love is all we need. 

Then shame walks in and throws gasoline in the mix. Dumpster fire relationships often include making decisions outside of our normal character. Decisions that we are ashamed of ourselves. I can tell you from both a personal and professional perspective shame is the killer of dreams and intimacy. Shame is BFF with fear leaving us stuck in a pattern of unhealthy decisions and self-loathing, we start to blame ourselves for not being able to extinguish the dumpster fire and help them achieve the potential that we originally saw. We feed into the narrative because challenging it seems to intensify the fire. This reinforces the commitment, “if we can make it work in the end its all worth it.” The behaviors are justified. Often this is where the push pull of trying to leave intensifies the situation and we go into damage control. Distancing ourselves and setting boundaries lead to explosive arguments and destructive behaviors that we are expected to manage. little ownership is taken despite the promises of change yet the needed reassurance and physical intimacy increase. 

The thing with dumpster fires is that the smell permeates everything. It clings to us. It starts to seep into the rest of our lives and other people can smell it. It dims our light. As the people who love us question our decisions, the inequity of energy and point out the underlying insecurity fueling the fire, we double down. The belief that if we change course the effort we have put in is now wasted and the effort to untangle ourselves from the mess seems overwhelming. Because the relationship started off so quick and intense and our intuition was distracted, normal boundaries were not upheld and money, living arrangements and personal information was shared too soon. Here is where the isolation starts to creep in. Friends and family recognize the situation for what it is, can’t stand the smell and interactions start to create friction. This friction can force a choice between the people you love. A choice you would never have to make in a healthy relationship.

It can all seem so obvious from the outside but when you are in it blinded by the smoke, living out the embodied memory of your childhood through the narratives you play right into the familiar patterns. These patterns inform your behavior, the relationships you choose and the way you tolerate distress. Here is the good news: awareness allows for pause, pause allows for choice, choice allows for change. 

When you dig deep and are ready to choose a different path here is a little advice: you are going to be fine. If you were not strong you would not be reading this. That fire in your belly is the one you need to feed not theirs. That fire is the one that is going to move you forward and fuel your dreams. The dreams you going to achieve now that all of your energy is not going into a dumpster fire. Don’t let anyone guilt trip you for their shitty behavior. If the problematic behavior existed before you it will exist after you. 

As individuals we are not that important. Read that again. You are not that important, nor a wizard, so changing people is not in your scope of responsibilities. Let the freedom of that sink in. We are responsible for our own healing and happiness and so are they. If there is misery at the core it creates insecurity and controlling behavior that no one can fix but the owner. Dimming your light, putting your dreams aside, ignoring your beliefs and trying to love someone who cannot love themselves has never fixed anyone. Mainly because fixing someone is not your job, and it is not love. Own that. Own what you contributed to the fire, forgive yourself and them, walk away with as much grace as you can manage and for the love of God listen to your gut from now on. That lady knows her shit.


Jessica Martin