Why do we stay in relationships that make us unhappy?

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Mental Health
At some point in our lives, we may find ourselves in a romantic relationship that makes us unhappy, yet we still choose to stick it out. Why persist in a joyless romance when we could simply break up? A new study has found a surprising answer.
unhappy couple
What actually makes it so hard to break up?

Unfortunately, happy romantic relationships are very familiar and often the focus of books, movies, and agony aunt columns.

But why do people find it so difficult to break free of situations that they are less than enthusiastic about?

One intuitive answer may be that the relationship becomes the person’s “normal,” something that they are used to and may be afraid to trade for the unknown of singlehood.

Or, perhaps, the unhappy partner is afraid that, once they break up, they will be unable to find a better partner and build a stronger, improved relationship. A new study, however, suggests that the real answer may lie elsewhere.

The research was led by Samantha Joel, who collaborates with both the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and Western University in Ontario, Canada.

Joel and her team’s findings, which appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest that a person’s decision to stay in an unfulfilling relationship may arise from a place of altruism, rather than one of selfishness or insecurity.

An unlikely reason to stick it out

Some existing research has suggested that people may find it hard to let go of partners who make them unhappy because they are afraid of being single.

Other studies note that people are more likely to stay in a relationship if they perceive that the effort their partner puts into its success matches their own.

All of these motivations indicate that individuals consider, first and foremost, whether and to what extent the relationship is meeting their own needs, or is likely to meet them, in the future.

However, the current study suggests that a key factor in a person’s decision to stay in an unhappy relationship may actually be an altruistic one.

“When people perceived that the partner was highly committed to the relationship they were less likely to initiate a breakup,” Joel explains.

“This is true even for people who weren’t really committed to the relationship themselves or who were personally unsatisfied with the relationship,” she adds. “Generally, we don’t want to hurt our partners and we care about what they want.”

Is the gamble ever worth it?

So, from where does this consideration stem? Joel believes that when we perceive our partner to be fully committed to our relationship, even though we, ourselves, are not, this may lead us to project hopes for the future.

Thus, an unhappy partner may choose to give the relationship a second chance in the hope that they may be able to rekindle the romance at some point. However, this hope could well be unfounded.

“One thing we don’t know is how accurate people’s perceptions are,” says Joel, adding:

It could be the person is overestimating how committed the other partner is and how painful the breakup would be.”

Joel notes that while there is a chance that the relationship will improve, which may make it worth the gamble, the opposite may actually happen, and the couple’s life together may further deteriorate, thus prolonging the agony.

Furthermore, even if the other partner is truly loving and committed, the researchers ask if it is ever worth staying in a relationship when we have misgivings about its future.

After all, “[w]ho wants a partner who doesn’t really want to be in the relationship?” Joel emphasizes.

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