Why Do We Stay in Unhappy Relationships?

Rachel and Darren had been friends since they were teenagers. They had a bond filled with trust and genuine care, but nothing romantic had ever transpired. After spending more and more time together, however, Darren asked Rachel to be his girlfriend. Although she was caught off-guard by his request, she agreed with hesitation, wondering whether she could fall into love with someone for whom she didn't have romantic feelings.

For a while, the relationship was happy and fulfilling; the two shared a loving bond, which had carried over seamlessly from their friendship and only deepened with sexual intimacy. As months went on, however, Rachel noticed a new side of Darren which had never come out in their friendship; he was incredibly jealous. She began finding it harder and harder to find happiness within the relationship and grew distant in the process. Feeling Rachel's shift and afraid of losing her, Darren became increasingly doting, and would constantly tell her how much she meant to him, calling her the "light of his life" and exclaiming publicly that he didn't know what he would ever do without her.

With every expression of this sort of affection, Rachel put a pause on her plan to end the relationship. Though she eventually did, the process took months, and a once-loving friendship deteriorated into hurt and chaos for both.

Why did she stay?

New research attempted to discover just that: In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , researchers sought out to discover whether people in relationships consider not only their own wants and needs, but the feelings of their partners when deciding whether or not to end a romantic relationship.

With that hypothesis, researchers conducted two studies exploring whether people make the decision to stay solely for the benefit of sparing their partners' feelings—in other words, they are prosocially motivated to stay.

Let your kids fail. To learn self-sufficiency, kids need to occasionally dust themselves off (literally and figuratively) without your help. "Most parents know what their children are capable of but step in to make things easier for them," says Sheri Noga, the author of Have the Guts to Do It Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence. Remember: Long-term benefits—a teenager who knows how to do her own laundry, for example—trump momentary discomfort. Before you rush in to help with any physical task, ask yourself: "Is my child in real danger?" Then—and this applies to other challenges, like the social studies poster due tomorrow—think about whether your child has the necessary skills (dexterity and balance) or simply adequate sleep and a snack. Yes? Time to back off and see what happens.

In the first study, a total of 1,348 participants in romantic relationships were tracked over a 10-week period. They conducted a survey with questions about each participant's current romantic relationship, as well as personality measures, measures of the perceptions of the partner’s commitment, and the amount of distress their partner would experience in a breakup, as well as general demographic information. In order to study participants' perceptions of their relationships, they also responded to weekly emails noting whether or not they were still in a romantic relationship with their partner, and who broke up with whom, if the relationship at any point ended. The results found that "people were less likely to break up with their dating partners over the course of 10 weeks if they believed that their partner was highly committed to the relationship, or if they believed that their partner would be highly distressed in the event of a breakup . . . suggesting that people are more likely to stay in relationships with highly dependent partners compared with less dependent partners even if their own relationship quality and dependence were low."

In a second study, which replicated and built upon the first, 500 participants who had considered breaking up with their partners were followed over a two-month period. Here, the researchers hypothesized and further probed the idea that, despite considering leaving a relationship, a partner’s dependence on the relationship would discourage breaking up. The same measures as the first study were used, in addition to questions probing why one might stay in an unhappy relationship surrounding guilt ("I would feel guilty about letting my partner down"), retaliation ("My partner might say or do harmful things"), and negative judgement ("People might judge me for ending the relationship"). Similar to the results of the first study, people forwent initiating a breakup based on their partners' perceived dependence, even beyond reasons like guilt, fearing retaliation, or negative judgement.

Pass along your plan. Mobilize the other caregivers in your child's life - your spouse, grandparents, daycare worker, babysitter - to help reinforce the values and the behavior you want to instill. This includes everything from saying thank you and being kind to not whining.

The researchers thus concluded that, indeed, we tend to stay in romantic relationships that are not particularly fulfilling, not for ourselves, but for our partners: "We found that our effects were not moderated by feelings of being appreciated, suggesting that even people who felt less appreciated or relatively more taken for granted by their partner still took their partner’s feelings into account when making stay/leave decisions. Across both studies, we did not find moderations by satisfaction, investment, quality of alternatives, or commitment. These results suggest that people are less likely to break up with a romantic partner who is highly dependent on the relationship even if the relationship is not doing a particularly good job of meeting their own needs."

Not sure why you're hanging on to a relationship that may not be working for you? Though these are only preliminary studies, hopefully this research helps shed some light.