Why Do People Stay in Unhappy Relationships?

Posted by on Dec 15, 2018 in Couples Counseling | Comments Off on Why Do People Stay in Unhappy Relationships?

We all know people who are unhappy and miserable in their relationships. However, they still stick it out despite being miserable. You’d think that they’d want to just cut their losses and move on from their unhappy relationships. Yet, there are a couple of reasons why people stay in these relationships.

A research study found that people stay in relationships based on their expectations for the future.  

Relationships and Conventional Wisdom

Do they expect the relationship will improve or get better? Conventional wisdom would say that if they were satisfied, they would stay in the relationship. Yet that’s not true. What researchers found was that the desire to stay or go was not based on the current level of relationship satisfaction, but rather on expectations for satisfaction for the future. In fact, they found that future satisfaction was a better predictor of relationship success than current satisfaction.

Hope for the Future for Unhappy Relationships

Of course, all relationships have rough patches. For instance, there is tons of research that shows relationship satisfaction decreases after the birth of a couple’s first child. Even though there is the joy of having the child, there is also less time for couples to spend time together.  So, though they are not getting their relationship needs met in that moment, these couples still hope that they will eventually be met in the future. Thus, they choose to stick it out. Current dissatisfaction then doesn’t mean the relationship is on the rocks. However, it does indicate that there are issues in their unhappy relationships that need to be addressed.

Where the Grass is Greener

Once it is clear that they will not live happily ever after, couples start reevaluating their situation. If the grass is greener somewhere else, they will leave the relationship. However, if they can’t see an alternative, they will stay with their current relationship. For those that choose to leave their relationships, living alone is better than living in misery together.  

For others though, living alone is the worst thing they can possibly imagine. They will do whatever it is they can to stay in their current relationship. They can’t bear to think of separation, or getting a divorce. How would it affect the kids? Also, religious views are often cited when someone is considering leaving a relationship.  It’s all about perspective. They feel guilty and can’t imagine what their expectations are for the future.

Looking for Options

So, what does it take for people who are in an unhappy relationship to stay or go? It depends. People will stay if they believe that the relationship will either improve or they can’t envision a better alternative. These people might say “everything would be fine if…” or “I’m too old to find another partner.” Still, couples do have a few choices they can make:

  1. Stay and use the disagreement as a signal to improve the relationship. Spend more time together, improve your communication, resolve old disputes, etc. If it’s not possible to resolve the issue it’s better to become housemates versus soulmates and find ways to coexist. Redefine how you think about the relationship and find happiness from other sources.
  2. Choose to leave the relationship. People are much more likely to end an unhappy relationship if they don’t see hope for the future and they don’t see a better alternative.  They would rather be alone than miserable together. The relationship is damaged beyond repair at this point, and there is not a whole lot that you can do.

For many couples, their unhappy relationships don’t have to end if they see hope that things will get better in the future. Yet, for those who are truly unhappy, and don’t have hope for the future, there are few options that remain open.

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