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Why People Stay In Bad Relationships, According To Science

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Have you ever stayed in a romantic situation that you knew wasn’t right, but you just couldn’t bring yourself to cut the cord? If so, don't beat yourself up. This innate urge to stay in an unhealthy relationship is more common than you think — and a pair of highly anticipated studies published this year by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has set out to back this claim.

The studies, which tapped over 1,800 participants total, revealed that people deciding whether to end a relationship or not consider not only their own desires, but also how much they think their partner wants and needs the relationship to continue. “The more dependent people believed their partner was on the relationship, the less likely they were to initiate a breakup,” said lead author, psychologist Samantha Joel, in a recent press release.

Joel’s findings sparked a quest to better understand why it can be so hard to let go when it’s abundantly clear that the relationship is no longer healthy or productive. Is it really a deep regard for your partner’s feelings that keeps you (and most people) sticking around — or do other factors come into play?

While the answer is never going to be clear-cut in this case, it’s worth exploring all of the variables and how they can affect your actions (or lack thereof) long-term. For instance, maybe it’s fear of the unknown (cue daunting thoughts of re-downloading those dating apps), a strong distaste for change, or just plain avoidance that’s causing you to prolong a failed relationship. Whatever the case may be, getting to the bottom of this behavior — and deciding exactly if, when, and how to end it — can be crucial to your happiness and well-being.

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In taking a step back, a 360-degree view of a bad relationship looks like this: “An unhealthy relationship exists when one (or both) partners are not getting their needs met,” Matthew Verdun, LMFT, explains. If you aren’t sure whether your relationship is just going through a rough patch or if it’s time to reconsider it altogether, there are warning signs you can look for to help you make an informed decision.

First, start by taking a look around you and evaluating external relationships, like those with your family, friends, and peers. Are you distancing yourself from these people on purpose? Have your friendships “drifted apart” recently? Oftentimes when people alienate themselves from those they care about, it’s because they want to steer clear of discussing their romantic relationship with anyone that they feel will see through a facade. Remember the days when your parents would ask you “What’s wrong?” and you would automatically respond with, “Nothing, I’m fine!” — In many instances, without realizing it, this behavior can spill into one’s adult life, and is a clear indicator that a bigger issue needs to be addressed.

Secondly, take notice of how you feel on a daily basis. While good and bad days are perfectly normal in any relationship, are there any constants that appear? Gemini Ferrie, love coach for women, says to check in for evident warning signs like verbal abuse and name-calling, but also the less obvious — like criticizing, blaming, ignoring, or guilt-tripping — that are all red flags and serious cause for concern. “Be aware of controlling or manipulative behavior,” she says. “For example, if your partner gets upset at you because you don’t do, say, or behave in a way they want you to.”

Once you’ve done an audit of your platonic relationships and taken time to truly check in with yourself and you’re still unclear on whether or not it’s time to move on, all hope is not lost. By reflecting on what’s keeping you from ending things, it’s possible you’ll uncover what’s beneath the surface and find the clarity you’ve been looking for. Ahead, some common reasons people stick around.

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Loyalty

You know your partner inside and out — you’ve invested time and energy in them, and you understandably feel a certain sense of loyalty. While devotion to your significant other can certainly be a good thing, be wary of the fact that it shouldn’t be the sole reason why you choose to stay. Verdun concurs: “Some people stay out of a sense of loyalty. People who grew up believing they have to be attached to ‘the one’ for their lifetime but were never taught how to identify ‘the one’ are especially susceptible to this.”

Fear Of Being Alone Or Starting Over

In other cases, the fear of being alone is too severe, and causes people to stay in relationships much longer than they know they should. Think about the frequently used phrase, “There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” This antidote is meant to make people feel better about finding a new partner, but for someone who has been with one person for a significant amount of time, the idea that there’s a whole new dating world out there to navigate can also be incredibly overwhelming. “It is almost like the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” Verdun concludes.

Low Self-Esteem

According to Ferrie, low self-esteem can also be the culprit. If you can’t stand the thought of being alone, if you feel unworthy of another person's love, or if you blame yourself completely for the failed relationship, there could be underlying problems that need to be addressed in order for you to move forward and be successful in any relationship, in which case you should seek the help of a professional.

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Once you’ve considered all of the above, if you’re ready to end things, Verdun and Ferrie offer helpful tips to make the break-up as painless as possible:

  • First and foremost, make the conscious decision to leave the relationship before speaking to your partner, that way you won’t be “convinced” to stay during the conversation.
  • Suggest meeting somewhere quiet but public to avoid a blow up fight.
  • Practice having the conversation if you’re the type of person who likes to come prepared — it will help to make you feel more confident about your choice of words. If it feels better to simply speak from the heart in the moment, that’s perfectly acceptable too. It’s all about personal preference and doing what feels right to you.
  • Communicate in a way that is articulate and honest, but remember how it feels to be broken up with — don’t be too harsh. Talk openly and calmly; if things get heated, avoid lashing out or placing blame.
  • Last but not least, closure is not always possible with the other person; sometimes it comes from within. It is natural after a breakup to go through phases of grief. Take alone time if you need it, and reconnect with friends and family for support when you’re ready. Spend more time doing things that bring you genuine joy: pick up an old hobby, read, try a new recipe, go dancing, spend more time outdoors — reconnecting with yourself in ways you may have been previously neglecting can be incredibly empowering and rewarding, especially during the healing process.