More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Why Do We Put Up With Toxic Relationships? Meaning Matters

Our need for meaning may incline us to stay in bad relationships.

Whether it is a romantic partner, family member, or friend, we are hesitant to cut ties with close others who prove to be bad for our health and well-being.  But why? If someone is making us miserable and we cannot resolve our differences, why is it so hard for us to ditch them?

This is, of course, a very complicated question. There are a wide range of reasons we are motivated to preserve our relationships, even the bad ones. However, I want to focus on one reason that we rarely hear about: meaning.

People may wish to maintain unhealthy relationships because our social connections are a powerful source of meaning in life. For example, studies have demonstrated that having close relationships (e.g., friends, romantic partners) increases a sense of meaning in life and reduces existential anxieties such as the fear of death. Similarly, loneliness is a strong predictor of meaning deficits: people who report feeling lonely also tend to report that their lives lack purpose.

 And, as I have discussed in previous posts here and here, meaning in life is important for psychological and physical health. Thus, people go to great lengths to find and protect meaning. The problem is that looking for meaning in toxic relationships will likely backfire. 

Bad relationships are a source of stress and anxiety and both stress and anxiety lower perceptions of meaning. Bad relationships are also poor substitutes for secure attachments - the relationships that make us feel safe and valued. And it is secure attachments that ultimately provide us with meaning and a sense of existential security.

In short, we may be inclined to put up with dysfunctional relationships because meaning is important for adaptive functioning and this need is often met by connecting to others. But not all connections are created equal. A poor relationship will not provide the meaning in life we seek, the meaning we need to be healthy and happy members of society.

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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