I have recently written about the reasons we become involved in bad relationships, but once we realize that a relationship is unsatisfying, why do we stay? Psychological research can help to explain our tendency to initiate and maintain relationships with partners who don’t meet our needs. Although “bad” relationships include abusive relationships, the research below can help to elucidate why we stay in low-quality relationships which are not marred by abuse as well (see Copp et al., 2015).
Why We Maintain Bad Relationships
1. We Can Be Satisfied With Unsatisfactory Relationships
In recent research exploring women’s decisions about whether to stay in or to leave their relationships, the single most important determinant of women’s decisions to remain in their relationships was relationship satisfaction (Edwards et al., 2011). How can we be satisfied with unsatisfactory relationships? As we discussed in the post exploring why we initiate bad relationships, some individuals, especially those with low self-esteem or those who perceive themselves to be less attractive, have low “comparison levels” (Thibaut and Kelley, 1986; Luciano and Orth, 2017; Montoya, 2008). Your comparison level can be thought of as your “standards,” or what you expect to receive from a relationship. Individuals with low comparison levels do not expect many benefits from their relationships, but they do expect many difficulties. If you have a low comparison level, you may maintain a bad relationship because your low expectations are being met. Individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to become involved in relationships which are of shorter duration, and they experience further declines in self-esteem when their relationships end (Luciano and Orth, 2017). Similarly, women who experienced abuse as children report more satisfaction with lower-quality relationships (Edwards et al., 2011).
2. A Shift in Priorities
Common mechanisms which help to maintain our relationships are “partner-enhancement” and “positive illusions.” Both terms refer to the fact that we tend to see our romantic partners positively, sometimes unrealistically so (Morry et al., 2010; Conley et al., 2009). In both gay and lesbian as well as heterosexual couples, those who view their partners more positively also report more relationship satisfaction (Conley et al., 2009). How can we see our partners positively when we are in undesirable relationships? Research shows that we value the positive characteristics which our partners display more so than other characteristics (Fletcher et al., 2000). For example, if your partner is generous but not thoughtful, you might come to value generosity more than thoughtfulness over the course of your relationship. When our partners reveal negative characteristics, we may downgrade the importance of those characteristics and upgrade the importance of the positive traits our mates do possess (Fletcher et al., 2000).
3. Low-Quality Alternatives
If you are in an undesirable relationship, you might consider alternatives to that relationship, including being alone or entering a different relationship (Thibaut and Kelley, 1986). If you perceive that an alternative might be preferable to your current situation, you are more likely to leave your relationship, but if you perceive lower-quality alternatives, you are more likely to stay, even in an unsatisfying relationship. Recent research shows that perceiving poor alternatives to the relationship enhances the likelihood of staying with an undesirable partner, and that women with low self esteem perceive fewer desirable alternatives to their current relationships (Edwards et al., 2011). Furthermore, divorce is more common in nations where women achieve more economic independence, and in which the proportion of men to women is higher, suggesting that women are more likely to divorce if they have the economic means to live independently, as well as if there are an abundance of other possible partners (Barber, 2003).
If your partner is aware that you want to leave the relationship, he or she may use different methods of manipulation to force you to stay. Emotional manipulation, such as belittling, demeaning, or even threats of violence against future alternative partners, may be used to maintain the current relationship (Buss and Shackelford, 1997; Cousins and Fugère, in press). Men with lower self-esteem, as well as men who are less physically attractive than their partners, may be more likely to use manipulation to prevent their partners from leaving their relationships (Buss and Shackelford, 1997; Holden et al., 2014). The distress associated with emotional abuse or the physical implications of intimate partner violence are strong deterrents to those seeking to leave a relationship. Edwards et al. (2011) suggest that women who are psychologically distressed may not feel like they have the ability to leave their partners.
Other major obstacles to leaving a bad relationship include our shared investments with our partners (Adams, 1965). As Copp et al. (2015) report, investing a lot of time in a relationship or sharing investments, such as a home or children, makes couples more likely to stay together. According to Rego et al. (2016), when we have already invested a lot of time, effort, or resources in a relationship, many of us continue that investment even when it may not be best for us; we are biased toward continuing unhappy relationships once we have invested in them. These authors also explain that when making relationship decisions, we often rely on emotions rather than rational deliberation. Which leads us to the final reason we often stay in bad relationships...
Psychologists distinguish among three different components of attitudes: the cognitive component or thoughts, the affective component or feelings, and the behavioral component or actions (Kassin et al., 2011). Frequently these components are not aligned with one another. For example, in the case of a bad relationship, your thoughts may be negative, telling you that your partner is not good for you, but your feelings may still be positive. We may continue to love our partners, even though we consciously recognize that we are involved in bad relationships. It is also possible that strong positive and negative feelings toward a partner may co-exist (Zayas & Shoda, 2015).
What You Can Do to Help
If you are in a bad relationship, it can help to rely on your friends and family members for social support. If you are a friend or family member of someone involved in a bad relationship, your opinions can help to convince him or her to end his or her suffering. Expressed negative opinions by friends and family members are associated with an increased likelihood of ending a bad relationship (Copp et al., 2015), and our relationships are likely to be happier and more successful when our friends and family members support our relationships (Sinclair et al., 2014).
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Barber, N. (2003). Divorce and reduced economic and emotional interdependence: A cross-national study. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 39(3–4), 113–124. doi:10.1300/J087v39n03_06
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Conley, T. D., Roesch, S. C., Peplau, L., & Gold, M. S. (2009). A test of positive illusions versus shared reality models of relationship satisfaction among gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(6), 1417–1431. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00488.x
Cousins, A.J. & Fugère, M.A. (in press). Manipulation. In T.K. Shackelford & V. A. Weekes-Shackelford’s (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. New York: Springer.
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Zayas, V., & Shoda, Y. (2015). Love you? Hate you? Maybe it’s both: Evidence that significant others trigger bivalent-priming. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(1), 56-64. doi:10.1177/1948550614541297