Are You Feeling Stuck in Your Relationship?

New research sheds light on what it’s like to feel stuck in a relationship.

Posted Nov 14, 2020

When you think about what leads you to stay with your partner, what reasons do you come up with? Is it love that binds you to your partner? Is it fear that, were you to leave, you’d become lonely and isolated? Are you afraid of how much it would cost to go through a breakup? Do you worry about your children? 

COVID-19 has introduced a new set of constraints on couples who contemplate ending a relationship: Financial instability, struggles with children who now are learning from home, and the simple inability to go out and meet new people may lead you to settle for staying in a relationship even though it has lost its pizzazz.

According to a new study by the University of New Hampshire’s Tyler Jamison and West Virginia University’s Jonathan Beckmeyer (2020), feelings of commitment by partners to each other are generally thought of as an indication of healthy relationships. However, as they note, “commitment is not always the result of a genuine desire to remain romantically involved with a partner." Additionally, one partner may try to coerce the other to stay through psychological control tactics, or partners may use a strong sense of obligation to each other as a reason not to leave.

When factors other than romantic attachment keep couples together, according to Jamison and Beckmeyer, “individuals may feel stagnant, bound, or stuck in a partnership." How, you wonder, do people reach this point? One factor is just plain inertia, a problem particularly likely to characterize the early phases of a relationship when couples are just starting to settle in together. As they do so, couples “slide” through major relationship steps without giving serious thought to the implications, including the impact on their personal development. As a result, their relationship becomes one that undermines the ability of each partner to achieve their own independent goals.

The UNH-WVU researchers approached the problem of studying how relationship constraints keep couples together by using an in-depth analysis of interviews with 35 participants averaging 32 years of age, some of whom were married to each other. A subsample of 14 participants completed follow-up interviews 18 months later. The purpose of the study was not initially to study stuck relationships, but to examine the course of relationships as they unfolded in the lives of participants.

In their initial analysis of the transcripts, the authors noted that the word “stuck” appeared organically as couples described their relationship histories. After further examining the interviews, Jamison and Beckmeyer decided to narrow the initial sample down to only those 14 who talked about this feeling of being constrained so they could study this process more intensively.

Based on their coding of this subset of participants, the authors developed what they call a conceptual definition of “stuck.” A relationship fitting this definition involved at least one of three elements: regret about staying in the relationship for so long; a protracted process of trying to end the relationship; or ambivalence about remaining together. That component of ambivalence also included the participant feeling that there were too many barriers to leaving.

This perception of being stuck doesn’t happen overnight, as the authors point out. Couples start out feeling positively about their relationship and their partners. The longer the relationship goes on, however, the more they accrue barriers to breaking up as that initial positivity fades. Barriers cited by Jamison and Beckmeyer include cohabitation, marriage, children, and other family entanglements. Adding to these barriers are unexpected events such as illness or a death in the family. (COVID-19 would certainly count among this set of barriers.)

While this is all happening, individuals may not even realize that they’re putting themselves more and more into that stuck position. In the words of the authors, “Participants did not always recognize that these experiences were constraints until after they started to feel stuck." As their satisfaction continues to decline, they may look back with a certain degree of nostalgia on those early positive experiences, holding onto those “intermittent positive moments.” Their partners may behave in ways that reinforce that nostalgia; in the words of one participant, “The good times were so good that I overlooked the bad parts… Then he’d do something sweet again and it would refill the battery and then it would drain down."

Partners may also feel like staying after the initial light has dimmed because it’s all so comfortable. As one participant stated, “It was like, I have a comfortable pair of slippers, right, and I don’t really want to have to go shopping for a new pair of slippers." Anyone in a long-term relationship can probably relate to this metaphor, but in a stuck relationship, the comfort outweighs the passion.

A stuck relationship may also emerge when partners feel that they want not just comfort, but stability. Participants in the Jamison and Beckmeyer study who expressed this view were from families in which parents divorced. They didn’t want to recreate tht situation for themselves or their own children. Participants with difficult family relationships, the authors note, seemed more likely to "form early binding commitments and to quickly accrue barriers to breakup."

If it’s so easy to get stuck, how can you become “unstuck”? Some participants who emerged from the stuck state said they were able to make a decision to leave based on a cost/benefit analysis. One cohabiting participant noted that “I was just like, I can’t rush into [marriage] if I’m feeling this way." Others decided that fulfilling their own individual goals was more important than remaining in a stuck relationship. This “mismatch between their life trajectories” could become a force strong enough to propel them to leave.

To manage your way through the experience of feeling stuck, the UNH-WVU researchers suggest that you nip the process in the bud. Before that “constraint commitment” builds up, you need to recognize what’s happening and then start to plan your way out. Building a sense of self-efficacy, or the belief that you can do it, can help you take those steps needed to reclaim your independence.

However, what if you’re not in that position of being able to extricate yourself? Your constraints may have solidified to the extent that you’re no longer able to afford the practical and emotional consequences of leaving. Given that this study was conducted on a relatively young sample—in their 20s and early 30s—what would the implications be for you if you’re beyond that point? How can you get out of a relationship that's gone on for almost your entire adult life?

You can perhaps begin by mentally bringing yourself back to the positive experiences that brought you together. Why did you decide to establish a life together? Rather than focus on what keeps you from leaving, consider what initially led you to bind with your partner. How can you recapture not only those memories but those good times? You might even venture to ask your partner if you've become that comfortable pair of slippers. Perhaps both of you can benefit from finding your way back to those earlier good times by re-establishing the emotional connection that led you to that initial commitment.

To sum up, you may be able to resonate with the experiences described by participants in this in-depth study of relationship histories. Overcoming the feeling of stagnation can help you get back on track toward regaining the fulfillment that can keep your relationship vital in the years and decades ahead.

Facebook image: SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock

References

Jamison, T. B., & Beckmeyer, J. J. (2020). Feeling stuck: Exploring the development of felt constraint in romantic relationships. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies. doi: 10.1111/fare.12496