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Do You Feel Trapped in an Unhappy Relationship?

Without autonomy and boundaries, relationships can be suffocating.

Claudia Soraya on Unsplash
Source: Claudia Soraya on Unsplash

Do you feel trapped in a relationship you can’t leave? Of course, feeling trapped is a state of mind; no one needs consent to leave a relationship. And yet millions of people remain in unhappy relationships that range from empty to abusive, for many reasons. However, the feeling of suffocation or of having no choices stems from fear that’s often unconscious.

People give many explanations for staying, ranging from caring for young children to caring for a sick mate. One man was too afraid and guilt-ridden to leave his ill wife (11 years his senior). His ambivalence made him so distressed, he died before she did. Money binds couples, too, especially in a bad economy. Yet, couples with more means may cling to a comfortable lifestyle, while their marriage deteriorates into a business arrangement. Homemakers fear being self-supporting or single moms, and breadwinners dread paying support and seeing their assets divided. Often spouses fear feeling shamed for leaving a “failed” marriage. Some even worry their spouse may harm himself or herself. Emotionally or physically battered women may stay out of fear of abuse and retaliation should they leave. Their self-esteem and confidence have been eroded in the relationship, and the threat of abuse increases close to separations.

Many people tell themselves, “The grass isn’t any greener,” believe that they’re too old to find love again, and/or imagine nightmarish online dating scenarios. Though less so today, some cultures still stigmatize divorce.

But there are also deeper fears.

Unconscious Fear

There are deeper, unconscious reasons that keep people trapped — usually fears of separation and loneliness that they want to avoid. Often in long relationships, spouses don’t develop individual activities or support networks outside of their mate. In the past, an extended family used to serve that function. Whereas women tend to have girlfriends in whom they confide and are usually closer to their parents, men traditionally focus on work, while disregarding their emotional needs and relying exclusively on their wife for support. Yet, both men and women often neglect developing individual interests. Some codependent women give up their friends, hobbies, and activities and adopt those of their male companion. The combined effect of this adds to fears of loneliness and isolation when they envisage being on their own.

For spouses married a number of years, their identity and role may be as “husband” or “wife” — “provider” or “homemaker.” The loneliness experienced after divorce is tinged with feeling lost. It’s an identity crisis. This also may be significant for a noncustodial parent, for whom parenting has been a major source of self-esteem.

Some people have never lived alone. They left home or their college roommate for a marriage or romantic partner. The relationship helped them leave home — physically. Yet, they’ve never completed the developmental milestone of “leaving home” psychologically, meaning becoming an autonomous adult. They are as tied to their mate as they once were to their parents. Going through a divorce or breakup brings with it all of the unfinished work of becoming an independent adult. Fears about leaving their spouse and children may be reiterations of the fears and guilt that they would have had upon separating from their parents, which were avoided by quickly getting into a relationship or marriage. Guilt about leaving a spouse may be due to the fact that their parents didn’t appropriately encourage emotional separation. Although the negative impact of divorce upon children is real, their worries may also be projections of fears for themselves. This is compounded if they suffered from their parents’ divorce.


Denial of problems, including addiction, is another reason why people can get stuck in a relationship. They may rationalize, minimize, or excuse their partner’s behavior and cling to hope or occasional “good times” or expressions of love. They believe broken promises and hope things will improve ... “if only.” Often, they deny their own pain, which might otherwise motivate them to get help and change.

Lack of Autonomy

Autonomy implies being an emotionally secure, separate, and independent person. The lack of autonomy not only makes separation difficult — it naturally also makes people more dependent upon their partner. The consequence is that people feel trapped or “on the fence” and racked with ambivalence. On one hand, they crave freedom and independence; on the other hand, they want the security of a relationship — even a bad one. Autonomy doesn’t mean you don’t need others, but in fact allows you to experience healthy dependence on others without the fear of suffocation. Examples of psychological autonomy include:

1. You don’t feel lost and empty when you’re alone.

2. You don’t feel responsible for others’ feelings and actions.

3. You don’t take things personally.

4. You can make decisions on your own.

5. You have your own opinions and values and aren’t easily suggestible.

6. You can initiate and do things on your own.

7. You can say no and ask for space.

8. You have your own friends.

Often, it’s this lack of autonomy that makes people unhappy in relationships or unable to commit. Because they can’t leave, they fear getting close. They’re afraid of even more dependence — of losing themselves completely. They may people-please or sacrifice their needs, interests, and friends, and then build resentments toward their partner.

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

A Way Out

The way out may not require leaving the relationship. Freedom is an inside job. Develop a support system, and become more independent and assertive. Take responsibility for your happiness by developing your passions, instead of focusing on the relationship. Perhaps you’re unsure and need help asking for the changes that you want. Leaving is stating a big "no." Practice setting smaller boundaries to build your confidence, especially if you're with someone abusive.

© Darlene Lancer 2013

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