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10 Reasons You May Be Stuck in an Unhappy Relationship

A fear of change often prevents people from ending a destructive relationship.

F8 studio/Shutterstock
Source: F8 studio/Shutterstock

Goethe wrote: “Everybody wants to be somebody; nobody wants to grow.” A client — who was in a miserable and unworkable relationship — decided to stay and suffer rather than make a change. His reasoning was, “I’d rather live with the devil I know than the devil I don’t know.” In response I asked him: “How do you know you will end up with another devil?” He said, “Why take a chance?” This individual’s stance is all too common. Most people seek psychotherapy to ease their pain, but are reluctant to exert the effort required to do so. These individuals weigh the price of change unfavorably against the gain it may bring. Because clinicians cannot offer any guarantee of success, people are reluctant to risk their status, no matter how dysfunctional. To shed some light on this issue, I offer 10 reasons why people often remain stuck in an unhappy or destructive relationship:

1. To avoid anxiety

When we make a change, we usually experience at least a modicum of anxiety about our future. Self-doubt may flood us: Am I making a big mistake? Will I miss my old life? While there is rarely a guarantee that all will end well, our dynamic will most likely remain the same or worsen if we do nothing.

2. To avoid sadness or depression

When we change, we often suffer a loss. The best we can hope for is that the gain that accompanies the change outweighs our loss. A failure to grasp this concept can be paralyzing, in part because people are reluctant to give up something to get something. This is often true even if what we have is making us miserable.

3. To avoid disappointing friends and family

There may be familial and social pressure to keep us from making a change. Parents might feel ashamed or embarrassed if we leave our spouses. Friends might be wary of our newfound freedom. Newly divorced women, for example, have complained to me that their married friends have distanced themselves, because they fear a threat to their own relationships.

4. To protect the children

You hear this often: “I will leave when the kids have completed high school.” But if the children are young, you may be role modeling an unhealthy relationship for many years.

5. To avoid changing their perceived fate

Some people believe that they do not deserve a better life. These individuals may have grown up in dysfunctional families with little to no problem-solving skills.

6. To replicate

A movement towards health may advertently or inadvertently distance us from sick familial surroundings, but it may alienate us as well. We replicate to stay close to the life we are familiar with.

7. To maintain a fantasy

Some people remain stuck in an unhappy relationship with the hope that things will improve, despite all evidence to the contrary. This so-called fantasy may reflect a strong wish for change, but it is a fantasy, nonetheless. And the need to maintain a fantasy paradoxically tends to be a defense against change.

8. To pay a debt

Borrowing from the work of Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, people who feel that they are indebted to their families of origin may remain in unhappy marriages to pay the debt to their past. In this case, the current relationship tends to be dysfunctional in a similar way to their home lives. This concept is fantasy-like, because the debt can only be paid to the original creditors, not substitutes in real time.

9. To collect on a debt

Taking from Nagy, some people feel a sense of entitlement born out of childhood deprivation, and these individuals may remain in an unhappy relationship to exact this debt. For example, if a woman felt that her parents rarely paid attention to her as a child, she may remain with a distancing man to collect on this debt. This concept is also based on fantasy, because these individuals are not confronting their actual debtors.

10. To exact revenge

Some people who feel they were treated unfairly in their families of origin may remain in unhappy marriages to torture their current partners. This way, they can express their rage without directly confronting the real culprits.

There are external reasons — and good ones — for remaining in an unhealthy relationship. Some individuals are too physically ill to make a change; others do not have the financial means to move on. On this account I recommend independence, if possible. The more emotionally and financially independent one is, the less likely they will be stuck in a miserable relationship. Beware that we can use helplessness and hopelessness as a defense to avoid change. But if we are willing to sort out the real from the imagined, and to fight to overcome the fear of freedom, most of us can achieve this independence and, in turn, a healthy, more fulfilling relationship.