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Why People Stay in Terrible Relationships

6 reasons why leaving an unhealthy relationship feels so hard.

Key points

  • Toxic relationships are incredibly hard to leave, even when they are painful or unhealthy.
  • Some believe that a bad relationship is all they deserve.
  • Economic necessity and emotional exhaustion keep others locked in unhealthy relationships.

Again and again, people stay in painful, unhealthy, dysfunctional romantic relationships. From the outside, leaving seems obvious. To those living it? Not so much. Here are six reasons people stay.

1. Unhealthy relationships have good parts.

Relationships are rarely all bad; sometimes, the ratio is just very skewed. Even deeply unhealthy relationships can contain laughter, levity, connection, and love. Those good parts may feel like the most accurate reflection of the relationship while the negative parts are kinks to work out. Some struggle to extricate themselves because it feels like giving up the good and the hope that the good can overtake the bad in the long run with enough effort.

2. Some stay in unhealthy relationships out of economic necessity.

Some stay in painful or unhealthy relationships due to economic dependence. If one partner has given up work to raise children or can look forward to economic ruin as a result of the relationship ending, they may stay even though it is emotionally painful. In extreme cases, this takes the form of financial abuse, in which one partner limits their partner's access to money to control their movements and ability to leave the relationship.

3. Unhealthy relationships feel comfortable.

When given the option, most people will opt for the option that is most familiar, even if it is uncomfortable. In relationships, familiar discomfort may be preferable to the unknown of being alone or in a different relationship. Some have a pattern of entering unhealthy relationships repeatedly, finding the familiar pain of similar dynamics comfortable and predictable, if not happy.

4. Some believe all relationships are unhealthy.

Some may believe, out of inexperience, that all relationships are as toxic as the one they are in. A person in their first serious partnership may not have the perspective to know that healthy, mutual, satisfying relationships exist. They may truly believe that this is simply how relationships operate and it is their job to acclimate. This belief may be especially deep if they grew up in a home in which their parents fought often.

 Timur Weber
Source: Pexels: Timur Weber

5. Bad relationships reinforce one's beliefs about themselves.

Unhealthy relationships allow a person to reinforce the negative beliefs they have about themselves. If a person believes they are inherently unlovable, staying in a relationship with somebody who treats them poorly can serve as “proof” that their perception is accurate. If a person believes they will always be abandoned and they feel chronically emotionally abandoned in the relationship, they can point to the relationship and say “See? I knew I deserved this.” The self-fulfilling prophecy makes it harder to leave and believe that they deserve any different.

6. Bad relationships drain energy.

Unhealthy relationships are a lot of work and that work can make it difficult or even impossible to set up the circumstances necessary to leave. When a couple moves from fight to fight, it leaves little time or energy to focus on personal growth or economic stability. This is especially true in abusive relationships. Leaving requires emotional stamina and in some relationships, all of that person's energy goes towards simply subsisting.

We should not judge.

These reasons for staying should be viewed with curiosity and compassion rather than judgment. Leaving a terrible relationship is hard work emotionally, physically, and financially and the reasons to stay can feel incredibly compelling, or at least, compelling enough. When a person finally decides to leave, it will mean overcoming their own self-esteem issues, climbing out of financial dependence, and believing that there are better, more fulfilling relationships available.

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