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What Makes Unhappy Couples Stay Together?

Research on attachment style and fear reveal why people stay together too long.

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading." —Lao Tzu

Against All Odds

The American Psychological Association reports that 90 percent of people marry by age 50—only to divorce later to the tune of up to 50 percent. Those are about the same odds as tossing a coin.

People easily get into committed relationships in which they can't be satisfied, staying together long after making an unsustainable choice. We rationalize why we stay together when we don't know the real reasons.

Couples often seem to stay together, for example, in order to see their kids through to college, only to break up shortly thereafter when the nest is empty. Evolution presumably favors the efficiency of pooled resources and redundancy which monogamy provides.

On the other hand, co-parenting—if you've got the wherewithal, not to mention the cash—can be a preferred choice compared to an unhappy marriage and tense family. People struggle with whether staying together truly is better for their kids, and kids often end up being couples therapists for their parents' marriage.

Unfortunately, evolution is a blunt instrument: It doesn't care if you are fully realized as a human being or if you have a great relationship, as long as your kids make it to adulthood and have kids of their own. You have to make it your business if you want to go beyond survival.

Don't Worry, Be Happy?

Prior research has looked at the baseline tendency for people to maintain the status quo. Investment theory says people stay in relationships to protect their sunk resources, only leaving if it is really worth it—for a better alternative mate, infidelity, and other serious problems and strong motivators.

According to status quo research, people would stay with a trustworthy partner over a more attractive one, but they might leave a trustworthy partner for a wealthier one. Social factors sway how easily people break up. If our friends, family, or culture tells us we are supposed to stay together, we tend to conform.

There are other potential reasons why people stay in unhappy relationships. Further research suggests that folks with an anxious attachment style, who become overly preoccupied with the stability of their relationships, may be deeply influenced by the fear of change. Those with a dismissive attachment style are less likely to cling to relationships but may let go too easily.

Bringing Clarity to Confusion

To understand how all these factors work together, George, Hart, and Rholes (2020) conducted two studies with a total of 726 participants who completed a series of measures and analyzed the data to investigate why anxiously attached people stay in unsatisfying relationships longer.

Participants completed the Experiences in Close Relationships Inventory (looking at attachment style), measures of Relationship Commitment and Relationship Satisfaction (expressed as a ratio of RC/S to control for commitment-satisfaction interactions), a fear of change scale, a fear of relationship change assessment, and in the second study, additional measures of relationship investment, quality of alternative mate choices, and fear of being alone.

In the first study, they found that anxiously attached participants had a greater fear of change, which in turn was associated with increased commitment even with low satisfaction (RC/S). They also found that lower fear of change made relationship commitment even lower for avoidantly attached participants, though this was not found in the second study.

The second study confirmed the importance of fear of change for anxiously attached participants. In addition, they found a unique sequence:

Attachment anxiety → fear of being alone → fear of relationship change → higher commitment by satisfaction (RC/S).

The factors were only significant in this specific order; fear of being alone contributed to fear of change, but not the reverse. Neither investment nor availability of alternatives was significant.

Anxiously attached individuals, the authors note, are more dissatisfied in relationships because they stay in them longer than others. This gives time for dissatisfaction and confusion to grow, while fear of change and suppression of awareness of this fear make it necessary to come up with alternate explanations for staying together or just quiet desperation when awareness is present.

It's one thing to know fear with intellectual detachment. It's another thing entirely to feel the fear of change deep down and seriously consider the implications. Especially when both partners are afraid of change and avoiding acknowledging it, marriages can drag on for year after year with nothing happening.

Leaning Into Fear of Change

When we are in long-term, unhappy relationships, it can be very confusing. We stay together, but we don't always know why, creating distress and cognitive dissonance, as clashing ideas and desires remain unresolved year after year. If we think we know why we stay, we may swing between doubt and conviction, if we've not yet learned to use uncertainty to our advantage.

If we believe we love the other person, we may wonder what love means. If we are loyal and caring, we may wonder if we are lost in denial and self-deprivation. Are we masochistic, taking pleasure in the pain, or unconsciously repeating unwanted patterns of isolation and longing?

Accepting fear of change can be a reality-altering move, opening up room for new alternatives and making it imperative to learn how to make use of the hard truths.

Post-Script: Relationship Sobriety and Finding True Love

Interestingly, when people leave their partners for someone who has also left their partner for them, only when they "mate poach" each other and not when one "steals" another's mate, relationship satisfaction is higher. Having a good mutual choice may reduce uncertainty and fear of change for the two together, easing the transition.

For some, being alone is the right choice, with needed time for reflection and resetting. “Relationship sobriety,” for those who get into serial unsatisfying, even dysfunctional relationships, may be required for the personal growth needed to reach the point of building satisfying relationships. Others simply remain single, a decision that can lead to great satisfaction.

Fear of being alone strengthens fear of change, but in this research, fear of being alone did not directly contribute to increased commitment in the face of unhappy relationships. Perhaps, if anxiously attached people deal better with fear of change and prepare to make changes, the result would be greater empowerment to leave unsatisfying relationships. Being alone can be a profoundly transformative experience, a time to work on one's relationship with oneself free from the distractions and distortions of unsatisfying commitments.

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