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The Surprising Reasons People Stay in Unhappy Relationships

New research shows why people stick with their partner, even if they’re unhappy.

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Think of all the times you’ve been unhappy in a close, committed relationship. Everything that led you to love this person now drives you to distraction. You complain to your close friends and family members and plot all kinds of ways to exit in as graceful, but swift, a manner as possible. However, as the weeks and months go by, you stick it out, and your plans to leave seem to become less and less definite. Although you’re no happier than you were when you first began to contemplate leaving, there’s just something holding you back, but you’re not sure what it is.

A new study by University of Utah’s Samantha Joel and colleagues (2018) provides fresh insights into what keeps people in unfulfilling relationships. Joel et al. begin by questioning the usual assumptions, which state that people make the decision to leave based on what’s in their own best interests. You’ve already put a considerable amount of time and effort into the relationship, so to leave would therefore be a waste of that investment, would be one such self-oriented reason to stay. Another possible reason to stay rather than leave might be that staying is a less undesirable option than entering the world of dating again, or even just remaining single. As the Utah psychologist and her coauthors point out, these are self-focused rather than other/partner-focused decisions. What if people made the stay or leave decision on the basis of what’s best for their partner?

When you stop and think about it, perhaps it was, then, this altruistic motivation that kept you (or keeps you) in a less than glorious partnership. Joel and her fellow researchers take the position that people are “intrinsically motivated to consider the needs of other people, even anonymous strangers” (p. 1). If that’s the case, then people should be even more likely to want to avoid leaving their partners in the lurch. As the authors point out, “stay/leave decisions are based… also on the partner’s perceived dependence on the relationship” (p. 1). Citing a large and impressive body of literature on prosocial motivation (i.e., the desire to take the needs of others into account), Joel et al. present a compelling case for the “inherent” existence of the desire to act to benefit others without thought of personal rewards in return.

All of this might seem like overly optimistic, pie-in-the-sky type of reasoning. However, consider a situation in which you allow a stranger to go in front of you in line, or another driver to make a turn in front of you onto a crowded road. When you engage in such small acts of altruism, a little part of you feels better. You don’t necessarily expect to be repaid for this mini-kindness, as, chances are, you’ll never see this other person again (unless you live in a very small town). Or consider the urge you feel to help when someone spills their coffee or drops a phone. You reach out almost instinctively to lend a hand. If you’ll act this way for strangers, why would you not act unselfishly for the person you at one time loved? Such selfless acts, according to Joel et al., make sense from the standpoint of interdependence theory. This theory proposes that most people have the choice, in any interaction, to decide whether to maximize the outcomes that benefit them. However, for a close relationship to be maintained, these self-focused gains become transformed into a broader set of considerations that include the partner as well as the relationship itself. It’s possible that you never make this transformation and only look out for your own needs, but in most relationships, interdependence theory proposes that you set up rules that involve the basic needs people have for cooperation and altruism.

To test their propositions, Joel et al. conducted two investigations to see if they could identify the transformational processes over the course of time in romantically attached couples. In the first study, which traced the evolution of relationships over a 10-week period, 1,281 online participants (average age of 26) provided data allowing the researchers to determine whether perceptions of the partner’s dependence on the relationship predicted a lower rate of breakups. At the beginning of the study period, the participants completed a set of questionnaires testing their partner’s commitment, anticipated partner distress upon breaking up, personal investment in the relationship (e.g., “I have put a lot into it”), feeling appreciated by the partner, and the strength of the individual’s desire to meet the partner’s needs. Over the course of the following 10 weeks, the researchers assessed the relationship status of participants, making it possible to examine the predictive value of the study's initial measures. As predicted, this first study showed that for people with strong communal values and who perceived their partners to be highly dependent, the chances of breaking up were indeed low.

The second study took more direct aim at the ending process in couples who were contemplating whether or not to leave their partners. Participants were solicited from online sites (including Psychology Today) based on whether they were in the process of questioning their relationship. This procedure led to the impressive sample of 4,106 potential participants, who then were screened into a final group of 500 individuals who completed all phases of testing. With an average age of 32 years, they had been in relationships for an average of about three years (ranging from one week to 40 years). At the start of the study, 442 were actively considering a breakup. Using the same measures as in the first study, the authors once again found that over the two-plus months of the study, the chances of an individual initiating a breakup were lower if the partner seemed to be highly committed to the relationship and believed that staying in the relationship was in the best interests of their partner. However, people who did not have strong communal beliefs (i.e., valuing the relationship over the self) were less likely to consider their partner’s feelings as reasons to remain in the relationship.

This was a carefully controlled study with strong theoretical background and well-conceived methods. As one of the first to document the prosocial nature of people’s decisions to stay rather than leave a relationship, the Joel et al. research shows why you might be in, or have stayed in, a less than ideal situation with your partner. The findings do not address whether this is a wise decision or not. As the authors conclude, “further research is needed to determine just how beneficial vs. detrimental it is to stay in a relationship for the sake of the partner” (p. 18). Additionally, the study did not address the question of how long is too long when it comes to sticking it out for the partner’s sake. What is the tipping point that will cause you to end things, after having given it your best shot?

These additional questions will undoubtedly form the basis for future studies on the stay or leave decision. For the moment, however, the University of Utah study suggests that people in relationships aren’t just looking out for themselves. Whether you’re the one who’s leaving or the one who’s left, you can at least take comfort in the fact that relationships don’t seem to be designed just to give you self-oriented satisfaction. Indeed, knowing that the desire to watch out for your partner, and for your partner to watch out for you, is as strong as the current study suggests might help your relationships be that much more fulfilling, both now and into the future.


Joel, S., Impett, E. A., Spielmann, S. S., & MacDonald, G. (2018). How interdependent are stay/leave decisions? On staying in the relationship for the sake of the romantic partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, doi:10.1037/pspi0000139

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