A Hidden Reason Why Some Stay in Unhappy Relationships

A new study suggests how the other person feels matters in stay-or-go decisions.

Posted Nov 30, 2018

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The list of potential reasons why men and women stay in unhappy relationships is long. Financial challenges and having children are frequent reasons, but scores of men and women stay in unhappy relationships for other reasons. New research (Joel, Impett, Spielmann, & Macdonald, 2018) suggests that some may stay in unhappy relationships not because of their own feelings, but because of their partner’s feelings. In other words, you may want to leave the relationship, but you think and worry about how leaving the relationship would negatively affect your partner — and stay as a result.

The new research supports what I have seen anecdotally among many clients over the years. One factor that appears to be at work for some who are unhappy in their relationship is guilt, an emotion which involves feeling responsible or remorseful for a perceived offense (e.g., ending the relationship when the other person wants to stay together). Not long ago, a female client in my practice manifested what the new research found. She showed visible signs of distress in my office as she talked about how she is afraid her long-term boyfriend would not cope well with the breakup, appearing worried and fidgeting nervously in her seat. My client continued to talk about how the worst-case scenario could involve her boyfriend sinking into depression, or possibly even engaging in self-harm behavior. Most of all, though, she imagined him sitting alone in his own apartment after the breakup, feeling lost and alone.

Some may argue that this apparent motivation to stay (guilt) actually reflects a deeper and apparently unconscious motivation — my client’s own codependence or avoidance of wanting to be alone herself — and that these thoughts and feelings get sublimated into guilty feelings that focus on the boyfriend’s feelings. Overall, it is likely that both motivations are in the mix. Individuals who are either uncomfortable being single — because they feel alone or lonely in such a scenario — likely gravitate towards others for relationships who feel similarly. The thinking goes like this: This person will be less likely to leave me if they, too, are uncomfortable being alone; this person who has emotional issues will need me more than someone who is healthier, so they will be less likely to leave me. When you look more closely at the guilt that may motivate some to stay in unhappy relationships, it may be less truly altruistic, less focused on the partner’s feelings and emotional needs, than it first appears; it may actually reflect their own unconscious anxieties about being alone.

Yet, consideration of the guilt factor on its own is valuable. One factor to consider for men and women who stay in unhappy relationships for this reason (feeling bad about how a breakup would affect the partner) relates to the source of guilt-proneness in the beginning. Many men and women who struggle with guilty feelings in relationships were trained by parents early in life to feel such guilt. Some parents see anger or other negative feelings in their children, and the parents teach their children that such feelings are bad or selfish. Other parents who raise guilt-prone children have significant unmet emotional needs, and they train their children to focus on the parents’ feelings and needs, betraying the natural order in which the parent is supposed to protect and nurture the child, prioritizing the child's feelings and needs.

If you are someone who stays in unhappy romantic relationships, take an honest inventory of the emotional reasons that may cause you to stay. Ask yourself what history you have with feeling guilty, and also consider your own possible conflicted feelings about being needed by someone who has emotional issues or your own possible anxiety about being single or alone.


Samantha Joel, Emily A. Impett, Stephanie S. Spielmann, Geoff MacDonald. How interdependent are stay/leave decisions? On staying in the relationship for the sake of the romantic partner.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018; 115 (5): 805 DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000139