As Good As It Gets

7 reasons people stay in unhealthy relationships

Posted May 11, 2016

Remember the movie As Good as it Gets? Jack Nicholson is a self-centered, insulting, narcissistic guy who thinks that the world revolves around him. When he falls for waitress Helen Hunt, he tries to become a better person. He still has his intimacy issues, but he becomes much nicer.  "Why can't I have a normal boyfriend?" Hunt laments to her mother. Her mother's sage reply is "because it doesn't exist." 

For her part, at first Hunt seems more normal. Slowly, however, we realize that she has significant problems with intimacy as well.

Hunt and Nicholson have a lot to work out, but there is enough motivation for both of them to change their behavior. In real life, however, that is not always what happens. Often, one partner won't admit that he or she has problems and believes their relationship issues are all the fault of the other person. Usually, however, as in As Good as it Gets, there are flaws on both sides. Both partners need to change for the relationship to become healthier.

I am often faced with situations in couples therapy where partner A has changed as much as he or she can, while partner B has not made a similar effort. Partner B either can't or won't work on the relationship issues. Partner A, however, ends up staying in the relationship for the wrong reasons. Here are 7 reasons that people stay in unhealthy or damaging relationships.

1. Partner A stays in the marriage for the sake of the kids. She wants her children to have a secure family life. Perhaps her parents were divorced and she doesn't want her own children to come from a broken family. 

2. Partner A is afraid to live on her own or cannot envision life without Partner B. This is typically the situation when the partners married when they were young and lived by themselves for only a short time or not at all.

3. Partner A does not want to take a hit on her quality of life. She feels she cannot afford to be a divorced woman. It's well known that women, especially, suffer a decline in their standard of living after divorce. Of course, if the wife is the main breadwinner, husbands might feel this way as well. 

4. Partner A cannot envision packing up her belongings and moving to a separate residence. The task seems overwhelming. 

5. Partner A feels so bad about herself or himself (usually as a result of their partner's wearing them down) that he or she doesn't think she can find a better relationship. This partner feels that the relationship she has is as good as it gets.

6. Partner A keeps thinking that given enough time, Partner B is going through some sort of "mid life crisis" and will eventually change. He will give up his affair, he will stop watching porn, she will stop cluttering, etc. This usually doesn't happen without the partner making a true commitment to therapy. 

7. Partner A feels that there is a stigma to divorce because of her religious convictions. She would prefer to suffer in a bad relationship to going against the tenets of her religion. Partner A typically prefers to wait for Partner B to take the first step toward divorce.

I have seen many people damaged in unhealthy relationships because they feel that the relationship is as good as it is going to get for them. While no relationship is  perfect, staying together for the wrong reasons can be degrading and toxic to a person's self respect. 

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D

Marilyn Wedge is the author of the new book A Disease called Childhood.