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Why People Stay in Bad Relationships

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woman and man in bed

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The answer might not be what you’d expect

We’ve all watched from the outside as a new relationship soured, yet someone stayed in the bad situation for a surprisingly long time. Maybe we’ve even exhibited that behavior ourselves. When someone’s gut is screaming out, “This won’t work and never will!” why do they stay? Sure, there’s been time and emotion invested, or a looming cat custody issue, but what other factors may contribute?

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shed light into the subject. The study, led out of the University of Utah with a variety of researchers contributing, found that when deciding to break up with someone, people are mindful not only of their own feelings, but also worried about how much their partner may want the relationship to go on.

The first part of the study tracked 1,348 participants in romantic relationships over a 10-week period. The second part tracked 500 participants who were weighing a breakup, over a 2-month period. Researchers discovered that “the more dependent people believed their partner was on the relationship, the less likely they were to initiate a breakup,” wrote lead author Samantha Joel, who is now an assistant professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada. Past research on relationships has found that people don’t want to end unsatisfying entanglements because they don’t like the alternative. For example, they don’t like being single, or there aren’t a whole lot of other romantic partners available in town. This study, though, suggests an altruistic motivation for remaining in unhappy coupledom.  

“Generally, we don’t want to hurt our partners and we care about what they want,” wrote Joel. But, she notes, this motivation could lead to problems. For one thing, we don’t know how accurate our assessments are. Perhaps we think the other person is crazy about us, when in fact, they’re also eyeing the exit door. Two, is it really so nice to stay with someone and lead them on? Would you want to be in that position yourself or would you prefer honesty?


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Savannah. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!.


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