Not With Nor Without You: Why Do We Keep Staying In Failing Relationships?

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Once we realize our relationships are unsatisfying, why do we stay in those relationships? Psychological research can help to explain our tendency to initiate and then to maintain relationships with partners who don’t meet our needs. Although “bad” relationships may include abusive relationships, the research below can help to elucidate why we stay in low-quality relationships which are either violent or nonviolent.


We Can Be Satisfied With Unsatisfactory Relationships.

In recent research exploring women’s decisions about whether to stay in or to leave their relationships, the single most important determinant of women’s decisions to remain in their relationships was relationship satisfaction. How can we be satisfied with unsatisfactory relationships? The reason why we initiate bad relationships is that some individuals, especially those with low self-esteem or those who perceive themselves to be less attractive, have low “comparison levels.”

A Shift in Priorities.

Common mechanisms which help to maintain our relationships are “partner-enhancement” and “positive illusions.” Both terms refer to the fact that we tend to see our romantic partners positively, sometimes unrealistically so. How can we see our partners positively when we are in undesirable relationships? Research shows that we value the positive characteristics which our partners display more so than other characteristics. For example, if your partner is generous but not thoughtful, you might come to value generosity more than thoughtfulness over the course of your relationship. When our partners reveal negative characteristics, we may downgrade the importance of those characteristics and upgrade the importance of the positive traits our mates do possess.

Low-Quality Alternatives.

If you are in an undesirable relationship, you might consider alternatives to that relationship, including being alone or entering a different relationship. If you perceive that an alternative might be preferable to your current situation, you are more likely to leave your relationship, but if you perceive lower-quality alternatives, you are more likely to stay, even in an unsatisfying relationship. Recent research shows that perceiving poor alternatives to the relationship enhances the likelihood of staying with an undesirable partner and that women with low self-esteem perceive fewer desirable alternatives to their current relationships.


If your partner is aware that you want to leave the relationship, he or she may use different methods of manipulation to force you to stay. Emotional manipulation, such as belittling, demeaning, or even threats of violence against future alternative partners, may be used to maintain the current relationship. Men with lower self-esteem, as well as men who are less physically attractive than their partners, may be more likely to use manipulation to prevent their partners from leaving their relationships.


Other major obstacles to leaving a bad relationship include our shared investments with our partners. Investing a lot of time in a relationship or sharing investments, such as a home or children, makes couples more likely to stay together. when we have already invested a lot of time, effort, or resources in a relationship, many of us continue that investment even When it may not be best for us; we are biased toward continuing unhappy relationships once we have invested in them.


Psychologists distinguish among three different components of attitudes: the cognitive component or thoughts, the affective component or feelings, and the behavioral component or actions. Frequently these components are not aligned with one another. For example, in the case of a bad relationship, your thoughts may be negative, telling you that your partner is not good for you, but your feelings may still be positive. We may continue to love our partners, even though we consciously recognize that we are involved in bad relationships. It is also possible that strong positive and negative feelings toward a partner may co-exist.

How can we be aware of all this?

If you are in a bad relationship, it can help to rely on your friends and family members for social support. If you are a friend or family member of someone involved in a bad relationship, your opinions can help to convince him/her to end his/her suffering. Expressed negative opinions by friends and family members are associated with an increased likelihood of ending a bad relationship.  Our relationships are likely to be happier and more successful when our friends and family members support our relationships.

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