Why so many unhappy couples stay together, explained by psychology

You either know a couple that stays together, even though they are beyond miserable, or you are in one yourself. Sadly, there are far too many people accepting to remain in unhealthy relationships.

Why do we settle for so little when we can have so much more?

As Psychology Today notes, the science of relationships is guided by the Interdependence Theory. According to the social psychologists Harold Kelley and John Thibaut, who developed the theory decades ago, each partner evaluates personal satisfaction with the relationship by assessing costs and benefits.

In other words, you will be happy in your relationship as long as what you get is more than what you give. When your partner requires a lot of your time and energy but also gives you the acceptance and love you need, you will be satisfied. When they give you little but demand even less in return, the scenario should be the same.

But in reality, we accept the love we think we deserve.

We convince ourselves we are satisfied with someone who treats us poorly only because we believe we are not worthy of being treated right. We stay in dysfunctional relationships just because we don’t have the courage to ask for more.

A more recent study conducted by psychologist Levi Baker argues that being committed to your partner is not based on your current level of satisfaction. The research opposes the Independence Theory, stating that a person’s devotion to their relationship depends on the satisfaction they expect to receive in the future.

Simply put, even though you may be miserable with your partner now, you choose to stay because you believe your relationship will get better over time. You are desperately trying to convince yourself that your significant other will change. Your current level of satisfaction is entirely dependent on your hopes for the future.

This can explain why we commit to long-term relationships, even though we may not be entirely content with our partners. We expect that the ones we love will magically turn into the people we believe they could be.

We believe that the good will outweigh the bad in the long run, so we reconcile with the current situation. 

Here’s the psychologist’s take on why we stay in dysfunctional relationships:

“People tend to stay in unhappy marriages when (a) they expect the relationship will improve, or (b) they expect they can find no better alternative.”

But what if the “better alternative” is not finding someone more suitable for you than your current partner, but reconnecting with yourself? For some people, spending quality time in their own company is all they need to find happiness after an unhealthy relationship. As they say, it’s better to be alone than in bad company.

However, things get much more complicated when there are children in the picture. Realizing that the kids are not to blame for your and your partner’s unhappiness, yet they might suffer the most, you may choose to stay together to protect them. But the young ones are not as easy to fool as you may think. They can catch a bad vibe within seconds, regardless of how hard you try to seem overjoyed.

Whether you are married with kids, or you are only a few months into a relationship, if your partner makes you feel wretched, you have no reason to put up with them. If your spouse does things that hurt you, damage your self-esteem, or make you feel unworthy of love, chances are they are even more miserable than you. So, instead of dealing with their ongoing mental abuse, invest your energy into creating a better life for yourself and for your children if you have any.

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