Why Do Unhappy Couples Stay Together?

07 Jul

This is an intriguing and yet deeply sensitive subject to consider. As clichéd as it may be, the spark is real. And should it flicker and fade, even the strongest of couples will find their relationship put to the test.

Shot of a young couples having an intense argument at home

This is an intriguing and yet deeply sensitive subject for couples to consider. Have you just watched The Bridges of Madison County and asked yourself if while wading through a box of tissues, do you stay with what’s safe and with the commitment you made, or is there something else? To consider what is involved in this equation, it requires examining the various aspects and opening up your thought process. Are you privately asking this question?

As clichéd as it may be, the spark is real. And should it flicker and fade, even the strongest of couples will find their relationship put to the test. According to the American Psychological Association, 90 percent of Americans are married by age 50 — yet as many as 50 percent of these unions end in divorce. Imagine that: statistically speaking, your marriage ending in divorce could be predicted on a coin toss. 

Even when spouses stay together, however, these data would strongly suggest that many do so reluctantly. New research from Texas A&M University has sought to elucidate why this might be, and what lessons can be learned from the results.

Stay together for the kids?

Perhaps the most obvious reason unhappy couples remain coupled and loveless is to see the kids through to college, with an unspoken view to separating shortly thereafter. Both parents remaining at home will prevent their sour dynamic from affecting the children’s long-term wellbeing — or so the theory goes, at least.

One way around this bleak conundrum is co-parenting, whereby you would separate but share childcare responsibilities. Co-parenting can even be more beneficial for the kids in the long run. After all, if their unhappy parents stay together, many kids only end up acting either as Mom and Dad’s go-between or their in-house marriage counsellor.

Investment theory

Another strong argument for staying together over separating goes something along the lines of better the devil you know.

According to investment theory, people have a tendency toward the status quo. This is at least partly in order to protect their sunk resources, those ‘costs’ — be they financial or emotional — that have been incurred and cannot be recovered. In other words, unless the prospect of leaving were significantly preferable to staying, investment theory predicts that people in unhappy relationships will generally accept their lot and try to make the best of a bad situation.

A 2017 study found that people often remain as they are with a partner they trust (but don’t necessarily love or even like) even when they have the opportunity to leave them for someone they find more attractive. However, this is less often the case if their new romantic interest is wealthier than their current partner.

Attachment style

As well as the expectations of community, society and culture playing major roles in whether unhappy couples stay together, a person’s attachment style significantly predicts the likelihood of them remaining in a negative relationship, according to brand-new research from Texas A&M University.

The pair of studies, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, found that individuals with the anxious attachment style are more likely to both stay in negative relationships and to do so for longer than those with non-anxious attachment styles.

The researchers concluded that anxious attachment entails a heightened fear of change, which in turn is associated with increased commitment, even when the relationship being committed to is dissatisfying. Anxiously attached individuals will still experience dissatisfaction, but are far less likely to break things off and go their own way. If both partners are anxiously attached, a relationship or marriage can drag on, potentially for decades, at a pace so glacial it may as well have come to a standstill the moment the vows were uttered.

Embrace your fear of change

A long-term unhappy relationship can be deeply, viscerally confusing. You recall happier times of laughter, fun, sex — and wonder what the hell happened. You can’t work out if you’ve changed, or they have, or neither of you has and it’s nothing but the wayward arrow of time that’s taking a heavy toll on the fortitude of your love.

Even if you do know what’s changed, that knowledge won’t necessarily galvanize you to pack your things and walk out the door. If anything, it can sometimes serve only to make the breakup an even more unfathomable prospect. But perhaps you need to lean in to that gnawing uncertainty a little more. Listen to it. What does it really signal at a fundamental level?

Let’s say you believe you love your partner. Okay — but what does love mean, then? You believe you are a caring, loyal spouse, yet if you’re feeling dissatisfied then clearly something’s gone awry somewhere down the line. Excepting the possibility that you’re a masochist, experiencing subversive self-flagellating pleasure in the pain of your situation, you’re probably in denial — that, or just unconsciously repeating patterns of isolation and longing, isolation and longing.

Maybe you’re not scared of being without your partner, or even of being alone. Maybe you’re just scared of change, period. But accepting that fact, accepting it and embracing it — that might just shift your entire reality in a way you never thought possible.

Get relationship-sober

Love, as they say, is a drug — perhaps the most intoxicating of all. And like a drug, love’s effects are far-reaching and don’t just dematerialize come the morning. If it slowly dawns on you that the drug you yourself have been taking for years, perhaps decades, is having noxious and debilitating side effects, it might be time to get sober — before it’s too late.

Few people are truly comfortable ‘rocking the boat’. The breakup of your relationship probably wouldn’t just affect the two of you; the shock waves would be felt through your milieu and beyond. Your kids, your parents, your mutual friends — surely it would be ‘best’ for everyone if you just painted on a smile and soldiered through the hard times? Well… maybe — but only if by best you mean easier.

There’s a time to look out for number one. If your relationship is chronically detracting from your enjoyment of life, it might be best for both you and your loved ones to call time. Being single will not make you weak. After all, you’d have already had the courage to initiate the breakup in the first place, right?

The Vida Consultancy are an elite global matchmaking agency based in London. Our network of exceptional singletons are ready to settle down with someone special. Furthermore, our in-house relationship psychologist Madeleine Mason Roantree  has over 15 years’ experience helping people overcome the barriers we put up that prevent us from finding — and keeping — a love that is truly right for us. Get in touch today and let us set you on the path to a long-term, meaningful relationship with someone truly amazing.

by Rachel Vida MacLynn

Founder & CEO

Rachel Vida MacLynn is reputed as being a world-leading matchmaking and dating expert. Registered as a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, Rachel advocates a professional matchmaking approach based on psychological principles and professional consultation.More by this author

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