Why do we put up with and stay in unhappy relationships?
It’s a simple question, often with a complicated answer. Many of my clients have admitted to spending far too much time in dysfunctional, dead-end relationships. These unions left them feeling drained, emotionally off kilter, and unfulfilled.
Heck, I had my own fair share of these types of relationships during my single days.
There are plenty of reasons we put up with unhappiness in our love lives. After working with hundreds of women over the years and reflecting on my own single-life choices, I’ve identified the following reasons:
1. You’ve invested a lot in the relationship
A few months ago, I spoke with a woman who was interested in my coaching services. She was involved in a relationship with a man who had told her he never wanted to get married. Marriage was something she wanted. This woman had been unhappy for the past year or so yet remained tethered to her boyfriend. Part of the reason she stayed was because she had spent five years investing in this man and the relationship. Breaking up would be like throwing all that time, all that heart, all that energy into the dustbin. A hard pill to swallow indeed.
While I think it makes good sense for many couples in a long-term relationship who bump up against hard times (it happens to even the most solid unions) to work through their problems; it seems an entirely different thing to stay in a relationship in which your values are wholly incompatible. Wanting to get married and not wanting to get married, well, that’s a big one. I’m just not sure that difference is something that can be reconciled.
So yes, you’ve invested a lot of time, but that doesn’t mean you should sacrifice your joy or become some sort of relationship martyr. Better to leave now then spend even more time in dysfunction.
2. You’re scared to be single again
I get it: You hate the dating world and everything that comes along with it: the awkward first dates, the nerves, the vulnerability. You just want to be comfortable with someone and cut out the dating part. To a degree, you are with someone with whom you’re comfortable. But it turns out that in this case, comfort is really masking itself as complacency. Because you’re not comfortable, really. You’re unhappy and you know in your gut there’s something better, more fulfilling out there for you.
As I’ve learned over the years, the only thing lonelier than being single is being in a relationship that is unhealthy and wrong for you. Better to be single and find happiness in singlehood – there’s a lot to enjoy!
3. Unhappiness or dysfunction feels familiar
This is probably the main unconscious reason people stay in unhappy relationships, the key word being unconscious. You may not even realize you find your comfort in discomfort. Usually, there’s something going on at a deeper level. The dysfunction, the angst, the emotional instability feels familiar to you. Perhaps the familiarity originates in experiences from your childhood, from your parental relationships, from your parents’ relationship with each other (maybe you saw your parents unhappy with each other and you learned this is what love should feel like), or from a foundational romantic experience.
Ironically, just because it feels familiar doesn’t mean it’s safe. Check in with a coach, therapist, mentor, or trusted friend so that you can get to the bottom of your unhealthy patterns.
4. It’s easier than examining the unhappiness
Sometimes it’s easier to stay in what you know, what you’re used to. Because going outside your comfort zone means examining feelings and situations that may make you feel icky and confused and out of control. Working with a dating coach or a therapist isn’t easy, because you are forced to look at the WHYs. And when you start examining the difficult stuff, you may eventually be forced to confront your options. For instance, you can stay or you can go. Sometimes, ironically, it may almost feel easier when you don’t have an option, because the “Now what?” might seem terrifying. Ignorance is bliss, some might say, but I beg to differ. It takes courage to go, to leave an unhappy relationship, to confront your demons and the relationship’s demons and to attempt to make changes moving forward.
The good news is this: We can learn from our unhappy relationships as much as we learn from our happy relationships. In a sense then, these types of relationships are necessary for our growth and evolution as a person and a partner. They teach us about what we need, and how to receive and give love in healthy ways.
BUT, at a certain point, if the pattern of only existing in unstable, unhappy relationships doesn’t cease, then the learning within these types of relationships become less and less useful. These relationships draw you away from being able to create something healthy and happy in your life. At the end of the day, I think most of us want to find happiness within a romantic relationship before we leave this earth.
Don’t settle for persistent relationship unhappiness. Trust me: You’ll be happy you took my advice!
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