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A New Study Explains Why People Stay in Unhappy Relationships

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Unscientifically speaking, breakups suck. All sorts of complex emotions are involved, often with one or both partners considering their options for quite some time. Now a new study lends some evidence as to why some of those people make the decision to stay, even if they’re unhappy in their relationship. Apparently, they don’t want to upset their significant other.

The new research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, isn’t particularly surprising—least of all to lead author Samantha Joel, PhD, who conducted the study as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah and is currently assistant professor at Western University.

“This is one of the few times I would say I actually found exactly what I sent out to find,” says Joel. Most of the research in this field has focused on people in relationships making decisions for themselves, she says, so her findings—while predictable—add an important new layer to the science. “I thought that people might care about their partners, as well, and we measured that they pretty consistently do care.”

For the study, Joel and her colleagues surveyed 500 people who had been in romantic relationships for an average of 38 months, but were all thinking about breaking up with their significant others. The researchers followed up two months later to see who had decided to stay.

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“We found that, yes, people who initially believed that their partners really wanted the relationship to continue were less likely to initiate a breakup,” says Joel. In fact, the more dependent people believed their partners were on them, the less likely they were to pull the plug.

In other words, the study found that people may be willing to stay in an unfulfilling relationship for the sake of their partner—and that they don’t make breakup decisions purely out of self-interest alone. This was true even for people who said they didn’t feel satisfied with or invested in their relationship, and for people who felt they had more appealing dating options.

There are, of course, plenty of other reasons to stay in a romantic relationship that’s less than perfect. Previous research has shown that the amount of time and emotion already invested can be a factor, as can a person’s alternative prospects. Couples who are married or have been together for years also face other obstacles, such as dividing assets and getting lawyers involved. But this is the first study to look at how much a person considers someone else’s feelings, says Joel, rather than just their own.

In a way, Joel says, this is a positive finding. “It’s one thing to care about your partner’s feelings when you’re in a well functioning relationship and you want to maintain that; then you have good reason not to be a jerk,” she says. “But people who are thinking about breaking up don’t really have any good self-interested reason to care about their partner’s feelings, and yet they still do.”

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There was one exception to this rule, however: People in the study who scored low on “communal strength”—a measure of how far someone is willing to go to meet his or her partner’s needs, Joel explains—were much less likely to take their partner’s feelings into account. “This finding suggests that the present effects may not extend to individuals who are particularly self-focused or self-interested,” her paper states.

More research is needed to understand the consequences when one partner makes a decision to stay based on their partner’s perceived needs. Joel says the effects of such a decision could likely be positive or negative, depending on the relationship and the individual situation.

“If the relationship is generally good and the couple is facing a temporary rough patch and this helps them get through it, then it’s a good thing and it should have positive consequences,” she says. “But if the relationship is chronically bad and these concerns are preventing someone from exiting a situation that isn’t good for their well-being, then obviously that’s bad.”

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Until more is known about how this decision can affect relationships and mental heath, Joel says it can be helpful just to know that this type of feeling is normal, and that it’s not unusual to factor your partner’s feelings into your decision. (Yes, despite all of your friends telling you to do what’s best for you.)

“I think it says something about human nature—that we’re less selfish than we sometimes think,” she says. “It shows that people continue to care about others, even when maybe it’s not adaptive to do so anymore.”

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