When you see someone in a terrible relationship, it’s so hard to see why they would stay in something that’s making them unhappy. But then, when it happens to you, it can be impossible to understand how you could leave a bad relationship, no matter how unhappy you were. And staying in a bad relationship is something that far too many of us have put ourselves through — but why?
There’s never going to be one universal answer — every person is different, as is every unhappy relationship. But we might be able to get a clue from science. In fact, recent study from the University of Utah found that people may be too worried about our partner’s feelings to leave them.
“[P]eople still cared about their partners’ feelings even when they had very little reason to do so, from a self-interested perspective,” Samantha Joel, lead study author, tells Bustle.
It can be baffling, but people may stay in relationships even when they’re not good for them — even when they have people they care about telling them that it’s not good for them. Here’s what else science has to say about why people stay in unhealthy relationships so often.
They’re Worried It Will Be Bad For Their Partner
As the University of Utah study found, it may be that people are just worried about how their partner will fare without them if they break up. But why do they worry about it? If they’re unhappy, wouldn’t they just leave, rather than focus on this person who treats them badly? The answer may be that there is something innate in us that makes us stay, according to the University of Utah study.
“I think it comes down to basic prosociality,” Joel says. “Humans care about other humans, and we don’t like to see other humans in pain. Obviously, this is very adaptive in a lot of different contexts, including healthy romantic relationships. It is good that we care about our partners! But that prosocial motivation does appear to have this important downside. It’s hard to turn those feelings off.”
So because people care about other people on an intrinsic level, they have trouble putting them in a vulnerable position — even if they’re struggling themselves.
People Are Used To Accepting Bad Treatment
Some people might just be too used to being treated badly and don’t feel comfortable asking for (or demanding) the treatment they deserve. According to one 2015 survey of almost 2,000 British people, around sixty percent of people have stayed in relationships that they aren’t happy in — even when they’ve been treated really badly, like being lied to, cheated on, or had their feelings dismissed and ignored. The results seem to indicate that people can just become too desensitized to bad treatment, so they stay in a bad relationship without realizing how bad it’s really been.
People Are Prone To Forgiveness
A recent study from Yale, University of Oxford, University College London, and the International School for Advanced Studies appeared the journal Nature Human Behaviour and found people may be predisposed to forgiveness. In the study, the researchers found that people felt surer of their opinion of someone who they thought was “good” and that they were more open to change their opinion of someone they felt was “bad”, even if they had been presented with evidence of bad behavior.
So it may be that humans are naturally inclined to forget bad behavior until they’re faced with it again. “There is a lot to be said for forgiveness,” relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, tells Bustle about the results. “None of us [are] perfect. We all make mistakes. But we also have to be aware of the fine line between giving second chances and enabling bad behavior and putting our emotional or physical selves at risk.” Forgiveness shouldn’t keep people trapped in a relationship that isn’t good for them.
Bad relationships can be like a black hole — and it can become very difficult to see a way out. But understanding why people sometimes stay in them is a good first step to recognizing when we’re not acting in our self-interest. You’re allowed to protect yourself — and to get out of a relationship that isn’t working for you.