Why Do People Stay In Bad Relationships?

“Dear Quirkyalone: Advice for QuirkyLiving” is a weekly guest column by the authors of the brilliant blog Onely. It appears every Monday. When you’re making up your own road map for (quirky)living, you need thoughtful advice. We’re here for you. We welcome your questions; send them on to onely AT onely.org.

Dear Quirkyalone,

When a woman is in a relationship with a guy who everyone else can see is treating her badly, what goes on in the woman’s mind that prevents her from seeing these very same things? How does she qualify staying with this guy and why? What’s behind the excuses she makes for him?– Bobby

Hi Bobby,

This is an excellent question indeed. While I can’t claim to be able to speak for the woman in question, I can offer a few theories (which, as a side note, could be applied to either men or women, as well as lesbians and gay men):

1. She might subscribe to the faulty equation: Being coupled > being single.

Contemporary Western culture tends to ascribe more value to men and women who are coupled over those who remain single for most of their lives. This kind of valuing occurs in our informal, everyday social lives: Take, for example, the officemate who squeals with delight when she learns you have a date next weekend but doesn’t appreciate your love for gardening. And it happens more formally in our financial, legal, and religious lives: Many religions see marriage as a contract between two people and God (the Catholic church recognizes the institution as a holy sacrament). Paradoxically, single people (those who do not dedicate their lives formally to God, at least — such as priests or nuns) are usually not perceived as having an equivalent contract and could therefore be seen as less holy (read: less valuable). And even in secular life, married people generally pay less in taxes, have the right to make medical and other important decisions for spouses in times of need, and ultimately enjoy far more legal privileges than singles.

Put in this context, who wouldn’t want to be coupled?

Unfortunately, the woman you describe may understand these societal pressures to be ultimate truths. Put in terms of “truth,” the value of coupling stops being subjective and can instead be described by a simple mathematical equations: Being coupled > being single. Bummer.

2. She might suffer from low self-esteem.

When someone lacks confidence and self-esteem, it’s easier to look to others instead of oneself for approval and acceptance. Romantic relationships — healthy or not — often provide a steady source of this kind of affirmation. Cutting off this kind of support may simply prove too much of a risk for your woman-friend. In fact, romantic relationships are one of the few culturally acceptable spaces in which partners can almost demand such affirmation. Relationships become unhealthy and dysfunctional when partners a) demand too much or refuse to be emotionally satisfied, no matter how much the other person gives; b) withhold emotional satisfaction/affirmation in order to hurt the other person; c) abuse the trust of the other person by exacerbating his/her self-esteem issues.

If you suspect your friend might be in an unhealthy, dysfunctional, or abusive relationship, you might encourage her to seek professional help.

3. She might not be comfortable with herself or know how to be alone.

Beyond the above possibilities, the woman you’ve asked about above may simply not be comfortable with herself or with being alone. Perhaps she’s a social extrovert and prefers constant company over silence – a relationship might seem to be the best way to provide this, even if it’s not what others call a “good” one. Maybe she doesn’t like to cook and would rather eat at restaurants, but feels terribly uncomfortable sitting alone at a table in public — having a relationship, even a bad one, may provide that small comfort. Or possibly, given how “normal” culture makes coupling out to be, this woman has never even considered what it would be like to be single.

In that case, you might suggest she take a solo road trip (as I once did after a breakup) or some other activity that she’d usually do with someone else — and ask her how being alone changed the experience in positive or surprising ways.

Whatever the case, it’s obvious that this woman isn’t experiencing the joys of Quirkyliving if she’s settled for a bad relationship… You even might give her a copy of the Quirkyalone book — at least to show her that there are alternatives to the way she’s currently living!

Good luck, Bobby. Thanks for the question, and I hope you’ve found this helpful!

– Lisa at Onely

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About

Onely is a blog that deconstructs stereotypes of singlehood. It's for singles who enjoy being single but remain open to a variety of romantic relationships, either for themselves or for others. Onely comprises two people: Lisa and Christina. Christina has an MA in English and an MFA in creative writing, but she still struggles with her participles and a tendency toward semicolon abuse. She has bravely persevered against these obstacles in her work as one-half of the Onely writing team. For most of her thirty-odd years she has been Quirkyalone, but she also has experience as a Quirkytogether, a Lonelyalone, and--most terrifying--a Lonelytogether. Currently she is contentedly single, balancing a left-brained day job that feeds her cat with right-brained writing projects that feed her soul. In Dear Quirkyalone, she hopes to share her lessons learned with other readers who want to understand and embrace Quirkyliving. The secret? Always listen to Lisa. Lisa has an MFA in creative writing and is about halfway through a doctoral program in Rhetoric and Composition. She loves writing about singles issues on Onely because it gives her a break from what she writes in “real life,” and she loves giving advice on QA because – as most academics do – she thinks she’s always right. Lisa owns a dog named Kitty, loves Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, and undertakes long road/camping trips as often as possible. She apologizes in advance for her language taking “academic” (not to be confused with “epic”) proportions, and advises readers first and foremost to always heed Christina’s advice.

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Posted in Relationships
22 comments on “Why Do People Stay In Bad Relationships?
  1. Special K says:

    Because he made her feel good at some point, and she is getting more from staying the relationship than getting out.
    Also: what you see on the outside, or what a woman may “vent” to you (a male friend) may/probably isn’t the whole picture. This guy most likely has many good qualities that leave her feeling ambivilent…

    • You know, come to think of it (cuz it’s been a while!), part of the reason I didn’t give up on the relationship I mentioned (below) was because the first few months were soooo wonderful, and I think I just couldn’t let go of the hope that the relationship would return to that.

      Wow . . . I’d completely forgotten about that! It’s a really good point.

  2. Onely says:

    That’s true, Special K–if the guy has some attribute that is soooo important to her, she’ll overlook some of his less savory aspects. I tend to overlook a lot of unsavoriness if a guy has a sense of humor.
    Christina

  3. I think a lot depends on age and experience. It takes a while to learn all the good stuff that we take as a given after a few years!

    My first seriously serious boyfriend spanned my college years and early 20′s, and I nearly married the guy. All fine and well, except that the relationship kind of sucked after the first six months. That would be, oh, 5-1/2 years, roughly, that I could have been dating more interesting guys, having more fun (not to mention better sex!) and learning all the great stuff I was capable of instead of finding out how much pain I was willing to suffer for “love.”

    It’s sooooo hard to watch someone you care for deliberately putting themselves through so much self-inflicted torture. I really put my friends through the wringer with that one! But I also learned a million things about myself, and about life and relationships in a pretty condensed timeframe (interminable though it seemed at the time!).

    So . . . as aggravating as it is to watch, the situation may not be as bleak as it sometimes seems. The person may be taking a crash course in relationships, or learning something important about themselves. But if it’s repeated again & again, then the person may need some additional (professional) support beyond what their friends are able to provide.

    Great question! ;)

  4. I love Lisa’s answer! It covers all the social aspects that lock women (and men) into relationships that do more harm than good, as well as some of the basic psychological ones such as self-esteem and enmeshment issues.

    I also really appreciate what Special K said so succinctly. (And she’s a psychologist, so she would have particularly good insight on this one.) As someone who was once in an emotionally/verbally abusive relationship and, through a support group, knew many, many other women who were, too, her explanation resonates with me. Most of us stayed because abusive people–men OR women–tend to hook in their partners with a lot of charm, romance, intimacy, and what seems to be love in the beginning. They can have an uncanny way of identifying what their partner wants early on and playing to that so that they seem “perfect.” So, when they suddenly turn into the bizarro version of themselves, their partner thinks it must be a fluke or that she/he must have done something wrong. Otherwise, why would Mr. or Ms. Perfect be flipping out and frothing at the mouth?

    Now, when this has happened a number of times, one may ask why any sane person wouldn’t see that Mr. Nice Guy (or Ms. Nice Girl) was just a front. That’s where those pesky self-esteem issues may come in. The partner may not know to expect anything different, especially if he or she was treated similarly by other people in the past. Also, loving someone who doesn’t love you back, who, in fact, deceives, manipulates, humiliates, and dehumanizes you, can erode even a fairly healthy person’s self-esteem pretty quickly.

    The bottom line, though, is that, as Special K said, the partner is getting something out of it. It may not be something healthy. It may be the high of the “honeymoon” periods, a sense of security with the devil that’s known, or even a desire to beat the abuser at his/her own game. But something in that relationship is satisfying an emotional need that the partner has. At this point, good old-fashioned denial and rationalization kick in to help the partner convince him- or herself that what he/she is getting out of it is something totally normal and healthy!

    I don’t know if this will work with your friend, but here’s a suggestion that has worked for me with friends of mine who were in abusive relationships: If your friend is complaining to you but making no attempt to get out of the situation, you might tell her, “Something in it is making you feel good. When the bad feelings outweigh the good feelings, you’ll leave.” In my experience, I’ve found that people protest at first, but if you keep repeating that every time they complain, it starts to sink in. They start monitoring how the relationship actually makes them feel and thinking in terms of the ratio of positive feelings to lousy, miserable, can’t-get-out-of-bed feelings, and they start realizing that the relationship isn’t worth it. It can take a long time, though. A really long time. I know it’s frustrating to watch your friend go through that and feel powerless to help her!

    So, yeah. There’s my take on it as someone who was in that kind of situation. For what it’s worth, I hope it helps.

    • Onely says:

      Thanks Singletude–
      I wish that in the past someone had said to me “Something in it is making you feel good. When the bad feelings outweigh the good feelings, you’ll leave.”

      Christina

  5. Amity says:

    I am currently in a horrible relationship. I see that its bad and its not working yet I cant find how to leave. I think its a mixture of low self esteem and not being able to adapt to living alone. I dont have any family so he has been my only family….

    I want to get out and I want to leave but he makes it hard…

    • Onely says:

      (This is subsequent to my other comment below)

      Also, not knowing your full situation, I can’t really say anything wise here (and that’s assuming I am wise in the first place, which is always up for debate, especially at 6 in the morning = ) ), but I wanted to just throw out the idea that it might help to try to think of different ideas of what “family” could mean. It’s not necessarily a nuclear unit with the children and parents and spouses. If you have friends or more distant relatives, nothing says that they can’t form a kind of family for you. If you don’t, then you’ll meet people who can fill that role, either through support groups (see below) or by participating in other interests you develop as a single person.

      I know it can seem as if your sig other is “everything” in many ways (it can seem as if he’s all your family, or all your friends). It’s hard to break out of that mindset, especially when our whole society seems caught up in the false idealization of coupledom as a route to all happiness! But just remember that there are many ways to connect with people outside of a standard committed romantic relationship, and as you begin to break free you’ll see them more clearly.

      Again, I say all this based on what little I know from your comment above. . .

      CC

  6. Amity says:

    Also, if anyone knows of support groups that I can lean on for strength and positive reinforcement that would be awesome. If they are online thats awesome too.

    Thank you.

    • Onely says:

      Hi Amity,

      We’re glad you wrote! I think we’ve all been in your shoes (to varying degrees). Congratulations on recognizing and articulating that you want out of the relationship. That’s the first and most important step–if you can do that, you can do anything. Lisa and I will ask around about some resources for you. If you want to, let us know where you’re located–but if you’re not comfortable with that then we’ll try to dig up some resources that are more global and/or online. This will be a good learning experience for us.

      Off the top of my head, you might try joining the Footloose Femails Yahoo group. It’s a group of women who are satisfied and empowered by their single status. They send group emails several times a day just chatting about different aspects of being single in a couples’ world. You might want to ask them if they know of support groups. If you don’t want to join the group, let me know and I’ll put the question to them on your behalf: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/footloosefemails/

      Christina

      • Onely says:

        My second thought off the top of my head: go to meetup.com and search for “relationships”. You might find some support groups there, probably mixed in with the dating groups. On meetup.com I’ve seen divorce support groups, domestic abuse support groups, that kind of thing. It depends on your location. Meetup groups are generally in person, but you can communicate online with the members too.

        Onely will continue to think on this and ask around.
        CC

  7. self esteem says:

    informative post and writeup!!!

  8. Robin says:

    I am actually in a relationship where neither of us are happy. I noticed in all of these responses there is one point that is not being brought up. Comfort. I think the main reason why I am still with my boyfriend, even though both of know in our hearts it isn’t working, is because it’s comfortable. We’ve been together for 4 years. We are comfortable around each other, and are just used to each other.

    • Onely says:

      Definitely–even though the relationship is not ideal, it’s still comforting because it’s what you know. I’ve been there! Good luck!

      Christina

  9. Ryan says:

    I dont know why this always happens to me. Im so sad.

  10. Al ex Back says:

    My sister was in a relationship with a violent guy. I fought this guy on numerous occasions over his conduct yet my sister STILL went back.

    It took her a long time to realise, in fact it took him setting fire to her house for her to get the hell out.

    Thankfully she is with a great guy now, and has been for ages.

    I’m rather thankful myself as her current guy is one big bruiser of a guy who I would hate to try and tackle. Thankfully he’s a perfect gent.

    I still don’t know why she stayed so long with the first ***hole and I reckon we won’t ever find out.

  11. Gina says:

    I’m in this exact situation now. We’ve been together for 3 1/2 years…been through breakups and makeups and I know deep down inside I’m not happy or satisfied. I keep questioning myself because I know what it’s like to be with him when I’m happy and I can see a future for us together. But then there’s times when I just really want to give up. So many years of trying and progressing together in our retionship…or should I start new and have a new hope? I’m torn and it’s never an easy answer.

  12. Sarah says:

    My mother and father have been married for 20 years. A long time, yes. In the early part or the relationship she was physically abused. And from then on it’s verbal abuse. It’s not every now and then, it’s everyday. My sister who is now 22, has been physically and verbally abused by him her whole life basically. He is not her real father, he has been her legal father since she was two though. I’m 15 now, and mostly verbal some physical stuff has been going on for a couple years now. About 2 weeks ago, him and my sister were into it ( for nothing, really… Nothing) he had started in on her and yelling inher face. I got in between and stopped this. Then he grabbed me by my neck and threw me into a cabinet. This is when my mother decided we should leave. We have left in the past a couple times for a few weeks just to go back to him everytime. The past couple of days he has told my mother he would change, and the past is the past. I find it hard to believe him since this has been promised before. I don’t think he deserves another chance. The damage has been done. I just don’t understand why my mom won’t leave. She gets my hopes up to leave and everytime I am dissapointed. There is no love in this relationship!!! Family, what family? My mother says, she doesn’t want to throw away 20 years. Oh so in 10 more years is she going to say I don’t want to throw away 30? He has been this way for 20 years. I just don’t understand. We have the chance to live a happy and new life but it fails everytime. I just need to know what to do. Why my mother won’t leave? I just don’t get all this. It’s not fair to my sister and I.

    • Pam says:

      I would definitely call the police’ your mother is abusing you by letting this man be physically abusive. Definitely get out now. I hope you will all be ok, before it’s too late. There are loads of nice people out there. Take Care.

  13. choochoo says:

    I have been with a guy for 7 years. We moved in together quickly and the first year was magical. I earn a lot more than him, and had a chance to move abroad. He came with me and took low paid work. He smokes marijuhana, and so that has always eaten into his savings. We never had holidays or did anything, even though I have a good salary, because I was always paying for 2. He used to be kind, then it just turned into being bitter and snappy everyday.
    He made so many promises to get educated, to imporve his job etc, but he has so many sick days he gets fired all of the time and lies about it. Lately I caught him stealing from me, quite a big amount of money, he promised to put it back. Also We went to a party, and while I was sleeping, he made out with about 4 girls there, aparently he wanted to go further, but the girls said no. He was out of his mind.

    I have suffered mental helath problems and have HUGE self-esteem problems, I also think I am scared to be alone. Yesterday he told me he had lied about his qualifications since our relationship began. And now, if I decide to leave him, i think this will be thrown back at me, that I am shallow, even though it is simply because i am tired of not being treated right or feeling loved anymore.

  14. Maybe that’s how she saved a relationship and loved a guy. It’s like the song ” I’d rather have hard times with you than good times with someone else” :)

    AnneC

  15. Hi says:

    You said:

    Paradoxically, single people (those who do not dedicate their lives formally to God, at least — such as priests or nuns) are usually not perceived as having an equivalent contract and could therefore be seen as less holy (read: less valuable).

    Did you know that in the Bible (1st Corinthians chapter 7) it is written:

    ” I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

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