It may be hard to believe, but I was once in a relationship for nine years where I was so unhappy, I cried nearly every day. A decade later, with a Ph.D. in Psychology under my belt and an intellectual obsession with how and why humans attach themselves to one another and form relationships, I am finally beginning to understand the mysterious crazy glue that keeps people in bad relationships. It often boils down to commitment level, attachment style, and a strange ability to distort the future.
Researchers have spent plenty of time sorting out why some people stay in really, really awful relationships, including the kind that are clearly life-threatening. Studies of domestic violence victims in shelters have shown that the women most likely to return to their abuser have children and are financially dependent on their partners (read more about this research here).1 But less is known about individuals in dating or cohabitating relationships who have financial independence, a fairly good education, but a lousy style of relating with their partners that could be construed as downright aggressive. Some of these couples stay together a surprisingly long time, even though it can be psychologically harmful.
It’s no secret that even relatively low levels of aggression like yelling, insults, and slapping can cause serious trauma to a partner,2 so why doesn’t a lover simply bolt? Anyone who has stayed in a mostly bad, but sometimes good, relationship knows the term “it’s complicated” is an understatement.
Let’s start with commitment level. In general, people stay committed because their relationship makes them feel good, it seems better than being single, and there are benefits that will disappear if they leave a relationship.3 In healthy relationships, these principles help people stick out the rough patches and stay committed. And in aggressive relationships, this commitment level can even override all the conflicts and abuse.4
Secondly, attachment style can play a big role (read more about attachment styles here). Although partners who form secure attachments (defined as those who can give and receive care comfortably) generally stay together the longest, research shows that when a woman has an anxious attachment style and the man has a tendency to avoid emotions and be dismissive of her emotional needs, the couple can also stay together a surprisingly long time.5 This is partly because the two meet each others’ expectations for how men and women should behave in relationship (e.g., based on stereotypes or past experience). Attachment research also points to one other attachment dynamic. It’s not the degree of closeness that determines if a relationship will last, but whether or not both partners like the same degree of closeness or distance.6 It stands to reason that if partners perceive relationship aggression as a strategy for maintaining emotional distance, a partner who fears closeness will put up with aggression rather than risk the threat of intimacy.
Finally, research has found that the belief that things will get worse after a breakup motivates people to stay in bad relationships. In a new study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science,4 the authors compare commitment level with people’s perception of their own happiness in a bad relationship, and perhaps more importantly, their forecasting of future happiness should the relationship break up. What they found was startling: People in abusive dating relationships underestimate how unhappy they really are and overestimate how unhappy they would be if the relationship were to break up.
In other words, because a partner is afraid to be single, he or she imagines that being in a bad relationship feels okay. And he or she also distorts the future by really thinking that single life will be far worse than it actually turns out to be. For those riding an emotional roller coaster in a bad relationship: Don’t listen to your gut. Listen to the opinions of your friends.
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1Rusbult, C. E., & Martz, J. M. (1995). Remaining in an abusive relationship: An investment analysis of nonvoluntary dependence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 558-571.
2Follingstad, D. R. (2009). The impact of psychological aggression on women’s mental health and behavior: The status of the field. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 10, 271–289.
3Rusbult, C. E. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 101-117.
4Arriaga, X. B., Capezza, N. M., Goodfriend, W., Ray, E. S., Sands, K. J. (2013). Individual well-being and relationship maintenance at odds. The unexpected perils of maintaining a relationship with an aggressive partner. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 676-684.
5Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Davis, K. E. (1994). Attachment style, gender, and relationship stability: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 502-512. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.112
6Frost, D. M., & Forrester, C. (2013). Closeness discrepancies in romantic relationships: Implications for relational well-being, stability, and mental health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 456–469.
Wendy L. Walsh, Ph.D., is the author of "The 30-Day Love Detox" and the host of Investigation Discovery Networks’ “Happily Never After.” She is regularly featured as CNN’s human behavior expert. As adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Channel Islands, she lectures on human mating strategies.