I will admit I have been in my fair share of unhappy relationships. What’s worse, I stayed in them longer than I should have. While they weren’t the happiest of relationships, they weren’t necessarily bad ones. There was no abuse, no cheating, no blatant disrespect, no crazy amount of arguing. Actually, there was quite a bit of good in those relationships. They treated me well and we had a good time together. And that might have been part of the problem – there was enough good to convince me to stay. Enough good to overlook my underlying feelings of dissatisfaction. Enough good to think I was happy.
And I was happy on some level, just not happy enough.
This isn’t necessarily an issue when you’re young and new to the dating world. It’s the whole point of dating – trying out and figuring out the type of relationship you want for the long run. But as you get older and these tryouts become longer, it can be easy to get stuck. Before you know it, familiarity can look like love and time spent turns into reasons to stay. Before you know it, you’re happy… but not happy enough.
Why does this happen? Why do we stay in relationships that are just okay? Why are we willing to settle for a love that is less than?
First things first: What does not happy enough look like? This can be the tricky part because oftentimes it looks pretty good. Maybe your partner is sweet to you and does nice things for you. Maybe you have a great group of friends and you rarely fight. The problem usually isn’t from the outside looking in but rather from the inside looking in.
“Most of the time, we know we are not happy in the relationship, but we usually suppress that feeling because we don’t like to acknowledge it,” says to Sheldon Reisman, LISW-S and psychotherapist. We are basically hiding our true feelings even from ourselves. Our unhappiness, however, will always leave clues.
According to Reisman, the following are indicators your current relationship may not be the right relationship:
1. You find yourself sharing more of your day-to-day life with friends and family than your partner.
2. You often find yourself judging things your partner says or does.
3. The idea of going somewhere with your partner makes you just want to stay home.
4. It’s hard for you to come up with positives about your relationship.
5. Your partner is often critical of you.
6. You don’t feel respected by your partner.
Whether our unhappiness speaks in clear signs or quiet subtleties, as with most things in life, we must understand it to overcome it. Let’s look at the forces driving us to stay in the wrong relationship.
1. We don’t want to be alone.
At a certain point in life, going stag loses its cool and being the third wheel just plain sucks. We want the couch dates, the double dates, and the plus ones. “For a lot of us, it’s better to be in a relationship that somewhat works than to be alone at night, on the weekends, etc.” says Reisman. Having someone can be better than having no one.
But this is a slippery slope because the longer we stay, the harder it is to leave. According to Clinical Psychologist and author of Joy From Fear Dr. Carla Manly, “The longer a person has been in an unhappy relationship, the more fearful they may be of leaving and starting fresh.” For with time comes the commingling of lives.
Soon our fear of isolation extends further than just from our partner. Reisman explains we don’t want to be separated from their friends or family or from certain places we used to go together, i.e. a gym or bar. At a certain point in a relationship, we will no longer just be breaking up with our partner. We’ll be breaking up with everything and everyone that came with them, from parents to pets, which only amplifies our fear of being alone.
2. We avoid change.
Breakups bring a lot of change ,and not just a change in our relationship status. They can change daily routines, living circumstances, and even finances. “Oftentimes, the biggest driving force to stay in a relationship is convenience,” says Reisman. It may seem silly but think about it – finding an apartment, finding a roommate, buying furniture, changing your address, even signing up for your own Netflix account – these are all time-consuming, annoying, expensive, and often difficult things to do.
But as Reisman explains, “the convenience of staying in an unhappy relationship is often more about a fear of being alone, dealing with rejection, and being judged by others for not being able to make the relationship work.” It can appear easier – both logistically and emotionally – to maintain the status quo.
Dr. Manly agrees the conveniences extend past logistics and finances. “Some people stay in relationships to maintain a façade for the outside world,” she says. She continues that in these situations, we are putting the perception of others above our own inner health, choosing to appear happy rather than be happy.
Why do we do this? “I see people stay in relationships because they are afraid of being uncomfortable,” says Lauren Cook, MMFT and author of Name Your Story: How to Talk Openly About Mental Health and The Sunny Side Up: Celebrating Happiness. She points out the irony that while we avoid experiencing the unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions that come with a breakup (like sadness, fear, and isolation), we are usually experiencing those emotions anyway by staying in our current relationship. “People can become very avoidant of change, so they will work hard to stay comfortable in an uncomfortable relationship,” explains Cook.
Perhaps the biggest change breakups bring is moving from the known to the unknown. “The familiarity long-term partners have is a valuable commodity,” says Andrew Aaron, LICSW. We know each other’s nuances – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Turning the life we know upside down means facing a side we’ve yet to see. Enter our fear of the unknown.
Ultimately, ending a relationship means change, and change is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. “All this makes it hard for people to admit their relationship is not making them as happy as they could be,” says Reisman.
3. We don’t want to fail.
Maybe it’s because of the time we’ve already spent in the relationship, maybe it’s how it will look to the outside world, or maybe it’s simply a stubborn attitude. But for many of us, we just can’t seem to let go.
“Some people have a strong belief that they can make an unhealthy relationship work,” says Dr. Manly. This can take the form of trying to change our partner to trying to change ourselves. We may go to therapy, attend workshops, read books, and try every other self-work strategy we can fit into our lives. But as Dr. Many points out, “If one partner is indifferent, uninvested, or lethargic about the work it takes to create the healthy relationship, there is generally no hope for improvement.” Each partner must be committed to working on the relationship or we are fighting a losing battle.
It’s extra complicated when the relationship is one the outside world doesn’t agree with. Not only do we not want to fail, but we definitely don’t want to be wrong. In these situations, our stubborn attitude can be a double-edged sword. As Aaron points out, “Many people will use great effort to avoid a situation where another says, ‘I told you so.’” We are determined to make it work, no matter the cost.
4. We don’t think we deserve to be happy.
The cost is our happiness – living a life and a love less than we deserve. And therein lies the deepest issue. “In some cases, individuals remain in bad relationships because they feel that they don’t deserve a good relationship,” says Dr. Manly. Life experiences have left us feeling broken or unlovable, causing us to accept a relationship we know is wrong.
And it only perpetuates the cycle. “It is a reality that being in an unhappy relationship has a strong negative effect on self-esteem,” says Aaron. “Many partners do not feel valuable enough to attract another or confident enough to handle a solitary life.” It becomes a cycle – a subconscious sabotage on repeat.
But once we see the cycle, we can break it.
But we do.
Because we always have a choice. We can choose to let our fears and insecurities hold us back from the happiness we deserve, or we can fight to overcome them.
When it comes to leaving an unhappy relationship, “most critical is the person’s level of internal strength,” says Dr. Manly. We must build the muscle to push through our fears, the endurance to withstand all the change, and the knowledge that choosing ourselves is never a failure.
The way out of a wrong relationship is to right our mind. To understand we will only find happiness with another when we choose happiness for ourselves.