Should We Break Up? Psychologists Discover Surprise Reason Why People Stay in Unhappy Relationships

Why do unhappy couples stay together? According to a study, it may be because they fear their partners won’t be able to cope without them.

Samantha Joel, an assistant professor of psychology at Western University, Ontario, and adjunct professor at the Unviersity of Utah, explained: “The more dependent people believed their partner was on the relationship, the less likely they were to initiate a breakup.” 

In the past, researchers have looked toward self-interest for nurturing a relationship. Here, the psychologists wanted to investigate pro-social motivations, and the apparent desire to protect one's partner from hurt feelings when a relationship ends. 

wedding-marriage-relationship-stock Researchers have investigated why couples stay in unhappy relationships. Getty Images

To conduct the research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the team carried out two studies. In the first, they recruited 1,348 volunteers in romantic relationships and tracked them over a 10-week period.

In the second part, the researchers continued and replicated the first part, including 500 participants who were weighing whether to break up with their partners. This group was studied for two months. 

"Our research suggests that for people in chronically unfulfilling, unhappy relationships, concern for the partner's feelings could be an important barrier to ending those relationships," Joel told Newsweek

This appeared to be the case even when an individual had few self-interested reasons for doing so, she said. 

Read more: Psychopaths Can't Tell If a Person Is Genuinely Sad or Afraid, Study Suggests 

Joel continued: "I think this research could be useful to therapists and to people who are struggling with difficult relationship decisions. It can be useful to know where your feelings are coming from and that those feelings are normal."

So how can we stop our relationships from wilting in the first place? One 2015 study found that sexting—defined as texting sexually suggestive or explicit content to one’s partner—was linked to greater sexual satisfaction, especially for those in committed relationships. The more couples sexted, the more satisfied they felt in their relationships (unless they identified as “very committed”), the researchers at Drexel University found. 

A separate study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, meanwhile, found that indulging in sexual fantasies about a partner could benefit a relationship.

The researchers said fantasizing about one's current partner was linked with a heightened desire to have sex with them, and also the desire to make them happy more generally, compared with those asked to fantasize about someone else. 

This article has been updated with comment from Dr. Samantha Joel.

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