Illustration by Erin Taj

Why Do People Stay in Toxic Relationships?

Research supports the idea that miserable relationships are bad for people, but breaking up is hard to do

Next month, actress Clea DuVall will make her debut as a writer and director with The Intervention, a dark comedy about a group of friends who use a couples’ getaway as a setup to try to convince one couple to end their marriage.

Many of us have had the unsettling experience of watching someone we love stick with an obviously unhealthy relationship. That person may even have been you — for whatever reason, you found yourself unwilling or unable to end a relationship you knew was toxic. The persistence of these relationships is all the more baffling in light of recent research that suggests bad relationships literally make us sick.

A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found a correlation between romantic relationships’ quality and mental and emotional well-being. People in high-quality relationships — ones in which the partners were satisfied, committed and warm toward each other — reported strong mental health. Conversely, low-quality relationships correlated with signs of mental health issues — in this case, self-reported evidence of alcoholism and depression, such as having low energy or feelings of loneliness.

That relationship quality dovetailed with mental health seems so obvious that one might question whether it needed academic study in the first place. But the study also found a link between relationship quality and physical health: Those in high-quality relationships reported higher levels of overall physical well-being.

The larger implication of the study is that it’s better to be single than stuck with someone who’s bad for you — which most of us already know, at least in theory. So why do so many people stay?

“I can’t really speak to what’s going on in these people’s heads,” says Ashley Barr, lead researcher on the study and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo. “However, I can speak to some of the sociological factors that we’re finding keep people in bad relationships.”

Some couples may be simply clinging to the hope their disappointing relationship will improve, or that their once-rewarding relationship will rediscover some of its forgotten spark. Which does happen, albeit not often, Barr says. Barr and her team have conducted the study among two different populations — one of African Americans, and, more recently, one of white Americans in rural Iowa. About 15 percent of the couples in the African-American sample and 17 percent of the white couples reported an increase in relationship quality over two to three years, which is to say that some relationships do get better over time.

But there are sociological pressures that keep people in relationships that remain “stably” low-quality over long stretches of time. “Most of them have to do with barriers to ending a relationship,” Barr says — such as children, pets or shared rents and social circles. The potential stress of having to find a new apartment or disrupting the peace within a group of friends can outweigh the desire to leave an unfulfilling relationship.

A 2006 study led by University of Denver psychology professor Scott Stanley found that “some couples who otherwise would not have married end up married because of the inertia of cohabitation.” That is, couples who live together often “slide” into marriage despite obvious relationship problems.

Others cling to the “symbolic capital” that comes with being in a relationship, Barr says. Society tends to look more fondly on people in relationships, deeming them of higher social capital than their single counterparts.

The social stigma attached to being single has lessened in recent years, Barr says, corresponding with a drop in marriage rates. In 2012, the percentage of Americans 25 or older who had never been married reached 20 percent, an all-time high. Still, there’s a “cultural lag” that allows the stigma to persist.

Psychologically, staying in a bad relationship can be rooted in childhood trauma, according to Ken Page, a psychotherapist and author of the book Deeper Dating. If a person was denied love or attention from their parents growing up, they tend to replicate that behavior in adulthood, seeking out partners who deny them the validation they desperately need. This counterintuitive impulse is hard-wired and known as an “attraction of deprivation,” according to Page.

Page’s analysis might be explained by the mere-exposure effect (or familiarity principle), the long-held psychological principle that humans develop preferences for what they’re repeatedly exposed to (in this case, shitty relationships).

The internet is littered with relationship horror stories from men and women who have struggled to pry themselves out of such unhealthy partnerships. Common among the responses is that fear of being alone superseded the fear of staying in an unredeeming partnership.

“Do you think it’s popular of men to stay in bad relationships due to the fear of being single again?” one user asked the r/askmen subreddit. “It’s popular for both genders to do this,” reads the most popular response. “Everyone wants to be wanted.”

The vast majority of low-quality relationships do end, Barr says. Less than a quarter (22 percent) of the couples in low-quality relationships in the African-American sample were still in those relationships two to three years later, according to her study. The figure was slightly higher among the rural white population, with a third of respondents staying in their bad relationships.

“If you’re in a low-quality relationship, particularly a sustained low-quality relationship, you’re better off single,” she says. “Up until maybe, I don’t know, 20 years or so ago, the literature was just, ‘Oh, you’re better off married. Married people are happier, healthier, wealthier than essentially everybody else.’ But there’s more nuance to that. It’s not just whether or not you’re in a relationship, but it’s really about the quality of that relationship.”