Why Do So Many People Stay in Unhappy Relationships?

Moving on isn’t as easy as it sounds

Young man looking unhappy while lying in bed with his sleeping wife
If you've ever felted trapped in a relationship, you're not alone
Getty Images

The solution to an unhappy relationship looks simple from the outside. Break up, move on. Until you’re in one yourself, it’s hard to understand why anyone would stay in a partnership that wasn’t fulfilling all their needs. From the inside, however, a towering 14-layer cake of emotions tends to obscure the logic. It’s never easy to walk away from something you’ve invested so much of yourself into. But beyond the emotional investment, there are tangible investments that bind people together — like shared space or family — which may explain why so many people choose to remain coupled despite claiming they’re unhappy.

A recent essay in The Independent pointed to a variety of statistics that have been collected during the last decade about the quality of marriages, and the findings are pretty dismal. In 2012, author Dana Adam Shapiro wrote in his book You Can Be Right or You Can Be Married that only 17% of couples reported being happy with their partner. Other research in 2015 found that a quarter of people weren’t “in love” with their spouse, while a fifth reported feeling “trapped” in their marriages. And a 2021 survey found that almost half of married couples remained together because of their children, while a sixth said their relationship “is only hanging on because they can’t afford to be single.” Financial security is a major driver of relationships lasting beyond their time in the UK and the US, where housing alone has become an untenable expense for many singles. 

Clinical psychologist Sally Austen told The Independent that these practical concerns play an outsized role in determining matters of the heart. “When people stay in unhappy relationships, it’s often because their cost-benefit analysis indicates that by leaving, they may be worse off,” she explained. “What constitutes the ‘cost’ and ‘benefit’ will depend on the individual and could range from housing and financial stability to physical safety and social circumstances.”

The Habit That All Healthy Couples Have in Common
Relationships that cultivate “secret gardens” go very, very far

Sharing a space obviously cuts down on costs, but the life you share together also provides a sense of stability and familiarity, two things that are very hard to walk away from. And sometimes, a relationship is a tool to deflect bigger issues within yourself, so it feels safer to stay together than break up and face what’s waiting on the other side. Ammanda Major, head of clinical practice at UK-based relationship support provider Relate, told The Independent that, “in some cases, being with a partner is easier because you can throw the things you’re not happy about at someone else.” 

Dating and relationships coach Callisto Adams shared some signs that you may not be as happy as you could be in your relationship. “If you get way more excited to spend time by yourself than you do when it comes to spending time with your partner, not feeling validated by your partner or envying what other couples have, then you might be in a loveless relationship,” he told The Independent. 

But if there’s still love between you and you want to try to move through this difficult period, Major recommends getting as specific as possible about what’s bothering you and communicating it to your partner with the assurance that you want to work on it. “If people can sit down and share those vulnerabilities with one another, they might be able to find a way through it,” she said. If not, it might be time to cut the cord. Regardless, be gentle with yourself — letting go might sound easy, but it rarely is.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.