We’ve all been there: stuck in a relationship that was uninspired, unfulfilling, or even toxic. We know we deserve better and we need to get out, but we just can’t bring ourselves to cut the cord. Sometimes there are obvious reasons for this—we have kids together, our finances are tight, or we legitimately want to work through the hard times and see if there’s something salvageable on the other side—but many times we get caught up for reasons we can’t comprehend. Well, a new study has finally discovered the surprising reason we can’t quit our unhappy relationships.
The University of Utah’s Samantha Joel and colleagues questioned our long-held assumptions for why we remain in unhappy relationships, which are usually pretty self-centered. In addition to the reasons listed above, we sometimes stay with the wrong people because we dread getting back into the dating world and meeting someone new or we hate admitting that we’ve already sunk so much time into this relationship and by leaving, it would all be wasted. However, Joel et al. posit that maybe we’re staying not for our own reasons, but for the sake of our partners.
The researchers believe that since people are genuinely altruistic and hard-wired to consider other people’s needs, meaning that we don’t want to ditch our partners and leave them heartbroken or unable to cope without us. In essence, “stay/leave decisions are based… also on the partner’s perceived dependence on the relationship.”
Sure, not everyone is that selfless—in fact, if the sheer number of jerks in the dating world are any indication, most people aren’t—but if you think about it, doing nice things for other people tends to make us feel good. Whether it’s letting someone cut in front of us in line at Starbucks or helping an old woman get her groceries into her car, small acts of kindness benefit us just as much as other people. If you put that in a relationship context, it makes sense that making our partners happy, in this case by staying with them, might wear off on us and ensure that we don’t feel like terrible people.
The experiments researchers performed to reach this conclusion are interesting for sure, but more interesting is the idea that maybe we’re way more caring and considerate (but hopefully not self-sacrificial) than we give ourselves credit for.