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Why Do People Stay in Bad Relationships? August 17, 2009

Posted by Onely in quirkyalone.
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“Dear Quirkyalone: Advice for QuirkyLiving” is a weekly guest column by Lisa and Christina that appears on Quirkyalone (and is crossposted here) every Monday. When you’re making up your own road map for (quirky)living, you need thoughtful advice. We’re here for you. We welcome your questions; send them on to onely AT onely.org.

Dear Quirkyalone,

When a woman is in a relationship with a guy who everyone else can see is treating her badly, what goes on in the woman’s mind that prevents her from seeing these very same things? How does she qualify staying with this guy and why? What’s behind the excuses she makes for him?– Bobby

Hi Bobby,

This is an excellent question indeed. While I can’t claim to be able to speak for the woman in question, I can offer a few theories (which, as a side note, could be applied to either men or women, as well as lesbians and gay men):

1. She might subscribe to the faulty equation: Being coupled > being single.

Contemporary Western culture tends to ascribe more value to men and women who are coupled over those who remain single for most of their lives. This kind of valuing occurs in our informal, everyday social lives: Take, for example, the officemate who squeals with delight when she learns you have a date next weekend but doesn’t appreciate your love for gardening. And it happens more formally in our financial, legal, and religious lives: Many religions see marriage as a contract between two people and God (the Catholic church recognizes the institution as a holy sacrament). Paradoxically, single people (those who do not dedicate their lives formally to God, at least — such as priests or nuns) are usually not perceived as having an equivalent contract and could therefore be seen as less holy (read: less valuable). And even in secular life, married people generally pay less in taxes, have the right to make medical and other important decisions for spouses in times of need, and ultimately enjoy far more legal privileges than singles.

Put in this context, who wouldn’t want to be coupled?

Unfortunately, the woman you describe may understand these societal pressures to be ultimate truths. Put in terms of “truth,” the value of coupling stops being subjective and can instead be described by a simple mathematical equations: Being coupled > being single. Bummer.

2. She might suffer from low self-esteem.

When someone lacks confidence and self-esteem, it’s easier to look to others instead of oneself for approval and acceptance. Romantic relationships — healthy or not — often provide a steady source of this kind of affirmation. Cutting off this kind of support may simply prove too much of a risk for your woman-friend. In fact, romantic relationships are one of the few culturally acceptable spaces in which partners can almost demand such affirmation. Relationships become unhealthy and dysfunctional when partners a) demand too much or refuse to be emotionally satisfied, no matter how much the other person gives; b) withhold emotional satisfaction/affirmation in order to hurt the other person; c) abuse the trust of the other person by exacerbating his/her self-esteem issues.

If you suspect your friend might be in an unhealthy, dysfunctional, or abusive relationship, you might encourage her to seek professional help.

3. She might not be comfortable with herself or know how to be alone.

Beyond the above possibilities, the woman you’ve asked about above may simply not be comfortable with herself or with being alone. Perhaps she’s a social extrovert and prefers constant company over silence – a relationship might seem to be the best way to provide this, even if it’s not what others call a “good” one. Maybe she doesn’t like to cook and would rather eat at restaurants, but feels terribly uncomfortable sitting alone at a table in public — having a relationship, even a bad one, may provide that small comfort. Or possibly, given how “normal” culture makes coupling out to be, this woman has never even considered what it would be like to be single.

In that case, you might suggest she take a solo road trip (as I once did after a breakup) or some other activity that she’d usually do with someone else — and ask her how being alone changed the experience in positive or surprising ways.

Whatever the case, it’s obvious that this woman isn’t experiencing the joys of Quirkyliving if she’s settled for a bad relationship… You even might give her a copy of the Quirkyalone book — at least to show her that there are alternatives to the way she’s currently living!

Good luck, Bobby. Thanks for the question, and I hope you’ve found this helpful!

— Lisa


1. Lauri - August 18, 2009

I like your response that a person not know how to not be in a relationship. I’ve often wondered that about some people I know who have been in monogamous relationship after monogamous relationship since junior high school. Just from my own observations, I wonder if people who get into the whole “boyfriend-girlfriend” thing earlier on are more likely to stay in bad relationships or just hop from relationship to relationship so they never have to be alone. The more life you build up behind you as a single person, the easier it gets, and the less important relationships seem to be. If you’ve had a serious boyfriend since you were 12, how would you learn to make friends or keep yourself entertained or deal with your own emotional needs (ha, or I guess deal with your own physical needs) etc. etc. etc.

2. Free4Life - August 19, 2009

How many people are really comfortable being by themselves, on their own, where they are just fine and know how to keep themselves happy? It’s pounded into our heads by family, the media, the church that we need to be joined at the hip with someone else. But as a whole, we’re not really taught how to be happy when we’re alone.

I’m a male, in my early thirties and don’t want to be in a relationship. I resist pressures from family and friends to be coupled. I just don’t want the drama, even if there are some positives to having a relationship. I feel nobody will make me happy as much as I make myself happy.

I don’t think this is an issue for people that choose to stay single, because they know how to keep themselves happy.

But I find people who know me, that are in a relationship, think I am strange because I’m so happy being alone. The real truth is they aren’t happy alone. If the were single, they would feel lonelier than me. But somehow, I’m the one that’s strange.

I was born single. It’s something I know really well. I don’t have to work at it (like I would if I were in a relationship). I just stick to what I’m good at.

3. Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles - August 21, 2009

ITA with Free4Life! That’s exactly how I feel about relationships, as well, and that’s why I choose to be single.

But your comment highlights something interesting about marrieds, too–specifically, how they really would feel lonelier if they were single. For awhile, I think I wanted to convince everyone else how great it was, even how much better to be single. But then I started realizing that while it may be better for me, it isn’t necessarily better for everyone. A lot of people just don’t have the capacity to enjoy solitude in the way I do. It really is painful for them, so they don’t understand how we could be so content with it.

In a broader sense, this illustrates how people in general have a hard time empathizing with those who aren’t like them and tend to project their own feelings onto others, to assume that if they feel a certain way, well, everyone must feel that way, too. If they don’t, the thinking goes, what’s wrong with them?

I used to judge married people harshly for this kind of intolerance, but then I realized how unintentional it is. Marrieds are just exhibiting the same human tendency we all have to assume everyone is like us and have a hard time “getting” those who aren’t. I definitely still think we should educate them about singlism as much as possible, but I try to understand where they’re coming from, too, and why they have a hard time understanding me.

Onely - August 22, 2009

That’s true–if we want to be accepted for preferring singleness (in many cases), then we need to accept people who simply don’t like it. If we don’t want them to assume we have commitment problems, then we shouldn’t assume that they are flawed if they dislike being alone (though surely it’s better to be alone than in a bad relationship, but I digress). The problem is that in general, people who dislike being alone are ALREADY understood and validated by society, media, etc., whereas people who like being alone are not. Which is why we have to make a little more noise. And I guess with that noise inevitably comes some judgement.

4. bobby - August 24, 2009

Thanks for posting the question guys! I had some input on my blog with a similar question that shed some light on the subject for me. I think, although many factors may be play here, that self esteem is a main reason.

I hope that this question may be helpful to those in not-so-good relationships, men and woman alike 🙂

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