People stay in unhappy relationships out of selflessness

Science has a new excuse for that one friend who is constantly complaining about their miserable relationship but refuses to leave it: selflessness.

People are most likely to stay in a relationship despite being unhappy if they want to spare their partners the pain of a break up, new University of Utah research reveals.  

In a bright spot for Americans – who are generally more anxious, depressed and stressed than ever – the majority (64 percent) actually describe themselves as happy in their relationships, according to a recent poll. 

But for the other third, fear that their partner is more committed to the relationship and will fall apart without them might just be the only think keeping them from breaking it off. 

Worry that the other partner still wants the relationship and would suffer without it predicts unhappy couples staying together, a new study reveals 

One study of British couples determined that millennial couples stay together for four years, on average.  

A lot of research has been dedicated to when you should tie the not, and a recent study found that two years seems to be the Goldilocks of pre-marital dating. 

Couples that were together for two years before marrying were 20 percent less likely to get divorced later than were couples that dated for just one year. 

But staying together for more than two years without saying ‘I do’ actually pushed the odds of a divorce back up.  

There is less research (but plenty of magazine articles and quizzes) to tell us when it’s time to break up. 

Most break-up studies ask participants about why they had to leave their relationships for their own benefits, or why they decided it was best for them to stay. 

Dr Samantha Joel, a University of Utah psychologist, wanted to take a more optimistic look at leaving and staying. 

‘All the previous research looked at self-interested reasons someone would stay in an unhappy relationship, like thinking they wouldn’t have a better option,’ she told Daily Mail Online.  

She and her team surveyed and tracked 1,348 people in relationships over the course of 10 weeks. 

They looked at those traditional reasons for staying – their sense of commitment to the other person, how much time and energy they had invested in the relationship and how much they would lose if they left, and concerns over not finding an alternative partner. 

But they also asked about the ‘pro-social’ component of remaining in relationships that were not fulfilling. 

‘We found that perceptions of the other partner’s commitment predicted staying more than anything else,’ Dr Joel said.  

When people had the sense that their partner didn’t want the relationship to end, and would suffer if it did, they tended to put their own desire to be single aside. 

Selflessness is a double-edged sword … it helps people maintain good relationships but it might also prolong bad ones

 Dr Samantha Joel, University of Utah psychologist and lead study author

‘It goes to show that people care about other people and they care about their romantic partner and their feelings,’ said Dr Joel. 

‘And it goes to show just how selfless people can be. There aren’t really good alternative explanations for why you would still care. It must be pro-social.’ 

She notes that her research doesn’t mean that people are only or most selfless when they choose to stay in an unhappy relationship. Happy couples behave selflessly, too. 

But, if we’re in happy relationships, behaving selflessly is also selfish, because maintaining a relationship we want to keep is in our own interest. 

‘So it’s hard to show that it’s truly altruistic when there’s this self-interest that’s hard to rule out. Is it really my partner or the relationship that I care about?’ Dr Joel asks. 

When someone stays, despite waning interest in the relationship, the confounding variables have dissipated. 

But it’s also ‘a double-edged sword,’ said Dr Joel. 

‘Selflessness is really useful in the context of healthy, happy relationships, but it’s not something you can just turn off when the relationship isn’t going well any more. 

‘So it helps people maintain good relationships but it might also prolong bad ones.’ 

We like to think of relationships as a kind perfectly proportional yin and yang: two people who have different strengths and weaknesses, but are compatible equals. 

But in reality expectations, desires and levels of commitment are not always aligned, and one person may be more committed or need the relationship more than the other. 

‘This happens when there’s a weak-link partner, and one is more committed than the other,’ says Dr Joel.   

‘If there’s a gap, it means anxiety for the more committed partner, and guilt on the other.’

She notes, however, that her study did not measure actual commitment between the two partners, only their perceptions of one another’s commitment. 

‘We don’t know how accurate people are, but perception is reality when it comes to decision-making,’ Dr Joel said. 

‘So if I think my partner is miserable, I’m going to make my decision based on that, even if my partner is actually miserable.’