Thanks to “Sex and the City,” we’re all familiar with the phrase “he’s just not that into you.” Yet many couples who are no longer all that into each other choose to stay together anyway.
Why do people choose to remain in unhappy relationships? According to a recent pair of studies, the more people believe their partner is dependent on the relationship, the less likely they are to initiate a breakup. In other words, you might be motivated to stay in an unfulfilling relationship for the sake of your partner.
I asked some of my colleagues to share more about why unhappy couples stick together – and how you can end a relationship a little less painfully if you choose to break up.
Staying together can be selfless – or selfish
The recent studies suggest that people stay in unsatisfying relationships because they’re concerned about hurting their partner’s feelings.
“In my experience, there are most often underlying fears and insecurities that prevent people from moving forward into a life that might be less comfortable but ultimately happier and more authentic. These couples tend to settle into a ‘good enough’ relationship,” sex therapist Holly Richmond said. “But there is almost always a point where it’s obvious that not good enough is truly not good enough, and it causes more harm to the unhappy person to stay than it would to their partner if they left.”
Concerns about children, finances, friends, lifestyle and standing in the community can also influence the decision to stay together. “In my practice, I see clients who stay in relationships because they’re worried they won’t find another partner, while others remain because they don’t want to deprive their children from having the other parent in their day-to-day life,” sex therapist Sari Cooper said.
But staying in an unhappy relationship doesn’t do anyone any favors, sex therapist Kristen Lilla said. “Staying because you don’t want to hurt someone else is selfish because it takes away the other person’s agency to make a decision,” she explained. “You are deciding that your partner will not be OK without you, so you stay with them out of pity.”
Should you stay or should you go?
Clearly, the decision to end a relationship can be a difficult one for many people. It can be helpful to visualize your life after the breakup, Cooper said. “I ask clients to imagine in great detail what their life would be like: Will they able to support themselves financially? Will they feel that they did all they could to improve the relationship? Will they face a loss of a community in addition to the relationship?”
Sex therapist Kristie Overstreet agreed. “If you’re trying to decide whether to stay in the relationship or leave it, write out the pros and cons of the decision. This forces you to use logic versus emotions and helps you identify things that you wouldn’t have realized before,” she explained. “One of the most important questions you can ask yourself is if you have done everything you could do from your end to make it work. Make sure you have checked off all of the boxes on your list, which will help you come to your decision.”
You might also try picturing your relationship as a box that’s large enough for both of you to move around comfortably within the space, with each of you supporting one another’s growth.
“An unhealthy relationship means that the relationship box you are in is too small for each of you to be independent and separate, and you feel lost and frightened without the other person,” sex therapist Tammy Nelson said. “You may have been taught that this is what true love is – a soul mate that is your other half – but this is really codependency. If you don’t have enough room to grow as a whole person in a relationship, you may not only be holding yourself back but your partner as well.”
Breaking up is hard to do
There’s certainly some truth to this cliché: “There’s no way to break up with someone without the risk of hurting them,” sex therapist Deborah Fox said. That said, Fox stresses it’s important to be honest with your partner about why you want to end the relationship.
“Although it’s not necessary to include every reason, you should end a relationship with integrity, which means with honesty,” she explained. “Little white lies can be justified in a short, barely-off-the-ground relationship but not in one of any length.”
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Overstreet agreed. “You can’t prevent your partner from hurting over your decision. However, being truthful and respectful during the process will help lessen hurt,” she said. “The way you handle yourself and your words are the only things you have control over. Remember that you have to do whatever you need to so that you remain healthy – and leaving an unhealthy relationship is one of the steps in that direction.”
The choice to break up is rarely an easy one, but by putting the time and thought into the decision, you can make things a little easier – both for you and for your partner.
Ian Kerner is a licensed couples therapist, writer and contributor on the topic of sex for CNN.