The Psychological Reasons We Settle For Less Than We Deserve In Relationships

What's really going on?

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As much as everyone enjoys grabbing some popcorn and watching their friends' relationship drama on social media, the sad fact remains that far too many people settle for soul-sucking or less-than-satisfactory romantic partnerships.

But why do human beings choose to stay in lackluster or even dangerous relationships? Researchers have found no one definitive answer, but rather a combination of interrelated factors.


Nearly everyone knows a friend or family member who continuously falls for unavailable partners or toxic relationships. While the solution may seem simple — leave — understanding what makes people stay builds empathy and strengthens friendship bonds at a time the distressed partner may need it most.

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Indeed, examining why people stay in unhealthy relationships benefits everyone, as it helps people identify when they engage in similar behaviors.

1. Denial.

One reason people fail to leave lackluster or unhealthy relationships involves fooling themselves into believing inappropriate behaviors represent caring.

Take jealousy as an example. Many cling to the outdated belief that their partner's excessive jealousy means the partner cares deeply about them when in reality, jealous outbursts only reveal their partner's underlying sense of insecurity.

Individuals make up false narratives to cast their partner's shortcomings in the best possible light. Sometimes this occurs because of experiences in childhood, where the child learned not to question acts of unkindness by a parent figure. Other times, this stems from unrealistic expectations at the beginning of the relationship.


Regardless of the underlying reason, internalizing these false narratives leads to denial about the true extent of suffering a toxic partnership causes. Even those in severely abusive relationships often believe their loved one's bad behavior stems from something they did, not their partner's inability to refrain from violence and cruelty.

Likewise, those who have convinced themselves their relationship was "meant to be" deny how people reveal more of their true selves over time. They're willing to overlook their partner's hurtful actions to cling to their mistaken belief that they've found "the one."

2. Living mindlessly.

Another reason many stay in less-than-satisfactory relationships stems from going with the flow a bit too much.

Think about the origin of many relationships. Often, two people meet due to nothing more than a chance encounter containing a flash of attraction.


Living mindlessly may help people get by, but it never leads to an individual's true purpose. In a career, settling may entail remaining in a job that drains energy and offers little potential for growth. In a relationship, settling can mean years of feeling hollow, empty and unfulfilled.

When evaluating whether to stay in a relationship, people must ask themselves honestly if their partner adds joy or drains joy from life. Does each partner support each other's dreams and goals, or do both unthinkingly follow their routines without discussions of the future?

Those who find the thought of being with their partner five years from now distressing will do well to end the relationship before they become even more enmeshed.

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3. Fooling ourselves.

Many people in toxic relationships lie to themselves regularly. However, this falsehood clashes with their internal belief systems, causing dissonance and doubt.

The most common lie many tell themselves? That they can somehow change their partner. While people can change over time, they rarely do so in response to external prodding. Instead, change comes from within.

Those feeling trapped in their relationships do well to remind themselves they do not possess the power to change anyone else. They also should remember they are the master of their destinies, and that choosing to stay in an unsatisfactory or toxic relationship is just that — a choice.

By redefining their decision to remain as an active choice, it serves as a psychological reminder that another option, the ability to leave, remains open to them.


4. Fear.

Fear remains a powerful motivator for staying in a toxic relationship. Countless people remain in substandard relationships because they fear no one else will love them, and leaving means facing the possibility of life lived alone.

Those in cohabiting relationships may fear the economic consequences of choosing to leave. One partner will need to secure new lodging, and bills both partners once shared now fall entirely on one individual. Individuals should have a solid financial exit strategy. Dealing with the pain of financial stress while simultaneously coping with the aftermath of a breakup leads many to return to their toxic partner's arms.

Often, behaviors that seemed cute at the beginning of a relationship turn intolerable over time. That holds particularly true for those in abusive situations where violence escalates as more time passes.

Social scientists use the analogy of the boiling frog to explain this sort of ingrained behavior. Imagine someone puts a frog in a pot of water, places that pot on the stove and gradually turns up the heat. Rather than jumping out of the pot, the frog remains, only to die when the water boils.


Be aware of minimizing behaviors. Those who find themselves continually questioning if their romantic relationship truly is that bad should clue into the fact that they wouldn't even raise such a question if their relationship was healthy. The presence of doubt should spur a conversation about the future of the relationship.

Should you stay or should you go?

Whether it's better to stay in the relationship and try to make it work or to walk away depends on many factors. An individual's partner can aid in making the best decision going forward. If both parties are willing to attend counseling, hard work may help save the relationship.


However, if one partner refuses to attend counseling or even admit to doing anything wrong, splitting amicably may prove the best course of action. Anyone truly committed to a relationship will make a concerted effort to save it.

While this should go without saying, those in abusive relationships should create an exit strategy for leaving the relationship safely. Splitting up can spur further acts of violence, so all people, especially women, do well to plan their exit strategy in private, being careful to delete browsing history or hiding cash in a safe location so they can select a time to leave without confrontation.

Romantic relationships make up a huge part of anyone's life story. Remaining in stale or toxic relationships hinders growth and leads to a life of quiet desperation. Everyone deserves respect and love from their partners, and everyone should resolve to settle for nothing less.

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Kate Harveston is a leading women's health journalist and the founder of So Well, So Woman.