4 Reasons The Unhappiest Person In A Relationship Has The Most Power

Dr. Stan Tatkin on what to do when you're miserable but your partner won't change.

Woman on the couch being the most unhappy partner PeopleImages.com - Yuri A | Sketchify via Canva

The unhappy moments in relationships can turn people into the most miserable versions of ourselves. Some of us react by pushing the feelings away and hoping that time will make everything OK. Others are are more vocal, asking for change and setting boundaries.

What happens when the more vocal partner gives the other chance after chance to fix their behavior, but doesn't see enough change in response? Where do we draw the line? How much power do we really have in a relationship when one person is outwardly miserable and the other seems to be OK with the status quo?


On a recent episode of the podcast Open Relationships: Transforming Together, host Andrea Miller asked world-famous couples therapist Dr. Stan Tatkin, author of Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, the big question:

What if you're at the end of your rope and your partner just won't change?

Dr. Tatkin joked, "Hire a lawyer" — a surprising answer from the man who invented the PACT Institute and therapy model. Stan is famously jokey guy, but his real answer does get to the core of the question. In essence, you have to pack your bags and leave ... and you have to mean it.


After all, says Stan, the person who is unhappy in the relationship holds the most power.

Reasons The Least Happy Person In A Relationship Has The Most Power

1. They are not afraid to leave

Breaking attachments in any relationship is hard work. However, if you're truly unhappy in your relationship this might be easier for you.

Tatkin explains, "Because I'm betting that you are afraid of losing me as much as I'm afraid of losing you."

Unhappy people understand that their partner's deepest, darkest fear is losing this relationship — and they can use this fear to their advantage. Using this knowledge, unhappy people can slowly distance themselves from their relationship. They can slowly stop nagging as much or pack their bags and leave.


The reality is that unhappy people are not terrified of leaving or losing this relationship.

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2. They know what they want

The unhappy partner understands what they want out of their relationship and they understand what it takes to get there. They see their actions as protecting their union.

Tatkin says, "And so it's a good faith act, and it's the, it's the nonviolent way to protest, to withdraw for a purpose."

Unhappy people withdraw in phases from their relationship, but they don't view it as a punishment or a last-ditch effort. Unhappy people do this because they want their partner to make a decision — us or you.


As the unhappy partner withdraws the other partner is forced to reflect on their relationship. They're forced to ask themselves if they're willing to change to heal their relationship.

@yourtango It may sound strange, but your spouse should NOT be considered your family, says Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT - here’s why. Listen to more of Stan’s relationship advice in our newest podcast episode of ‘Open Relationships,’ available now! #stantatkin #relationship #relationshipadvice #couples #family #podcast ♬ original sound - YourTango

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3. They know what the problem is

"So, how frequently when people get to the stage do — is there a turnaround?" asks Miller.


Tatkin responds, "A lot of this is tactical. A lot of this is how it's played by the person who is throwing down [the ultimatum]."

The unhappy person understands what the problem is. They know what it takes to make change happen and they're willing to go to extreme measures to make it happen. This is why it's referred to as a good faith effort, says Tatkin.

4. They've got something to leverage over the complacent partner

Tatkin shares that setting this boundary says more than just I'm done with you.

It says, as he puts it, "I'm not trying to end the relationship I'm trying to show you that I will not continue under those circumstances."

Co-host Joanna Schroeder asks Tatkin, "What would you say to that partner [who is] hearing that their partner is unhappy [and] contemplating leaving if they're just riding it out to see if it's true. Like, what would you say in that moment?"


"It's a lot like telling a child you're upset," explains Tatkin. If there isn't a consequence, the sentiment will hold little meaning.

Tatkin continues, "So, there is nothing to say to that person. The person I really have to work with is the person who's wanting change." After all, the person who wants the change is the one who holds the power. They're willing to leave, they know what change they want, and they've already been thinking about life without the other.

In the end, the unhappy person has to make the decision — deal or no deal. They have to put their foot down and decide once and for all, "Has my relationship truly run its course?" If the more complacent partner has been ignoring problems and their partner's request for change long enough, it's possible nothing they do at that moment will matter.


The lesson? Listen and believe your partner when they say they are unhappy. Change what you can safely and reasonably change and make sure you're pulling your weight in the relationship. Ignoring the problems ore staying complacent doesn't make you safe, in fact, it makes you. more vulnerable than ever.

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Marielisa Reyes is a writer with a bachelor's degree in psychology who covers self-help, relationships, career, and family topics.