Why People Stay In Unhealthy Relationships Even Though They’re Bad For You

If you feel stuck, it's probably for one of these reasons.

fighting couple fizkes / Shutterstock

By Steven Lake

People don't leave their bad relationships for many reasons. There is no shortage of reasons people stay in unhealthy relationships, but it's feelings that keep us stuck.

Whether it's how we feel when thinking of the future, feeling hopeless about the current situation, or feeling angry at our partner, somehow we are not able to translate these feelings into action. This makes us feel even worse.


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The list below is not in any order and some items can merge one into another; they often do. I have separated them to create clarity and to simplify the maelstrom of thoughts and feelings that inundate our senses when living in a relationship that is not working.


7 Reasons People Stay in Unhealthy Relationships

1. We create the false hope that things will change.

Homo sapiens are a strange species. It seems that our enlarged brain and culture warp our need for self-preservation to such an extent that we delude ourselves into spinning our reality into a fantasy. It's not healthy, but it's far from unusual for us to turn to wishful thinking, rather than deal with the reality in front of us.

We “hope” that our relationship will become something better than what it is, even after years of trying for improvement.

Clinical hypnotherapist Keya Murthy explains, "There is an idiom floating around, 'now that I love you, let me change you,' and this is true for both [partners]. It’s an unconscious process in which we always want everything to stay the same, though consciously we want things to change, and always for the better."

This quality is a double-edged sword as believing in and working for a better future is a good thing, especially after the honeymoon phase has worn off and the real work of a relationship begins.


Having a shared vision of what we want to create gives direction and purpose to the relationship. Hope then is both realistic and delusional, depending on the circumstances.

What you can do about it: Distinguishing between these two extremes is where most people get confused. The biggest element to consider if you find yourself in this situation (or have in the past — most of us have been there) is determining whether or not your partner is as determined as you to make the situation work. If not, you are dead meat.

For argument's sake, let’s say both of you want to make it work. This is a good start but not a guarantee.

Will both of you do what’s necessary? That could mean couples counseling, a relationship workshop, buying a book on communication and then doing the work/exercises on a consistent basis.


2. We fear the unknown.

Fear will keep us in a relationship way past the due date.

I stayed in a relationship that was so destructive that I got ulcers and still could not remove myself. I was sick in bed when a good buddy pleaded for me to take care of myself and leave the relationship. I was not able to make the healthy choice and suffered for another year before getting out.

Fear of being without my girlfriend was one aspect that kept me stuck in inaction. We had a passionate relationship. She understood me as an artist and we supported each other’s dreams. Fear of being without the positive aspects of our relationship kept me hoping for an improvement.

Another time, again in a painful relationship, the hook was sex. I was willing to risk my health, both physical and mental. Even when we broke up we continued to have sex for another year. I was like an addict and connecting once a week kept me hooked to this person.


The irony was that fear ultimately got me to let go and move forward. It was fear for my life. This was back in the 80s when HIV/AIDS was rampant and my lover was fraternizing with high-risk groups without practicing safe sex. It took the fear of dying to finally wake me up and make a healthy choice.

Then there is fear of the unknown. Will I ever find someone who understands me like she does? Will I find as good a sex partner? Will I find someone who accepts me as she does? How will I pay the bills on my own?

What you can do about it: It's common for people to prefer the devil we know to the one we don’t. Yet, it is still a devil and we are suffering. But we know so well the details of our suffering and how to live with it even when we hate our situation.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful force that can keep us frozen in our current situation.


But we need to push forward beyond what's familiar and go outside our "comfort" zone (one might be "comfortable" in this scenario, even though they know it's unhealthy, because they've become accustomed to it). It takes work and planning to leave any relationship, but finding the strength and sheer will to do it will be more than worth it, once you can finally see from outside of your situation.

3. Low self-esteem holds us back.

We often have stereotypical ideas of what a person with low self-esteem looks like. They have a sign around their neck saying, “I am not enough.” They walk with a slouch, mumble, and avoid looking you in the eye.

Murthy reinforced this when she said, "People stay in bad/unhealthy relationships because that is what they believe they deserve and life can’t get any better."

It is not a pretty picture and it only covers a small portion of those who suffer from low self-esteem. I certainly would not have appeared to have low self-esteem yet my behavior in a relationship indicated otherwise.


Outwardly, I was energetic, involved in my profession, creating relationships, had friends, and was living a creative lifestyle. However, I was not able to stand up for myself in an intimate relationship. There was a part of me that was just not able (or willing) to make the tough choices.

What you can do about it: It took me fifteen years as an adult before I matured enough to realize that my self-care was important and not listening to my inner truth was too high a price to pay. Furthermore, it was not fair to the other person (who was also locked into an unhealthy relationship) not being honest with what I was thinking and feeling.

Murthy added, "Walking away from an unhealthy relationship without working on your needs is like trying to run but never being able to hide. When you leave a bad relationship, you leave it physically and carry the unresolved hurt at a cellular level."

Now, I would not stay in an abusive, dysfunctional, or unhappy relationship. I would bring myself fully to the relationship and do whatever it took to engage in change so that we both are able to create a healthy and happy relationship.


If that did not work, I would walk no matter how much I “loved” that person. I have learned through much experience that “love is not enough.”

why people stay in bad relationships

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4. We allow our ego to obscure our reality.

Sometimes, ego gets in the way when trying to leave a relationship.


You may have the “perfect” relationship from the outside and losing that may bring humiliation in your eyes and the eyes of others. You may have invested time, energy, and love in your relationship, and the loss of the “dream” is a bitter pill to swallow.

It may be so difficult that you will stay for reasons other than love or self-regard to maintain your status, finances, or the dream, even if it is false.

What you can do about it: Sometimes our ego hates to admit defeat. If I try hard enough and long enough, I can make it work. At other times we are in denial, saying, “This is what relationships are like. My friends have it worse.”

Making excuses becomes easier than dealing with reality. Be completely and totally honest with yourself and take a good, hard look at the facts underscoring your current situation in life. Draw a line in the sand once and for all and give yourself the gift of stopping all of the rationalizations, justifications, and excuses. You're not helping them, and you're only harming yourself.


5. We don't have the courage to leave.

It takes courage to leave a person you love.

You know it’s going to be painful. Maybe the most pain you have ever experienced. It is easy to talk yourself out of the healthy choice. All creatures move toward pleasure and away from pain.

Murthy expands on the importance of going beyond one's "comfort zone" and fighting patterns of running back to past abusers or finding new ones: "Your relationship may be bad but you are not bad and neither is your partner. If you walk away from this relationship without working on your self-esteem and self-worth you will attract someone just like your past partner who might seem different in the beginning but later on grow into the 'same old same old.'"

What you can do about it: The pain of leaving seems bigger than the pain of staying.


In my experience, both personally, and with friends and clients, is that most people will stay in a bad relationship until the pain of staying is greater than the pain of leaving. That can be a lot of pain over a long period of time.

I am amazed at the human capacity to endure suffering.

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6. We become crippled by depression.

When you're depressed, it is hard to make decisions. That is why it is critical to remove yourself from a relationship before becoming depressed because, once depression hits, it can be almost impossible to take care of yourself and think clearly about making healthy choices.


You lose perspective, feel bad about yourself, think you deserve what you have, have no right to complain, and life will never change.

What you can do about it: If you are depressed and in an unhealthy relationship, get professional help. We often don’t listen to our friends at this point even though we should and an outside and unbiased person can often give us the clarity that we are sorely missing.

We are all depressed to some degree when going through a relationship crisis, and having compassion for ourselves and our situation is helpful.


If we cannot be compassionate with ourselves, get support wherever you can find it. You may have to look after yourself first before being able to make a decision regarding the relationship.

7. Because of unhealthy family dynamics while growing up, an unhealthy relationship feels normal.

This one is a killer when you realize what is happening. Discovering that you are doing exactly what your mother or father did is a shock.

Somehow you are repeating the same mistakes they made. The mistakes you vowed never to do in your marriage. And yet, here you are, repeating history.

What you can do about it: The forces of our upbringing are powerful and often we are unconscious to what motivates us to do what we do. Finding yourself repeating an old pattern, possibly one going back many generations, is sobering, and with this realization comes the opportunity to make a change that will reverberate now and far into the future.


Should you choose to continue staying in your unhealthy relationship, Murthy stresses the importance of being ready to "work on your relationship, and it begins with communication. Hire someone who is not related to either of you and begin a dialog and see what you can do to make your relationship healthier and yourself stronger, wiser, and happier." If you stay, seeking professional help is key to bringing balance to your relationship.

A number of these elements can be happening concurrently, and some are stronger one day and weaker the next. Leaving a relationship may be the most difficult choice you ever make, but once made, a new life awaits.

A life where you can breathe freely and make choices without second-guessing yourself. A life where you can focus on healing, strengthening, and then giving of yourself when whole once more, or even whole for the first time.

If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse or violence, there are resources to get help.


There are ways to go about asking for help as safely as possible. For more information, resources, legal advice, and relevant links visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline. For anyone struggling from domestic abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). If you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474 or log onto thehotline.org.

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Steven Lake is an author, speaker, and relationship coach. In addition to his private practice and teaching graduate courses at Adler University, he works for the British Columbia Society of Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse.