A new study shows why people stay in unhappy relationships—and the reason may surprise you

Breakups can be painful,and just deciding to break up is often incredibly difficult in and of itself—even if you’re no longer happy with your partner. If you’ve ever struggled to leave an unhappy relationship, there might be a psychological explanation. A new paper published in the November edition of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people may be motivated to stay in less-than-fulfilling relationships if they’re worried about how a breakup will affect their partner.

Researchers from the University of Utah, Wayne State University, the University of Toronto, and University of Toronto, Mississauga conducted two separate studies to reach this conclusion. The first involved 1,348 participants, while the second—an extension of the first—involved 500. Psychology Today reports that in the first study, participants answered questions about their relationship dynamics and then were monitored over the course of 10 weeks to see if they stayed with their partners. In the second, the researchers spent two months using similar questionnaires to track people who were thinking about ending their relationships.

The results in both studies were the same: People were less likely to call things off the more dependent they felt their partner was on the relationship. Samantha Joel, the paper’s lead author, spoke to the University of Utah’s UNews about the results.

"When people perceived that the partner was highly committed to the relationship they were less likely to initiate a break up," Joel told UNews. "This is true even for people who weren’t really committed to the relationship themselves or who were personally unsatisfied with the relationship. Generally, we don’t want to hurt our partners and we care about what they want."

Of course, concern for one’s partner is just one reason many find it difficult to end things. As Joel explained to UNews, some stay in unhappy relationships out of fear of being alone or because of the amount of time they’ve invested in the relationship. But this new study suggests that many people delay breakups out of more than just self-interest.

That being said, if a good relationship has turned sour, it’s usually best to break it off. And hopefully, understanding why it’s so hard to leave will help make things a little clearer.

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