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Why Do Unhappy Couples Stay Together?



June 13 2017


by: David Ludden Ph.D.

For most people, marriage is an enriching and fulfilling experience. Yet we all know couples that are deeply dissatisfied but stay together anyway. Certainly there are many reasons why these unhappy people don’t simply cut their losses, end the relationship, and move on with their lives. But psychologists are still struggling to understand why some unhappy couples call it quits, while others stick it out.

The science of relationships is guided by the interdependence theory, developed by social psychologists Harold Kelley and John Thibaut more than half a century ago. According to the theory, each partner evaluates personal satisfaction with the relationship by assessing costs and benefits. As long as perceived benefits outweigh perceived costs, you’re happy with your relationship.

For instance, your spouse may make a lot of demands on your time and resources, but also give back a lot in terms of meeting your needs. Or maybe your partner gives little, but demands even less. Interdependence theory predicts you’ll be satisfied in either case. It’s only when perceived costs outweigh perceived benefits that your attitude toward your relationship sours.

We also need to keep in mind that relationships aren’t zero-sum games. If I only have apples, and you only have oranges, one of my apples is worth far more to you than it is to me, and vice versa with your oranges. In the same way, we give our partners what they want, and in exchange they meet our needs. If we negotiate these exchanges well, we should both feel that we’ve gained more than we’ve given.

Relationship satisfaction then leads to commitment, according to interdependence theory. More specifically, partners feel committed to their relationship under the following conditions:

  • They’ve already invested heavily in it, giving them the sense that the marriage must have some value.
  • They see no viable alternatives that are better than the current relationship.
  • They currently feel satisfied with the marriage.

Satisfaction with the relationship depends on a perception of net benefit, but more recent researchers have begun to emphasize the role of personal standards. In modern Western culture, for example, we want our spouses to be our soulmates, keenly attuned to our needs. We want our partner to be both our lover and our best friend. In some other cultures, where marriages may still be arranged by parents, they’re viewed primarily as economic relationships, not affairs of the heart.

Couples in dysfunctional relationships may stick it out simply because their standards for marriage are low. For example, if you grew up in a family where abuse and neglect were the norm, you might just assume that’s the way all marriages are. If you suffer from low self-esteem, you might even think you deserve the mistreatment your partner heaps on you.

  • happy if he’d just stop drinking, and who wants an old housewife like me anyway?”)

Researchers often think of “alternatives” as other potential romantic partners. But it’s also important to factor in a whole array of social issues. For some people, the choice of living alone is better than the married hell they’re going through. For others, a solitary life would be a fate worse than death — and maybe even worse than a loveless marriage.

Despite the social ideal of marriage as a union of soulmates, it’s still at its most basic level an economic arrangement for raising a family. And, so, some unhappy couples do stay together for the sake of the kids. They work out an uneasy truce, such as separate bedrooms or bank accounts, because they view the prospect of divorce and dividing the children between two homes to be an even worse scenario.

Religious attitudes about divorce can also play a role. If I leave my unhappy marriage, my church community may shun me, and I’ll lose the only social support I’ve got. Or I’ll be so wracked with guilt about having failed that I couldn’t live with myself. Again, in this case the decision to stay or leave is based not on present conditions, but on what’s expected for the future.

Once it’s clear that they won’t be married happily ever after, people evaluate their prospects for the future. If they believe they have a good chance of finding something better, they’re apt to leave and start anew. Perhaps that’s why young married couples are much more likely to divorce: They know they’ve still got the goods to compete in the mating market.

But when people can’t envision an alternative that’s better than the unhappy arrangement they’re in, they may stay and try to make the best of a bad situation. These couples find ways to mitigate the strife in their marriage, ending up as housemates rather than soulmates. They may derive little happiness from their relationship, but they don’t expect it, either. And some, perhaps many, still find sufficient happiness from friendships or other activities in their lives… READ MORE


Baker, L. R., McNulty, J. K., & VanderDrift, L. E. (2017). Expectations for future relationship satisfaction: Unique sources and critical implications for commitment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146, 700-721.