Why do Unhappy Couples Stay Together?

For most people, marriage is an enriching and fulfilling experience. Yet we all know couples who are deeply dissatisfied with their marriages 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 interdependence theory, developed by social psychologists Harold Kelley and John Thibaut more than half a century ago. According to interdependence theory, each partner evaluates their 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 gives 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 relation under the following conditions:

  • They’ve already invested heavily in the relationship, 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 also begun to emphasize the role of personal standards. In modern Western culture, 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.

Not all societies view marriage this way. For example, Japanese wives often say they want their husbands to be “healthy and out of the house.” As long as he brings home a paycheck each month, Mrs. Tanaka doesn’t care what Mr. Tanaka does. Instead, she wants freedom to live her own life without her husband getting in the way. When marriages are arranged by parents, they’re viewed as strictly economic relationships, not affairs of the heart.

In a similar vein, 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. And if you suffer from low self-esteem, you might even think you deserve the mistreatment your partner heaps on you.

There are other cases in which couples are truly dissatisfied with their relationship and yet remain committed to it. Explaining this situation is a problem for interdependence theory in its current form. But in a recent article, psychologist Levi Baker and colleagues provide some insight that may help us understand the motivation for staying in an unhappy marriage.

Specifically, Baker and colleagues note that even the best of marriages have rough patches. Career changes, illness of a family member, and even the birth of a child can bring stressors into a marriage that significantly reduce relationship satisfaction for both couples. And yet they remain committed to the relationship, determined to weather the storm.

According to these researchers, commitment isn’t based on current level of satisfaction with the relationship, as interdependence theory predicts. Rather, it depends on the partner’s expected relationship satisfaction in the future. In other words, partners remain committed to their marriage because they believe the quality of the relationship will improve over time.

Take for instance the birth of the first child. Although it’s a time of joy for both parents, this positive experience is marred by negative outcomes such as reduction in intimacy and increased demands for time and resources. But couples remain committed to each other, not because they’re getting their needs met now but because they believe the relationship will be more satisfying later.

In a series of studies, Baker and colleagues found that expected future satisfaction was a stronger predictor of whether a relationship would last than was current satisfaction. In fact, current satisfaction led to commitment only if partners also expected the relationship to continue to be satisfying. In other words, we stay with our partners because we have hope for the future.

On this view, current level of satisfaction doesn’t signal commitment. Rather, it indicates whether there are problems with the relationship that need to be addressed. That dissatisfied feeling tells you to put more work into your marriage, not to find a way to leave your lover. In fact, just doing something to improve your relationship, such as devoting more time for your spouse or seeking marital therapy, can boost your expectation for happier marriage in the future, thus bolstering your commitment to work things out.

In hindsight, the idea that commitment is based on expectations for future happiness makes perfect sense. After all, we’re talking about long-term relationships, in which commitment is part of the bargain. A friends-with-benefits arrangement ends when the benefits stop. But we commit to a long-term relationship because we believe the good will outweigh the bad over the long haul.

Taking expectations into account, and not just current level of satisfaction, can help us understand why some people stay in unhappy marriages while others cut themselves free. The data that Baker and colleagues have collected seems to suggest the following trends:

  • People tend to leave unhappy marriages when (a) they expect the relationship will not improve, and (b) they expect they can find a better alternative. (“She’s never going to change, and there are plenty of fish in the sea.”)
  • People tend to stay in unhappy marriages when (a) they expect the relationship will improve, or (b) they expect they can find no better alternative. (“We’d be happy if he’d just stop drinking, and who wants a frumpy 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 right now. For others, “solitary confinement” is a fate worse than death or even a loveless marriage.

Despite the social ideal of marriage as a union of soulmates, it’s still at its most basic 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 and 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 will shun me, and I’ll lose the only social support I’ve got. Or, I’ll be so wracked with guilt about having failed at marriage that I couldn’t live with myself. Again, the decision to stay or leave is based not on present conditions but rather 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 far 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 scenario that’s better than the unhappy arrangement they’re in now, they stay and make the best of a bad situation. These couples find ways to mitigate the strife in their marriage, ending up 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 life.

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