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“Why am I staying in an unhappy relationship?” is a question many of my patient’s ask themselves out loud when their latest interactions make them feel hopeless, demeaned, and destroyed.

Staying in an unhappy relationship has benefits, keeping you drawn in by a magnetic force. That force is produced by unfinished phases of personal growth and maturity that you didn’t get a chance to do growing up at the appropriate time, or had to postpone because of family circumstances that actively worked against your growth towards independence and self-reliance.

Staying in an unhappy relationship provides the tension that propels self-assertion and self-care, acting as a catalyst without which you would have had no incentive to pursue.

Staying in an unhappy relationship has three main functions:

Staying in an unhappy relationship – function one

• Chance to complete maturing phase of being an autonomous individual with personal authority and self-empowerment – denied in family of origin

Geraldine a 44-year-old manager in a Staffing Agency felt weighed down by her husband Forrest’s persistent complaints about her not being present with him, ‘checking out,’ and not ‘having his back’ when he was under pressure. She was good at her job and had always tried to be the ‘good girl’ growing up as the eldest of two in a family where her parents bickered and verbally abused each other constantly. The exhaustion she felt trying to make her parents happy was now apparent in her own marriage, where no matter what she did it was never enough. Just like with her parents, she felt like a failure, that she was never going to satisfy Forrest and that she was doomed to a torturous life trying to prove she was a worthwhile person, deserving of approval, encouragement and above all trust, that being herself was prize worthy.

She coped by getting stuck into knitting where her hands and minds were busy, using up the adrenaline that was pumping through her body. That was the only safe way to deal with the anger that was bubbling up. She was too scared to assert herself, and fearful that the backlash would be unbearable. Until the oppressive nature of the relationship rebounded and forced her to come out of her shell. Geraldine began putting her feelings, tastes and needs into words to counter Forrest’s version of her that didn’t fit her experience. She needed to be provoked into finding that germ of her authentic self, to force it out in order to be a separate individual. She found it stimulating and began to use this newfound freedom to take the initiative, rather than ask permission or just do what Forrest set out. But it was scary too! What if she stopped being that good obedient malleable creature? Could the relationship survive?

Staying in an unhappy relationship gave Geraldine the foil she needed to become a fully fledged woman in her own right, one with a mind and one who wasn’t dependent on Forrest to make her feel good about herself by tallying her sacrificial deeds.

Staying in an unhappy relationship gave Geraldine continual prods, pokes, and shoves towards fighting for her independent mind and being proud of herself. Without the battle to be acknowledged as a good person, there would be no fights, and without the fights there would be no chance for victory.

So what about the relationship itself?

The relationship became a zone where power shifted from one to the other, where one would be the pleaser and the other the critic and vice versa. The struggles helped both to grow. Having grown, can they live in the new set up with power sharing?

Geraldine developed a more positive view about herself as she embraced the spirit of self-empowerment in making her own choices for herself rather than just to please the unpleasable Forrest. She enjoyed her mind, and discovered a thirst to learn more about life – seeking out audio books, podcasts, and sharing with friends and mentors. She finally grew up into her authentic self with no shame or guilt that prevented her from doing as a teenager and young adult.

But there was one important thing that made staying in an unhappy relationship useful for her.

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Staying in an unhappy relationship – function two

• Forcing your loved one to see, acknowledge and accept you as a good person – wish, fantasy, sense of omnipotence that you can make the other person change

Staying in an unhappy relationship meant that Geraldine could hang on and try to force Forrest to acknowledge her as a good and valued person. For so long she had felt inadequate, unseen, unappreciated and not good enough – all the baggage she brought from her time with her parents. Feeling good about herself on it’s own wasn’t enough. She needed Forrest to believe it, say it, show it and love her for it. Changing Forrest’s perception of her was the next battlefield.

Staying in an unhappy relationship afforded Geraldine the chance to say, “what more can I do?”

She longed for Forrest to approach her, think about her and talk about in positive ways, rather than always expecting the worst or taking over because she refused to give up the portrayal of him as unavailable and useless. Geraldine took on this mission with zeal for quite some time, until she reached the mature stage of realizing that she couldn’t control Forrest, and that they both needed to view each other as bad guys interchangeably.

The realization made her sad and hopeless in the relationship, on the verge of giving up – living like roommates. She wanted to leave. It felt that they were moving further apart into their own realities with no real meeting of minds. Yes, Forrest may say he understood her right to have experiences and thoughts that were not in synch with his own, but emotionally he demanded that she accept his way of being in the world because it was “the reality.”  The stress was unbearable.

There was no apparent incentive to stay if Geraldine’s hard fought autonomy was in danger of being quashed. But yet, staying in an unhappy relationship gave her something she couldn’t find elsewhere.

Staying in an unhappy relationship – function three

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• Feeling good about yourself through suffering – tolerating a miserable marriage means you are strong, sacrificial and ‘good’ for doing the right thing by sticking it out, and not abandoning your partner.

No matter how good Geraldine felt about herself, or how liberated, honest and authentic she had become, it didn’t quite hit the spot. She needed a greater accolade that transcended her personal development to date. The yearning to be seen and treasured as a good person was akin to saintliness – that state where no one could doubt your goodness. Saints sacrifice themselves in martyr hood and are recognized as above the state of humanness where some badness still exists. Staying in an unhappy relationship provided just that burning woodpile on which Geraldine could stand on and burn to prove how good she was by sacrificing her future happiness for the sake of not leaving her partner. The latter would be human and a hint of badness would be like body odor that no deodorant could mask.

Staying in an unhappy relationship provided these three functions for Geraldine: incentive to find and own her autonomous self, make her partner believe in her goodness, and stay unhappy to prove her unselfish devotion.

Is staying in an unhappy relationship worth it?

Yes, if you get the three things that Geraldine used it for.

But the real question is why she wasn’t okay with being human and allowing herself to be happy? She found out in her individual therapy that provided the environment to connect the dots from her childhood to her marriage and find herself within.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2023

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