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Why It’s Hard to Leave a Bad Relationship

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistAugust 09, 2018

It seems like it should be easy to walk away from a relationship that’s bad for us. But many people feel unable to leave their boyfriend or girlfriend – even though they want to. So why would we stay with the wrong partner?

Sometimes the Relationship Is Good

It’s hard to end a bad relationship when occasionally it’s good. Think of a slot machine—most of the time we’re going to lose, but the possibility that we might win on the next turn keeps us hooked.

In the same way, we might put up with a partner’s criticism and neglect because now and then they make us feel loved. Just like playing slots, we keep coming back for more because this might be the time we win. We would leave someone who was only bad for us, but the possibility of better times keeps us coming back for more.

Avoiding a Painful Conversation

It’s stressful to imagine the sad and painful break-up conversation, and the unknowns about how our soon-to-be-ex will react. When we put off the conversation we feel relieved, and we might interpret that sense of relief as a sign that we’ve made the right decision not to break up. As a result, we’re more likely to keep avoiding The Talk.

False Sense of Improvement

When anything is at its lowest point, chances are it will improve. For example, a basketball player who has a really off night will probably do better the following game.

What does this have to do with relationships? When our partner is at their worst and it’s obvious we should leave them, things will probably improve temporarily if we stay—which doesn’t mean anything has changed fundamentally with our partner. But the improvement from terrible to normal may lead us to believe things are getting better overall, especially if we want to avoid the messiness of a breakup.

Throwing Good Time After Bad

When we’ve poured time and emotions into a romantic relationship, breaking up can feel like wasting that investment. It’s like finishing a movie we’re not enjoying because we don’t want to “waste” the hour we’ve spent watching it; there’s no way to reclaim that hour, and continuing to watch means wasting two hours. The better option is to cut our losses and use that hour more productively.

In the same way, we can stop pouring ourselves into relationships that cost more than they’re worth. We can also remind ourselves of the opportunities we’ll have once we’ve broken free. And rather than being a wasted experience, it can be something we learn and grow from.

If you find that you’re criticizing yourself for not being able to leave a bad relationship, keep in mind that countless people face the same difficulty. Once you understand what’s keeping you stuck, you’re in a better position to make a wise decision.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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