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Unhappy Relationship? Why You Can’t Leave When You Know You Should

by Andrea M. Darcy

In an unhappy relationship? But can’t seem to just get up and leave? And is this a pattern in your life, where you choose difficult partnerships then stick them out?

What makes me stay in an unhappy relationship?

Nobody consciously decides to be unhappy. But unconsciously there can be a different story playing out.

1. The staying power of low self-esteem.

We might deep down have unconscious beliefs that we simply aren’t worthy of good things, or are flawed. Our thoughts can sound like:

  • “but this might be the best I can do”
  • “nobody else will ever love me so I should stay”
  • “I shouldn’t be too picky”
  • “I’m too old to be single”.

Even “I can’t financially afford to leave this relationship” can be low self-esteem in disguise, showing a lack of belief in your own skills and creativity.

In fact low self-worth can be why we attract certain partners in the first place. We unconsciously advertise our low self-esteem, such as making jokes putting ourselves down, agreeing with everything someone says, jumping into bed with them too quickly, or having defeated body language. These signals attract those who belittle and control others, or who want someone self-sacrificing to take care of them.

2. Addictive anxiety. 

It might sound illogical. Surely if a partner made you anxious, you’d leave?

Not necessarily. For starters, if you grew up in a home environment that left you anxious, with unstable parents, this might be what feels normal or even like ‘home’ and ‘love’ to you.

You might think love has to be ‘exciting’, not realising that the buzzy high you feel is anxiety from picking unreliable or unsafe partners. 

Anxiety triggers our  ‘fight or flight’ mode. which releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol into our body. And the buzzy feeling we are left with can be quite addictive. If we try to leave our partner, and suddenly our brain no longer feels in danger, we can crash, feeling low and bored. And convince ourselves to stay in the bad relationship to feel ‘high’ again.

3. Anxious attachment. 

Anxious attachment means we deeply long for intimacy and closeness. But the more we try for it, the more we get anxious. And the more anxious we get, the more we can hold on or even get clingy.

Why would this happen? According to attachment theory, it’s because our main caregiver was unreliable. They only gave us love and positive affection or made us feel safe part of the time. Perhaps we had to ‘earn’ this love by being a ‘good’ and ‘obedient’ child, always living on eggshells so we’d be approved of. And we carry this nervousness and vigilance around love into adulthood.

4. Fear of abandonment and BPD. 

If we are afraid of being abandoned, we can end up in a ‘push pull’ pattern. Our fear leads us to be so vigilant that we misread the other person and push them away first to avoid pain. When we realise they weren’t actually abandoning us, we panic and do everything to ‘pull’ them back.

The highs and lows of this pattern quickly become highly dramatic, addictive, and all consuming. We feel like we can’t live without the other person, even if we aren’t even sure anymore we love them at all. 

This pattern, of drama and volatility in a relationship, driven by fear of abandonment, is part of having  borderline personality disorder (BPD).

5. Trauma bonding. 

Trauma bonding means we get hooked on a cycle of abuse followed by compensation, such as a partner that hits us then buys us flowers and says they love us. Our brain essentially becomes addicted to waiting for that little positive moment.

If we had trauma in our childhood, our brain can already be predisposed to this addictive way of bonding, meaning we are more likely to choose an abusive partner.

Why am I the type of person who stays in an unhappy relationship?

unhappy relationship

By: assymonkey

Again, it tends to be because of your experiences and learnings as a child.

It might be that you learned by example to choose difficult relationships. If you watched a parent stay in a bad relationship, it’s more likely that you will, too.

Or it can be down to not getting consistent love, safety, and attention and having an attachment issue.

Childhood trauma is also a common cause of difficulties with relationships as an adult.

And if your childhood trauma was abuse, it’s likely you have a hidden core belief that you are unlovable so stick out relationships where you feel hated. In fact experiencing sexual abuse as a child is a common symptom of those with borderline personality disorder.

Do I need support to change my pattern of staying in bad relationships?

If our relationship choices as an adult are connected to traumatic experiences as a child, it can be hard to change them through mere willpower. If there was abuse in your past, processing repressed memories and emotions can be overwhelming. Also note that if you do think you have borderline personality disorder, it doesn’t just go away.

You can make progress yourself with research and self-help books.  But the help of a counsellor or psychotherapist makes the process of learning to choose happy and healthy relationships faster, and more likely to last, then attempting it alone. It also teaches you entirely new ways of relating so you don’t choose a similar unhealthy relationship in the future.

Need help with BPD or relating issues? We connect you with some of London’s most highly guarded talk therapists. Or visit our sister site harleytherapy.com to book a session with a UK-wide registered counsellor now. 


Still have a question about why you can’t leave an unhappy relationship? Post below. 

Andrea M. Darcy is the lead writer and editor of this site, and has written over two thousand popular articles on wellbeing and mental health. 

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