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Unhappy Relationships – Why You Can’t Leave When You Know You Should

Conflict is an essential part of any relationship. It allows us to face and handle differences and grow as people together.

Just because a relationship has conflict doesn’t actually mean it’s time to leave. If both you and your partner are willing to put the work in and grow as people, then difficulties can be a gift in disguise.

But if you are the type who always chooses and sticks out an unhappy relationship with a partner who has no interest in change or growth, then it’s time to look at why.

[Think you are even addicted to your partner? Read our piece on the Signs of Addictive Relationships.]

The staying power of low self-esteem

At the heart of any choice to stay in an unhappy relationship or to end up in one addictive relationship after another is low self-esteem.

Think you are confident? Listen to your thoughts. It’s poor concept of self that causes the negative thinking that stop you leaving. This 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-worth in disguise, showing a lack of belief in your own skills and creativity.

And if your relationship is riddled with non-stop criticism, lack of respect, and abuse of any kind, including physical abuse or emotional abuse, the only reason you could stay is if you had enough low self-worth to do so.

In fact low self-worth is actually why we attract certain partners in the first place. Without realising it, you send signs to others that you are willing to accept criticism and to neglect yourself to please others, and will engage in a codependent relationship.

Addictive Anxiety

The second key ingredient to staying past the expiry date of a relationship is 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, you might unconsciously as an adult choose relationships that cause anxiety as they feel ‘normal’ or even ‘like home’ to you.

And anxiety can leave on a sort of ‘high’ you learn to depend on. If you are in a relationship where you are criticised for being yourself, or where a partner is very reactive and you live walking on eggshells, you will be in what’s called ‘fight or flight’ mode most of the time. The result is that you live with raised cortisol levels, giving you a ‘buzzy feeling’ which can be addictive.

The crashing, fatigued feeling you get when you try to leave (and your cortisol levels can actually lower and adjust) might confuse you into thinking you ‘feel better’ with the person than without. And of course leaving will trigger a big bout of anxiety that might seem worse than the day-to-day anxiety you deal with.

Fear of abandonment

Fear of abandonment leaves some people always on the run from love.

But for many, fear of abandonment actually translates into a fear of losing people, even those who are not good to them.

If you do leave someone, fear of abandonment will see you running right back, in an endless ‘push pull’ pattern.

This pattern, of volatility in a relationship, driven by fear of abandonment, is part of borderline personality disorder.

But why am I this type of person who stays in unhealthy relationships?

Inevitably, choosing unsupportive relationships as an adult can be traced back to your experiences 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.

Of course a parent in a destructive relationship is likely to also be distracted enough to leave their child feeling not properly ‘attached’.

Attachment theory states that in order to grow up into an adult secure within him or himself, one must receive consistent and reliable love and care in their first few years. If this doesn’t happen, the child grows up into an adult who is anxious in relationships.

[Read more in our piece on Attachment Styles and Relationship Choices].

Childhood trauma is also a common cause of difficulties with relationships as an adult. A trauma, such as losing a parent or living through war or natural disaster, can leave you with a belief that the world is a dangerous place, and with long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both of which can leave you vulnerable to looking for safety in a non- discerning manner, including unhealthy relationships.

And if your childhood trauma was abuse, it’s likely you have not just the low self-esteem, anxiety, and abandonment issues that drive you toward difficult relationships, but also a hidden core belief that you are unlovable. 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?

Because our relationship choices as an adult are so often connected to traumatic experiences as a child, it’s hard to change them through mere willpower. Of course you can make progress yourself with research and self-help books, but at the very least seeking 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.

To talk to a qualified therapist about your specific issues and to help you to work through your issues, you can visit our sister site to book a session in minutes.

If there was abuse in your past, the support that abuse counselling can provide can help you through the processing of repressed memories and emotions that can otherwise be entirely overwhelming.


It’s especially recommended that you seek seek support if your relationships are causing you depression or severe anxiety, both of which make daily living a challenge and make any sort of change hard.

Also seek help if you suspect you have a personality disorder like borderline personality disorder or dependent personality disorder. Personality disorders mean you see and react to the world in a different way than the norm, learning to understand and work with your difference generally requires the help to see things from other perspectives.

Do you have an experience of the above you’d like to share?

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