Why do people stay in unhappy relationships?

A genre of fiction and especially of science fiction is one in which people innocently wander into a place and then cannot escape it. We often find a similar scenario when people stay in unhappy relationships.

In the screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Crouch End, for example, two characters, Lonnie and Doris Freeman, wander into Crouch End, a real section of London. In the screenplay, Crouch End is extremely creepy and inhabited by distorted and frightening humans, a monster of some kind, and a kind of eeriness that only Stephen King can create.

Only Doris ever escapes.  Later, a policeman, Robert Farnham, wanders into Crouch End, and also apparently never escapes.

In another Stephen King special, You Know They Got a Hell of a Band, Clark and Mary Willingham, traveling in Oregon, wander into Rock and Roll Heaven, Oregon.  It sounds exciting. Except they never get out either.  They are stuck forever.

Perhaps the most famous example of the genre is Jean Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, in which three individuals, Joseph Garcin, Inèz Serrano, and Estelle Rigaul, find themselves together in a locked room. The locked room seems to be just an ordinary room and they seem to be just three ordinary people.

But they soon discover that they actually are in hell—there is no devil awaiting them, no fire and brimstone, just each other.  The three manipulate each other and drive each other crazy, and realize that their hell is to be damned together forever, driving each other to desperation for all of eternity.

The odd thing is that, at one point, the door to the room opens, and the inhabitants seem to have an opportunity to leave.

But they don’t. They just stay there and continue to drive each other mad.

Why do people stay in bad relationships?

Relationships also can become like Crouch End, Rock and Roll Heaven, and the (usually) locked room in No Exit.  We often wonder why people stay in these hells.

Why don’t they just leave?  Usually, the door opens, as in Sartre’s play, on at least one occasion, but so often, people do not take the exit. They stay put.

Why do people stay in relationship hells?  And even more oddly, why do people who may leave them sometimes return to them of their own free will?

There are the usual reasons that we all know.

  • They cannot afford to leave. Financially, they are stuck.
  • They are afraid to leave. Their partner is crazy, sadistic, or vengeful, and they are afraid of what the partner will do if they ever attempt to leave—maybe even kill them or those they love.
  • They are afraid of being alone.
  • They have children and do not want to subject the children to a split.

Subtler reasons for staying in an unhealthy relationship

But there often are other more subtle reasons why people stay.  If you ever find yourself in a relationship that resembles Crouch End, Rock and Roll Heaven, or No Exit, consider five other reasons why you may stay.

Horror story.

Do you have a horror story?  Do you feel a need to be abused?  Usually, victims in a horror story have extremely low self-esteem and truly believe that they are getting what they deserve.  They may feel that the only way they can be loved is through abuse.  Of course, they are wrong but they don't believe that.


They may not love their partner; they may not even like their partner; they may know that their partner is all wrong for them; but they have become so attached that they cannot get themselves to leave.   They know the relationship has failed, but they are attached to it and leaving it would seem perhaps like giving up a vital body part.  Of course, they are wrong but try telling them that.

It's what they feel they deserve.

They feel that they are getting what they deserve and that the only way to atone for their sins or just their faults is to be in a relationship that is bad or even terrible in many if not most respects.  By being in such a relationship, they somehow cleanse themselves of their sins.  They are wrong but try telling them that.


The relationship is absolutely awful but they won’t admit it to themselves. Most likely, everyone around them knows how bad it is, but they simply blot out the evidence that is so obvious to those around them.  How could anyone do this?    As I write, untold numbers of people are watching their family and friends die, and yet they are remaining unvaccinated or not wearing masks when they should.  They say that the vaccine is this or that; meanwhile, they watch loved ones die and are unmoved.  They are absolutely oblivious of empirical evidence. Why would people be any different in intimate relationships?  They are lying to themselves but try telling them that.

They have something to prove.

Sometimes, people have something to prove—to themselves or others.  They need to prove that they can make a relationship work, no matter how bad it is.  They just know they will find a way to make it work.  That’s the challenge; that’s what drives them.  They have failed, and failed again, and failed again, and failed yet again, but they keep trying.  They are lying to themselves but try telling them that.


Here is the bottom line.  If you are in an absolute loser of a relationship, it may change tomorrow.  But it's not likely.

When a relationship keeps failing, over and over and over again, the past is the best predictor of the future—it will keep on failing.

Get out.  If you can’t get yourself to get out, get help. If you have no one to talk to, get in touch with a hotline that can help like Contact Helpline, the helpline of the Samaritans, or Caring Contact.

You only live once. Make the most of it.  Don’t grow old only to ask yourself what in the world you possibly could have been thinking.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top