New U.S. research has revealed a perhaps surprising reason why people stay in unhappy relationships, finding that some stay not for their own needs, but because they take into account the feelings of their partner.
Carried out by researchers at the University of Utah along with Michigan's Wayne State University and the University of Toronto, the study set out to test the theory that people make stay or leave decisions prosocially, meaning taking into consideration their romantic partner's feelings can stop them from ending their relationship.
In the first study of two studies, the researchers tracked 1,348 participants in romantic relationships over a 10-week period. In the second, they followed 500 participants contemplating a breakup over a two-month period.
The findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that in both studies the more dependent people believed their partner was on the relationship, the less likely they were to break up with them.
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"When people perceived that the partner was highly committed to the relationship they were less likely to initiate a breakup," said lead author Samantha Joel. "This is true even for people who weren't really committed to the relationship themselves or who were personally unsatisfied with the relationship. Generally, we don't want to hurt our partners and we care about what they want."
Previous research has shown that the amount of time, resources and emotion invested in a relationship can be factors in deciding to end a romantic relationship, reasons which are all based on self-interest. Research has also shown that people may stay in an unhappy relationship if the alternatives, such as being alone or a lack of potential partners, seem even worse.
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The new study provides the first evidence that decisions about an unsatisfying romantic relationship may involve an altruistic component, and that people can be motivated to stay in an unfulfilling relationship for the sake of their romantic partner.
However, the researchers also raised the question of whether staying for the sake of partner is really a prosocial thing to do.
"Who wants a partner who doesn't really want to be in the relationship?" Joel said.
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