Why People Stay in Unhappy Relationships, According to Science

Kelsey Clark
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Christian Vierig/Getty Images

No young girl or boy ever grows up thinking I can't wait to find and marry someone I have lukewarm feelings for! And yet, so many men and women end up settling in mediocre, or even unhappy, relationships. Why is this so common, especially when it stands in direct contrast to our romantic expectations and aspirations?

According to psychologist Sara Rego and colleagues from the University of Minho in Portugal, both men and women can get caught up in something called the "sunk cost effect." Discussed at length in Rego and team's recent study published in Current Psychology, the sunk cost effect is essentially an unwillingness to throw away all the time, money, and effort invested in a romantic relationship, despite a lack of happiness and fulfillment.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers asked participants whether they would stay in a sexless, increasingly hostile marriage based on three different factors: time (a one-year marriage versus a 10-year marriage), effort (time spent trying to improve the relationship), and money (for example, moving in together). A fourth "control" group had no variables. In the end, roughly 25 per cent of the time and control groups said they would stay, compared to 35 per cent of the effort and money groups, reports Well+Good.

"[The study] confirmed the initial hypothesis that investments in terms of time, effort, and money make individuals more prone to stay and invest in a relationship in which they are unhappy," explained the authors of the study. In other words, settling is all too real. 

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