Modern Romance

The people stuck in loveless relationships: ‘I wasn’t strong enough to leave’

As numerous surveys state that many couples are staying together for reasons that don’t involve genuine affection, Olivia Petter asks how and why we should exit relationships that no longer work

Wednesday 21 June 2023 08:00 BST
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Staying in an unhappy relationship might sound like a fate worse than death, yet it’s remarkably common
Staying in an unhappy relationship might sound like a fate worse than death, yet it’s remarkably common (iStock)

Robert* knew it was over at a party. “I found myself watching the way she interacted with everyone,” he recalls of his then partner of seven years. “Her eyes lit up, and she smiled at people in a way that I hadn’t seen directed at me in as long as I could remember. That was the moment I realised the love had gone.” Robert stayed in that relationship for another year, trying to make things work. “I had convinced myself this was because I was so in love with her, but the truth was that I was actually just scared to be alone.”

Staying in an unhappy relationship might sound like a fate worse than death. You’re lonely but horny. Exhausted but argumentative. Emotionally drained but armed for your next WhatsApp battle. And yet, it’s remarkably common. In his 2012 book, You Can Be Right or You Can Be Married, author Dana Adam Shapiro wrote that just 17 per cent of couples are content with their partner. Meanwhile, in 2015, research claimed that 20 per cent of married people felt “trapped” in their relationship, while a quarter admitted that they were no longer in love with their spouse. More recently, a survey in 2021 found that almost half of married couples are only still together because of their children, while one-sixth said their relationship is only hanging on because they can’t afford to be single.

These figures paint a bleak picture. But it’s one that is quickly becoming a reality for many, particularly in the UK, where the cost of living crisis continues to force people into making significant sacrifices in order to cope. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that one of those sacrifices could be love. After all, with rent prices and mortgage rates going through the roof, sometimes living with a partner is the only affordable option. Plus, after enjoying the somewhat chi-chi lifestyle that can come with cohabiting with someone (You can watch what you want on TV!), who wants to return to a flatshare with strangers that may or may not eat their toenails?

That said, money worries are hardly the only thing keeping people together. Succession’s Tom Wambsgans and Shiv Roy are television’s most cash-rich, happiness-poor couple, whose struggles couldn’t be further from the quotidian (fighting over who gets to use the private jet is hardly a relatable experience). Yet their stoical perseverance still translated to layman’s emotional and romantic disaster. There was infidelity. Betrayal. And even a little biting.

By the end of the HBO drama’s four-season run, which ended last month, the voracity of hatred between these two characters was undeniable. “I think you are incapable of love,” Tom tells her during their most memorable fight. “And I think you are maybe not a good person to have children with.” But even after all the nuclear arguments, the ruthless character assassinations, and the fact that Tom usurped the mother of his child (yes, she was pregnant when he said that to her) to the role of CEO, the two of them remained together.

In the most resounding image of the finale, we saw them in the back of a car, Shiv putting her hand out to her husband, who quietly returns the gesture, a silent promise of their mutual despair. Tom and Shiv are far from pop culture’s only unhappy couple. In fact, once you start to look closely, they all seem pretty miserable. There’s Mad Men’s Don and Betty Draper. Tony and Carmela Soprano. Gone Girl’s Nicholas and Amy Dunne. Blue Valentine’s Dean and Cindy. And of course, the poster couple for marital disharmony: Charles and Diana, whose acrimonious relationship was dramatised in The Crown. Remember Charles’s infamous response to an interviewer who asked if he was in love with his then wife? “Whatever ‘in love’ means,” he replied.

Why, then, are so many of us resigning ourselves to loveless relationships? “When people stay in unhappy relationships, it’s often because their cost-benefit analysis indicates that by leaving, they may be worse off,” explains clinical psychologist Sally Austen. “What constitutes the ‘cost’ and ‘benefit’ will depend on the individual and could range from housing and financial stability to physical safety and social circumstances.

He’d made me feel totally unworthy of being loved and I’d lost all my confidence, so I just existed

‘Claire'

If you are responsible for children, you will also need to factor their wellbeing into the equation. Another layer of difficulty is that we are strongly influenced by what we think others will think of us. “A lot of people will consider how separating might impact relatives or parents who spent a lot of money on the wedding and so on,” adds Austen. There is also the fear of having to start over, emotionally and logistically.

“I am currently experiencing a deep depression, which I had anticipated as it always happens to me when a relationship ends,” says Robert, who has had to move back in with his parents at the age of 40 following his breakup. “It truly does feel as though I am starting from scratch again.” There is also a chicken and egg scenario at play, given that the longer you stay in an unhappy relationship, the more it will itch away at your self-worth, putting you in a state of emotional paralysis.

This was the case for Claire, 45, who spent seven years of a 17-year relationship feeling utterly miserable. “I think by that point, he’d made me feel totally unworthy of being loved and I’d lost all my confidence, so I just existed,” she recalls. “I wasn’t strong enough to leave but my parents could see I was fading away so, in the end, my dad pulled me out of it. I didn’t even fight because I had nothing left inside.”

As for why she persisted with the relationship for as long as she did, Claire explains she was fuelled by hope. “I was just waiting for the person I fell in love with to look at me with the same eyes again,” she says. “But he never came back, nor did he even fight for me to stay when I left. He was probably thrilled because I made it easier for him.”

Tom and Shiv in the ‘Succession’ finale (HBO)

Sometimes, staying in an unhappy relationship can also act as a shield for your own underlying issues. “In some cases, being with a partner is easier because you can throw the things you’re not happy about at someone else,” says Ammanda Major, head of clinical practice at the relationships charity Relate.

The trouble is that if you’re going to leave an unhappy relationship, the first step is recognising – and accepting – your own unhappiness. This is easier said than done. “If you get way more excited to spend time by yourself than you do when it comes to spending time with your partner, not feeling validated by your partner, or envying what other couples have, then you might be in a loveless relationship,” says Callisto Adams, dating and relationships coach.

The more specific you can be about what’s fuelling the disharmony the better. Because once you’ve identified what it is that’s making you unhappy, you can communicate this to your partner and try to work out a way forward. “If people can sit down and share those vulnerabilities with one another, they might be able to find a way through it,” says Major.

“But you have to be ready to hear what the other person has to say, too. And then you can make a decision together.” In many cases, though, the best decision might be to accept that the relationship has broken beyond repair and walk away. And that’s a leap of faith you might have to take on your own. “I think everyone knows in their heart when the love is gone but you almost cling to the hope that it will come back,” says Claire, who has forged a successful career in music since leaving her last relationship, and found love with someone else.

“You can make bad choices after leaving a loveless relationship because you are in a fragile state and desperate to be loved, but I recognised my pattern and stopped it, which was a sign of me becoming stronger. My heart goes out to people who are in the same boat but I’m proof that amazing things can happen the minute you start to love yourself.”

It has been a similar journey for Robert, who, since leaving his unhappy relationship, has found himself feeling positive about what the future holds. “It has been very difficult, but I have never felt more determined in my life to become a healthier, more rounded human being,” he says. “And I’m not doing it for anybody else; I am doing it for myself.”

*Names have been changed.

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