Relationship Prison: Can’t Change You, Can’t Live with You, Can’t Leave You

The most common reasons why people stay in painful relationships.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Relationships that are consistently destructive emotionally are much more common than most people realize. Yet, many people are not able to break away.


In the more than four decades I’ve been working with couples, I have often seen one or both partners suffering daily in a relationship that seems rigidly locked into repeated miserable interactions, yet neither can’t leave the situation.


Friends and families often try to intervene, but find themselves powerless to make a difference. Over time, most stop trying, leaving an emotional prisoner even more isolated.

I have found that getting to the root of what keeps people in these relationship prisons may give them the understanding and capability to either find a way to resolve the situation or the strength to move on.


Caveat: This post is not about abusive entrapment where a person fears that leaving will result in his or her being harmed or threatened in some way. Or, where poverty or culture does not allow the freedom to choose escape.


When entrapped people better understand their reasons for being immobilized in these seemingly unresolvable situations, they stand a much better chance of tolerance or finding ways to leave them behind.


The Seven Most Common Reasons Why People Stay in Painful Relationships


#1 Agony, Ecstasy

Relationships are not always equal in what they give and what they cost. For a number of reasons, a relationship that is very painful in many ways may have moments of exquisite joy that can keep a person willing to pay the price for the more frequent heartbreaks than give up those experiences.


These physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or spiritual encounters may not last long nor happen often, but they are powerful enough for the partner experiencing them to hold on, hoping against hope that those moments will increase, and painful interactions will diminish.


#2 Is This the Best I Can Hope For?

Many people who live in emotional prisons stay because they have convinced themselves that they are not worth more than what they have, or that no one better will ever come along. They may have had many prior relationships that have even been worse and cannot seem to attract a partner who treats them with care and respect.


They may have come from childhoods where they never were exposed to a quality relationship or have been told by friends and family that the kind of relationship they’re in is the best they can expect.


#3 Familiarity

When people marry young, or without a lot of experience, they often are attracted to a person who embodies a combination of the characteristics of those who raised them. They have not yet separated out who they are from who they were when they were young.

That sense of feeling comfortable may include the pain that came with it with they were young and were powerless to change it. As adults, they actually expect that love and pain are inseparable and that there is no other way to be. Unless they can muster up the courage to face separation to be able to leave those childhood limitations behind them, they may feel that there is no other way but to repeat what they’ve known.


#4 Protecting Others

Sadly, there are times when a person knows they need to leave a relationship to save themselves, but cannot bear the pain it may cause others. I have known many men and women who fear what will happen to their children if they live in two homes or are forced to someday accept stepparents they are not comfortable with, and would rather suffer their own sorrow than put that burden on innocent others.


Some people have made promises to their families, particularly within cultures where divorce is prohibited or looked down upon. Or, when they’ve been warned that once they make their beds, they must bear living in them forever, even if they are barren or painful.


#5 Being Alone

It takes a social network of supportive family, friends, and other options to help a person leave a painful relationship, particularly one that has lasted for a time. If a person bearing the heartbreak of a loveless or hurtful relationship is isolated from those support networks, he or she may have nowhere to turn.


Others may not accept that there are no other options and that people who are unhappy can always find them if they really want to. That is simply not always true. If they are cut off from that network of caring and support by moving often, not having the funds or resources to seek help, or being burdened by too many other obligations, it is sometimes impossible to find those options.

#6 Attachment

Being attached to someone who is abusing drugs, unable to find stable work, suffering from depression or trauma, or alternating between unavailability and need is a seductive attachment. That is especially true if there was once love and satisfaction in the relationship that has fallen prey to forces that may have damaged that initial connection forever.


The partners who once loved that person may feel they cannot abandon them. They are in a no-win dilemma. If they leave, they feel that their partner may not make it without them. If they stay, they may not ever be able to help them and will sacrifice their own lives, drowning in that conflict.


#7 Inadequate Resources

It is hard for anyone to live less comfortably than he or she has in the past, especially if there has not been enough, to begin with. Separating from one house into two is very expensive and often comes with sacrifices that may seem too hard to make.


Everyone makes compromises in their lives at some time. Weighing the consequences of sacrificing comfort and familiarity against the needs of living a life with much less, can be a hard one for many. Many people stay in painfully difficult relationships because they don’t have the resources to adequately live separately.

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