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The science behind why we maintain unhealthy relationships

ByAilsa Wolfe

Feb 1, 2018

One of the many pitfalls of life that we are all guilty of falling into is maintaining relationships, platonic or otherwise, with people who, on reflection, really fail to bring much into our lives. It is easy for us to trot out the tired old advice that advocates simply cutting ties with these people and banishing them from our lives forevermore. However, as recent research has shed light on this struggle, this course of action is actually fraught with difficulty and difficult to implement.

A new study conducted by researchers from Bar-Ilan University and the University of California, Berkeley investigated this issue to find that, more often than not, we cannot simply cut contact with difficult people because we know them from places such as work or school.

1,100 people from the San Francisco Bay Area were surveyed and their answers were analysed. In these cases, cutting off contact is simply not a viable option.

A further difficulty arises when the difficult people in question are family members, especially when it comes to female relatives and elderly parents.

First, society dictates to us the overwhelming importance of family, thus making it difficult to loosen or, in extreme cases, completely sever ties with them. One of the most cited factors in contributing to this ‘difficult’ relationship is due to giving a lot of support but getting nothing in return.

Other times, it is a matter of necessity to maintain ties with them. It is suggested that the reason why women are specifically listed as ‘difficult’ lies in the fact that they often play a very central role in family life. Moreover, romantic relationships in particular can often be the most painful to walk away from for a number of reasons.

The ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ is often cited as one of the key reasons. This theory states that the more time someone has invested into a relationship, the less willing they are to walk away from it even if it is clearly damaging their mental health.

In a 2016 study carried out by researchers at the University of Minho in Portugal, respondents were surveyed on a range of hypothetical relationship scenarios and their answers appeared to correspond with this fallacy. The more time, effort, and money had been expended, the more people felt they ought to stay.

Another factor which often applies to both romantic and familial relationships is financial concerns, particularly if you have bills to take care of or childcare costs. This would all make it especially tricky to extricate yourself from a relationship and cut all ties.

Image credit: J Stimp via Flickr 

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