Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Understanding Troubled Relationships: Why People Stay Despite Red Flags

It hugely upsets us when we see friends or family in bad relationships. They might put on a good show for the rest of the world, but we know that their union is problematic and unsatisfying. 

Instagram might show a new story of the duo smiling in front of the tropical, turquoise sea of Curaçao, but our friend will call us the same night and say that their partner is ‘very controlling’ and a ‘piece of work’. 

When someone repeatedly invites us to see their partner as a terribly difficult person and then chooses to stay loyal to them, it deeply confuses us. It makes us wonder why they’re still together.

But an unhappy couple can have lots of reasons to go on.

Such as fear of being alone, financial dependencies, societal or family pressures, hope for improvement, concern for the children, or because they believe they won’t be able to find someone better.

None of these arguments sound like a healthy foundation for marriage. Worse still, to our 21st century ears, these motivations cheapen the idea of a romantic union.

We like to believe that we shouldn’t have to compromise in love. And that there’s a person for everyone.

So if someone holds onto an unsatisfying relationship, we’re quick to assume they’re wimps and lack character. 

That’s why we usually feel so confident in offering our friends and family members unsolicited relationship advice. We think they’re not capable of making a good decision. So we have to make it for them.

But that’s wildly insensitive. 

We must recognise that our troubled friends have far more at stake than we can begin to appreciate. We can’t know what’s best for another person, or how much hurt or disappointment they can tolerate. And we can’t ever be certain what someone’s relationship feels like from the inside.

Maybe blowing up the marriage for a chance of better sex and more happiness doesn’t outweigh a stable living situation for the kids, or the difficult task of finding a new significant other. 

Just because it was the right choice for someone else we know, doesn’t mean it will also suit our friend.

We’d be wise to understand that accepting a little misery isn’t necessarily a sign of cowardice. It can also be evidence that someone understands that there are no perfect options. 

And on the flip side, the refusal to endure discomfort in a relationship isn’t always a mark of strength and self-respect. It can also suggest that someone’s a little naive and entitled.

So it’s unfair to shame people who compromise in love. Even when it concerns behaviour that we wouldn’t suffer ourselves. Some people simply don’t expect as much from their partners, or regrettably, they lack the self-worth to demand better treatment.

It’s painful enough to settle. And we don’t need to make their pain even greater by condemning them for loving a particularly flawed person.

Every human being is flawed to some degree.

So instead of whipping our settling friends into shape, it might be better to emphatise with their hurt and disappointment, and admire their sacrifice in the name of love. While also offering our views when asked, without wishing they’ll do as we say.

We may never understand why our loved ones stay with a partner who’s bad for them. And that’s okay, it’s not our business. But it is our business to be a good friend, so that’s where most of our energy and efforts should go.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach