Why is it so tough to leave a bad relationship?

Several factors may keep people from leaving unhappy relationships, like fear, low self-esteem and insecurity. Getty Images

It makes sense to let something go if it doesn’t make you happy, right?

Then why do some men and women find it so hard to leave a bad relationship when it clearly makes them unhappy?

Researchers from the University of Minho in Braga, Portugal say they may have found the answer as to why people hold on to failing relationships, and it could have to do with something called the “sunk cost fallacy.”

According to researchers, the “sunk cost fallacy” is an effect when people tend to stick with something because they’ve already invested so much time, money and/or energy, which makes it harder for them to let go –  despite it not being the best decision.

READ MORE: Avoid these 5 romance-killing conversations with your partner

In order to find this out, scientists conducted two experiments.

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In the first experiment, 902 participants were given four unhappy relationship scenarios where they needed to make a choice to stay or leave the relationship. Each scenario had varying time, money and effort invested in it, Refinery29 reports.

The results showed that people were more likely to stay in a relationship when money and effort were invested, but not time.

In the second experiment, 275 people were given another hypothetical scenario where they had spent a year or 10 years in a relationship.

Researchers found that people who were in the 10-year relationship stuck around for an average of 294 days longer than those who were in the year-long relationship.

“Together, both experiments confirmed the initial hypothesis that investments in terms of time, efforts and money make individuals more prone to stay and invest in a relationship in which they are unhappy,” Refinery29 quotes from the study. “This option was chosen when – and taking into consideration how unhappy the person was in that relationship – the logical decision would be to finish the relationship, independently of the prior investments.”

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Other factors at play

Over the years, scientists and experts have tried to rationalize the sunk cost fallacy in relationships – many of which have offered their own take on why couples stay in bad or toxic relationships.

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According to psychotherapist and relationship coach Rachel Dack, fear and insecurity play a part.

“When contemplating whether to leave a relationship or not, fear often kicks in,” she writes on eHarmony. “Questions surface: ‘Will I ever find love again? What if I end up alone forever? These questions ignite fear.”

Common fears, she says, include being alone, being single and feeling like you won’t be able to find a partner who treats you well.

“These ideas create a spiral of negative and catastrophic thinking which makes it even more difficult to leave an unhealthy relationship,” she says.

Douglas LaBier, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., believes low self-esteem may also be a factor.

“I’ve often worked with many individuals and couples who experience a diminished sense of self-worth; low self-esteem,” he writes in Psychology Today. “When they find that their relationships have entered the dead zone, they are often stuck within them, troubled and frustrated. They’re unable to push for revitalizing them, if that’s possible; or leaving if that would be healthier. Even as they uncover the roots of their low self-worth through therapy, they often remain frozen in a bad, even destructive relationship.”

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What to do if you’re in a bad relationship

Boutique matchmaker and dating coach Shannon Tebb says that a relationship can go sour for many reasons – personal struggles, mental health or loss of love, for example.

But if couples and individuals want to either work at the relationship or make it out alive, communication and honesty is what will help heal the situation.

“It depends on how disconnected the couple is,” says Tebb. “Sometimes when one person is more disconnected than the other it’s hard to get that back.”

If couples are wanting to make it work, Tebb suggests going to a relationship or sex therapist to help you through the issues and help clear the lines of communication.

And while Tebb realizes each couple is unique, she makes other general suggestions that may help break you and your partner out of that relationship rut, like taking a trip without kids (if you have any) or scheduling regular date nights.

READ MORE: 5 of the biggest relationship mistakes and how to fix them

If the relationship is too far gone, however, it’s important for each person to work on themselves before rushing into another relationship.

And while breaking up and being on your own again might seem scary, it’ll be the best (and healthiest) scenario for everyone.

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“Your confidence can take a hit [after a breakup],” says Tebb. “Maybe you need to take a vacation or move to a new area or work on a new career – whatever is going to bring you back up. But after a relationship is over, you really need to take maybe anywhere between six months to a year off to really heal yourself and allow yourself to be open to meeting someone new.”

To help smooth over the transition, Tebb says surrounding yourself with friends and family, having a plan in place that will help you get back on your feet and not being afraid to ask or accept help are all good ways to become your old self again.

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