Why do people stay in bad relationships?
Why would a woman stay with a man who has been unfaithful, or who has verbally and/or physically abused her, taken all her money, or in some way indicated that he doesn’t think much of her? The usual suspects are then trotted out – she has low self-esteem, or her self-image is so tenuous that she needs a man to tell her who she is and what she to think. It could be that she would feel too lonely living alone, or maybe she needs his financial support. If there are children, she might not want to take them away from their father.
Plausible as the above explanations might be, do they also apply to men?
The answer is: yes and no. First, let’s get the most obvious ones out of the way. While it might be counter-intuitive to think of a man putting up with a lousy relationship year after year, men are people, too, and some men have self-esteem that is as low as that of some women. Such men might find the notion of having to go out and date, with the ever-present risk of rejection looming large, to be too frightening, so they stay in bad relationships out of fear – fear of being alone, fear of being rejected, or fear of what other people will say if they don’t have a woman. For some men, the end of a relationship, no matter how dysfunctional, raises financial concerns, usually in the forms of alimony, child support and property distribution. As the song goes, it becomes ‘cheaper to keep her.’
There are men who are devoted fathers, who stay in relationships because they don’t want to subject their children to the stress of a break-up. These are some of the most common reasons attributed to men who stay in bad relationships, and there are undoubtedly many others. But there are some explanations that apply to men that rarely apply to women.
Men have a psychological ability to compartmentalize; that is, to subconsciously divide the parts of their lives in such a way that one area does not intrude upon another area. For example, when a man is at work he is usually able to block out thoughts of his home life, of his marriage, or of any problem that might interfere with his ability to do his job. On the other hand, a woman is more likely to lump all facets of her existence (work, family, marriage, neighbors, etc.) into one big category that she might view as ‘my life.’ Women, therefore, are more likely than men to think about family problems while at work, or about work-related problems at home, and might be less efficient at work or less attentive at home because thoughts of other areas of their lives are intruding. That’s one reason why when men have more extra-marital affairs than women; philandering males often attempt to explain their behavior by saying something like, “Sleeping with her doesn’t hurt my family in any way; I still support them, I come home every night, I still have sex with my wife, my children have everything they need.” A woman contemplating infidelity might say, “I couldn’t have an affair; I couldn’t do that to my family.” Therefore, when a man is in a bad relationship, he can literally forget about it when he’s at work, or when he’s playing sports, or when taking his kids to the dentist. The stress of a dysfunctional relationship is confined to the home, and does not interfere with any other part of his life, and hence, appears to be more manageable.
Some men stay in lousy relationships because of sex and/or because their partners are extremely attractive. Women might tolerate a bad relationship with good sex for a while, but men might actually prolong the connection for years. Since women tend to perceive sexual satisfaction as inherently connected to the qualities of the relationship in which it exists, even terrific, screaming, clawing, sex will eventually be defined (albeit unconsciously) as unpalatable if the overall relationship is unsatisfactory. Also, while women can be enticed into a relationship by a man who is insufferably handsome, if it turns out to be dysfunctional, they will rarely stay just because he’s easy on the eyes. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to stay in a bad relationship with a woman who is terminally pretty, for a few reasons. Men have a greater ability than women to separate sex from the other component parts of a relationship; if you ask a man if he is satisfied with the sex in a given relationship, he will answer based on what he thinks of the sex he has had with the woman in question. As mentioned above, when one asks a woman if she is satisfied with the sex in a relationship, her answer will reflect her perception of a variety of relational issues; most notably, how she feels about the relationship in general. Unlike women, men perceive sex as connected to a particular partner, not to a particular relationship. A terrible relationship can contain great sex, and since most men want more sex than most women, their ability to compartmentalize will allow them to remain in an otherwise lousy relationship if the sex is good. Another reason for this is that men are not as likely as women are to have been taught that it’s better to ‘make love’ than to just have sex, because the really meaningful, satisfying sexual encounters are those in which there are true feelings between the partners. As the comedian Billy Crystal said in the movie ‘City Slickers,’ “Women are looking for a reason to have sex; men are just looking for a place.”