Why Do People Stay in Unhealthy Friendships?

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Reader’s Question

Why do some people find it hard to walk away from friends who do not make them feel good; friends who do not give back to the friendship and who seem to make them feel lonely and disappointed and never supported when needed?

Why do people try to make such a “friend” out to be more of a friend than that person really is? Why not just walk away and focus on finding “real” friends that make them feel good? Why would people do this?

Psychologist’s Reply

There are numerous possible reasons for hanging onto, and even defending, friendships that appear inadequate or downright unhealthy. Perhaps the relationship started out much more positive and beneficial, but gradually became more negative. The person may not stop to evaluate the relative costs and benefits of the relationship as it stands now because they’ve been friends for so long. Or, perhaps the person feels some unspoken expectations to be friends because the partners in question are coworkers or share mutual friends.

One obvious reason a person may maintain a less-than-positive friendship is that there is a history or investment in the relationship. Getting to know another person, and be known in return, takes time and emotional resources. People have a tendency to honor what psychologists refer to as “sunk costs.” To walk away from a relationship in which a person has invested may feel wasteful, and as though the time and energy spent was “all for nothing.”

An individual may also remain in a dissatisfying or unhealthy relationship because they do indeed get particular needs met by that relationship, although that may not be obvious to outsiders or even to the individual involved. For example, some people seem to boost their own self-esteem by surrounding themselves with people who are inferior in ways that are important to the person’s own identity. So, maintaining a relationship with a much-less-than-ideal person may make the partner feel good about himself or herself by comparison. At the very least, the person gets to claim the status of being the “better friend” in the relationship.

Speaking of identity and self-esteem, role verification theory proposes that we are motivated to seek out and maintain relationships that reflect and reinforce what we already think about ourselves and other people. So, sometimes people stay in relationships that are not objectively “good” because the way the other person treats the individual verifies what the individual thinks of them. Then there is verification of one’s views of other people. If an individual believes that people are generally selfish, uncaring, and unreliable, having friendships with such people not only seems reasonable (after all, that’s the way people are) but also verifies that person’s world view (and people do like to be right).

By no means do the possibilities discussed here represent an exhaustive list of reasons people stay in relationships that appear negative to outside observers. However, the possibilities above highlight some of the ways in which what people “get” from relationships extends well beyond the obvious or the rational.

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