Leaving a long-term relationship can be excruciatingly hard. There are many reasons why people choose to stay with their partner, even when they are desperately unhappy. They may be married, and concerned about the "failure" of divorce. There may be financial pressures and a fear that they can’t afford to separate. They may be frightened of being single, having been in a couple for many years.
Or they may choose to stay for the sake of the kids. There is certainly an argument for keeping a family together, if it’s built on a foundation of care and respect. But conflict and tension create problems for children, and parents, too, are deserving of happiness.
But some people don’t stick around for themselves or for their kids. Some people stay together for their partner; they are doing it to be kind, but really, they are "relationship martyrs".
According to new research from the University of Utah, altruism is a common reason for people to stay in unhappy relationships. The study found that people who perceive their partners to be highly dependent are far less likely to leave the relationship, particularly if they believe that staying together is in their partner’s best interests.
Altruism doesn’t figure prominently in the narrative of divorce. We hear about "brave" spouses (usually women) who manage to extricate themselves from difficult relationships, and "selfish" spouses (usually men) who desert their partners to pursue their own desires.
But a whole other truth that binds people together, and that is the fear of leaving their partner alone. They worry that their partner won’t cope, either physically, or emotionally. Perhaps they are depressed, or a heavy drinker, or have few friends of their own. Perhaps they have never cooked a meal, or used a washing machine, or paid a bill. Perhaps their lives are so intertwined that it seems impossible to separate.
“He wouldn’t survive without me,” one friend told me recently. “It would destroy him. I could never leave.”
According to Elisabeth Shaw, CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, many people in unfulfilling marriages are concerned about their partner’s ability to cope alone, particularly if the partner is emotionally dependent, socially isolated, or has poor life skills. But is this altruism, or martyrdom?
Ms Shaw points out that there is a difference between genuine dependency on another person and perceived dependency. Genuine dependency arises when a partner is disabled, infirm or suffering from conditions such as dementia. In cases like these, she says, an unhappy partner can feel incredibly trapped. And this is an increasing issue for our aging population.
What about when a partner is extremely dependent, but perfectly competent? Many people feel deeply responsible for their spouse, but Ms Shaw stresses that it’s important to do a reality check.“Even altruism is a reflection of self,” she points out. “If you’re in a relationship in which your partner is dependent, ask yourself, is it due to any genuine incapacity, or are these just the roles you’ve chosen to play?”
Still, we all take care of our partners to some extent during our relationships. After all, what is love without nurturing and care and support? So what do we do when we are horribly unhappy? When leaving our partner will hurt them, but staying with them will hurt us?
“There is a genuine ethical dilemma,” says Shaw, “about your duty to yourself versus your duty to others. When can you be entitled to put yourself first?”
It’s a question worth asking. Because as often as self-interest compels people to leave unhappy relationships, altruism compels them to stay. And the world needs more altruism; we can’t function as a society, or in families, without it. But when putting another person first leads to the sacrifice of your own happiness, altruism becomes martyrdom. Love makes the world go round, but nobody’s life deserves to be martyred for another.
We all have the right to be happy.