How To Know If 'Status Quo Bias' Is Keeping You In An Unhealthy Relationship

Relationships are complicated things. We meet someone, fall in love, decide to make it legit, and suddenly our lives are intertwined with someone else. Even if you never marry, own property together, or share finances, it isn't always easy to just leave a committed relationship. Also, for a lot of people, there's a sense of safety in not rocking the boat. When you have a good thing with someone you love, even if it's unhealthy, keeping the status quo can feel like the best option.

A 2018 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people would prefer to stay with their partner and accept the traits they have instead of switching to another potential partner who might have completely opposite traits. The study determined this was a "status quo bias" and "endowment effect," in which a person places a higher value on their partner because they're "theirs," so to speak. In other words, we love what we have which means we make concessions for that person, even when it's not ideal or we're unhappy.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with keeping the status quo in a relationship, but if the partnership isn't healthy, then it's not doing you or your partner any favors. So why do people stay? For a few reasons.

Fear of hurting their partner

People do a lot of things in life out of fear. But if you're in an unhealthy relationship, you need to put your needs first. It may seem like you're being selfish, but you're not. It's self-love and, ultimately, self-preservation. "Not wanting to hurt someone you care about makes it harder to immediately land on acceptance about your decision," relationship coach Julie Nguyen tells Mind Body Green. "But if you've been looking for a reason to end the relationship, it's usually valid, even if it's covered in anguish at first glance."

It's also worth considering that, at the end of the day, you're not responsible for your partner's feelings. Yes, you may hurt them, but when you know something isn't working and you've both tried your best to get to a good place, it's time for both of you to just pull the bandaid off. Someone has to do it, and if your partner isn't capable, then it's up to you. As Oscar Wilde wrote in "De Profundis," "hearts are made to broken," which also means they're made to heal. 

Fear of jumping into the unknown with someone new

What's important to realize is just because you end a relationship, it doesn't mean you need to get into a new relationship right away. As much as relationships can have a positive effect on our well-being, they take a lot of work, so taking a break from dating is never a bad idea. But the thought of being with someone new and getting to know them shouldn't deter you from ending an unhealthy relationship. 

According to a 2021 study published in The Family Journal, dating anxiety is real. It's not just feeling anxious about going on dates, but runs deeper and can cause distress, fear of rejection, and a fear of having to reject others. So if you're letting your fear of dating someone new keep you where you are, realize that you're not alone in being anxious or scared. It can be a real struggle. But meeting someone new, although daunting, can be really exciting too. It's just a matter of opening yourself up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. If you've done it before, you can do it again. No one said it was easy to put yourself out there, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try when you realize your needs aren't being met in your current relationship.

Fear that something else wouldn't be as good as what they have

As the 2018 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found, the status quote bias was affected by the endowment effect in which people accept trade-offs when it comes to their current partners. For example, maybe their partner isn't the best-looking or the most ambitious, but they're funny and committed, so the latter is what people focus on. It's also this kind of thinking that keeps people from ending unhealthy relationships because they assume that what they have is as good as it gets. But as much as your partner may be amazing and have a whole slew of traits that you admire and respect, that can't save a broken relationship.

Relationships become unhealthy because of the two people in them. It doesn't mean that either person did anything wrong, but sometimes things don't work and love just dies. When you're hanging onto "good enough," you're allowing yourself to settle — which some people are happy to do! There's nothing wrong with settling. But if you know your relationship is flawed beyond repair but you think your partner is the best you can do, then it's a disservice to you both. Granted, no partnership or person is perfect, so one should never seek perfection, but wanting a healthy relationship is something everyone deserves.

Fear of judgement

When you've been in a relationship long enough, you can become completely enmeshed in each other's lives. Your friends are their friends; your family is their family too, albeit not blood. Holidays and celebrations are all spent with the same group of people, so ending an unhealthy relationship can feel like you're tearing everyone apart, even if that's not your intention. If the people in your network, no matter who they are, want to judge you for ending the relationship, let them. What people see from the outside is only a fraction of the truth and it's not your job to convince them of something they can't (or don't want to) see. You can't dictate to others how and what to think. You can only do what's right for you.

"Remind yourself that it's OK to leave a relationship that isn't working for you," psychotherapist Rebecca Hendrix tells Glamour. "It's a self-honoring choice that you're making because you don't see a future together. And if it's not a good fit for you, then it's not a good fit for them, even though they may not be aware of it as much as you are."

You can overcome the status quo bias mentality by understanding your worth and realizing you took a risk when you fell in love, so you can handle the risk that comes with ending things. Self-love, compassion, and knowing what you need will help guide you in the right direction.