It’s called loss aversion. The feeling that because you’ve put a lot of time and effort into something you can’t walk away with nothing. It’s not a bad internal mechanism inherently, once it kicks in it’ll keep you on your diet for example, but it’s also what keeps gamblers at the table when they’ve been losing for hours and it keeps people in terrible on/off relationships.
It’s a trite metaphor that when you break a bone it heals stronger than before, in relationships though – as opposed to biology – this is actually a disastrous way to think.
The brain gets a huge spike of dopamine when you reconcile after a conflict, that’s why those on/off couples keep having bigger and bigger fights then seem so suddenly blissful when they make up – these habits are getting ingrained on a neurological level.
And if both people are drama cases I don’t feel sympathy and I’ll just avoid them as a couple. I feel bad if one person is on the more sensitive side and I see them being beaten down by the whole process, wishing it were different and not knowing what to do.
Until my cynical patience is exhausted and I see that they’re holding on to an illusion. People don’t turn off movies they hate, they absorbed the whole thing not even in the hope it will get better but just to collect all their complaints to share in other contexts.
And a tanking relationship always feel like the middle of a movie, there’s action, there’s twists and turns, there’s nothing approaching resolution. People leave safe relationships out of boredom a lot more often than they leave train wrecks out of a desire for safety because when you’re bored it’s easy to feel that the story is over, that the relationship ran it’s course. You have safe time to think about what it might be like outside the relationship and tell yourself it’s for the best.
When your relationship is always hanging off the side of a cliff though loss aversion instinctually makes you pull it back. The narrative mind keeps telling you it can’t end like this, not after everything, it can’t end with a fight about water shoes at a weekday yard fire. So the quest for resolution goes on.
The question you have to gut check is what have you really been through, is the feeling you’ve come through hardships together really just the hardships you put each other through? Are the ‘good’ times actually just the absence of fighting and therefore what anyone else would call ‘normal’? And those qualities you love about them, the quiet moments when they’re sweet, insightful, and nurturing, are they only present in the aftermath of a fight when you’re both relieved it’s over?
And as an aside, everyone should be asking themselves if they’re resolved what they were fighting about or if they simply stopped fighting out of a desire to feel good again because if you didn’t actually resolve something and come out the other side with a better understanding of each other’s goals then it’s just going to a bigger, more confused fight when it comes up again.
The first step of a good life is knowing what you want and the first step to knowing what you want is knowing what you don’t want. If you find yourself using the word but when you talk about what you want (I want this relationship but, I love him/her but, etc) then you know it’s not all you need it to be.
Sometimes the biggest trap in life is when something is two thirds right for you because that’s the ratio where you’ll keep telling yourself not to give up.
Most of the time though people change when circumstances change. And I mean actually change, not threaten to change.