As the once-a-year love fest Valentine’s Day goes into overdrive, a university sociologist in Adelaide has attempted to shed some light on what happens at the other end of the love scale ….why so many people stick it out when their relationships sour.
Professor Kristin Natalier, of Flinders University said there were generally two reasons unhappy couples stayed together (and please note, we are not referring to domestic violence scenarios in this article).
“Even bad relationships often give people stuff that they need,” Professor Natalier said in an ABC Radio article by Malcolm Sutton.
“There’s bits of their company, or their personality, that make it worthwhile hanging around for a bit longer in the hope something might change.
“But what we do know is if your relationship is not good, for most people, two years down the track it’s still not going to be good.”
If the couple is living together there are material issues at play, she said, such as who moves out, where you might live, the financial implications and mutual friends, all of which can make a person decide to hang about longer.
“That sounds kind of cold, but they’re really important issues because they have such a big impact on how we live our day-to-day life,” Professor Natalier was quoted as saying in the article.
“And if you think about housing today, you basically need two incomes if you’re going to get into the housing market and then pay off a mortgage.”
Professor Natalier said fear of being alone could also play a part in people remaining with an unsatisfactory partner, along with the biological clock factor for those who want to start a family.
“You might stick around because you see it as your best chance of having a family,” she said.
“And when you see everyone around you partnering up, it’s scary to step outside that pattern in the hope that something else will come along.
“You invest in something and after a while your risk aversion increases because you don’t want to lose what you’ve put into that financially, emotionally, timewise, socially, all those sorts of things.”
Is it up to a friend then, to set a person straight, or at least point out the last time they genuinely smiled was years ago when they still went to parties?
Professor Natalier said people should mind their own business.
“Adults know what’s going on in their life, and they might have a different interpretation on that from you as an outsider,” she said.
“All you do is let people know that you’re there and there are resources around. People make their own decisions.”
As for those hanging about like vultures waiting for the relationship to fail, Professor Natalier had one piece of advice.
“You stay out of that!
“Just because people don’t have that spark, or that enthusiasm, or that excitement anymore, it doesn’t mean their relationships aren’t giving them really important and meaningful things, even if that’s sitting on the couch together watching TV.
“It might seem boring and mundane, just sitting on the couch, but it’s actually spending time with someone you trust, doing a shared interest, and that makes you feel good.”
She said such benefits were incredibly important in a fast-paced society, where it can be hard to keep in contact with friends and maintain social commitments.
“This person may not turn you on so much anymore, but you can rely on them and that’s a really important thing,” she said.
The Family Law Act of 1975 made it easier for people to extricate themselves from irreconcilable situations by removing the need for grounds for divorce.
The following year Australia experienced its highest ever divorce rate — 4.6 per 1,000 residents, a rate that has been in decline ever since, from 2.7 in 1980 to 2.1 in 2013.
The number of couples tying the knot has decreased from 9.2 per 1,000 people in 1950, to just 5.1 couples per 1,000 people in 2013, but the cohabitation rate has increased.
Australian Institute of Family Studies data found the percentage of unmarried couples living together increased from 5.7 per cent in 1986 to 16.2 per cent in 2011.
And the number of couples living together before getting married increased from 16 per cent in 1975 to a whopping 76.6 per cent in 2013.
Professor Natalier said expectations of a relationship had also changed.
“About 60 to 70 years ago people got married because they had to get married. It was socially expected and if you were a woman you’d find it hard to support yourself otherwise,” she said.
“There were specific roles and it didn’t really matter if you were happy or not, but now we live in a society where relationships are meant to be fulfilling.
“You’re meant to be in love. You’re meant to be happy, and your partner’s meant to give you that emotional connection.”
But she warned nobody was going to be “everything for you” and modern expectations were largely “unrealistic”.
For singles, or those who prefer alternatives to long-term relationships, you can probably expect to be invited to less dinner parties as you grow older.
Professor Natalier said culturally, couples were still regarded in white Australia as being the most important of relationships, “even though for lots of us we’ve got friendships that have lasted way longer than any of our romantic relationships”.
“It’s called the heteronormative idea: What counts is a couple and then kids, and anything else isn’t going to be as legitimate,” she said.
“It’s not that people disrespect you because you’re single.
“They’re just not even thinking about the possibility that being single is reason enough to come to the dinner party — unless you’re being set up.”