This article first appeared on SHE'SAID' and has been republished with permission.
Have you ever been curled up on your sofa, tucked under a blanket with a good book and a cup of tea, and you’re so comfy that you don’t want to get up, even hours later when you have to pee and your tea has gone cold?
Or is that just me?
Maybe you have a favorite pair of slippers that have lost all the fluff in the toes and are so dingy that you can’t remember what color they used to be, but you just can’t bring yourself to part with them and break in a new pair. Or maybe that’s just me, too.
The point is, sometimes it’s hard to make a change, even when you know you really need to, and you’d feel better if you did. We resist throwing off the blanket and getting up from the pillowy sofa, no matter if our bladders are bursting. We don’t want to get rid of our comfy old slippers that served us so well for years.
As humans, we gravitate toward what we know. We stay in our comfort zones, even when they become uncomfortable — or were never that comfortable in the first place. And the time this hurts us the most isn’t when we’re ignoring our bodily signals or shuffling around in worn-out slippers. It’s in our relationships.
Unhappily ever after
How many couples do you know who seem absolutely miserable, yet they stay together year in and year out? They complain about each other and either fight constantly, or they seethe silently, full of resentment. Or maybe they just chug along, not seeming satisfied with their lives, but not making a move to change anything, either. Maybe you’re one of them.
Psychologist and relationship expert Ty Tashiro, author of The Science of Happily Ever After, offers an eye-opening, if depressing, statistic about the state of marriage today. Sure, we’ve all heard that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. But Tashiro says another 10 percent of couples become estranged, without actually ever signing divorce papers, and another seven percent stay together but are deeply unhappy.
Leaving aside the fact that this means only about one-third of marriages end up enduring and satisfying, think about that seven percent of couples who aren’t happy together, yet who remain married. Seven percent might not seem like a lot, but let’s do the math: in 2015, there were more than 60 million couples in the United States alone. That means at least four million couples — eight million people — were stuck in an unhappy marriage. And that’s not even counting the unhappy couples who aren’t married.
The question is, why stay in a relationship that’s unhappy? The answer is, the same reason we stay in jobs we hate, or hometowns that stifle us. Because it’s comfortable — and because we’re scared of change.
Expanding your comfort zone
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” “Leap and the net will appear.” “Fear is temporary. Regret lasts forever.” The Internet is chock full of inspirational quotes and memes about the shaking off fear and resisting what is comfortable, but does not serve us. The problem is, talk is cheap.
It’s easy to advise a friend that she should dump her boyfriend, quit her job, get divorced, or pursue a dream. But doing these things ourselves is a different story. We’re not the ones who have to actually do it. When you’ve built a life with someone, trusted them with your deepest self, and dreamed of a future together, saying goodbye isn’t easy, no matter how unhappy you are. It’s one thing to decide you’re going to face your fear. It’s another to figure out what that actually looks like. How do we step outside our comfort zones? How do we take that leap into nothingness, trusting that something will catch us?
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The first thing we need to do is be honest with ourselves. When I was married, I spent a long time telling myself – and everyone around me – that I was happy. When I was finally able to admit to myself that I was deeply lonely, unhappy, and afraid, that was the beginning of figuring out what to do next.
Leaving a relationship is scary. Everyone tells you that you’ll find someone else – that once you let go of this person who isn’t right for you, the person who is right will be free to come into your life. But what if they don’t? Plenty of people are single forever. Not everyone finds their happily-ever-after.
It’s okay to be scared – but it doesn’t mean we need to listen to those fears. As researcher and author Brené Brown told Oprah on Super Soul Sunday, “We’re all afraid. We just have to get to the point where we understand it doesn’t mean that we can’t also be brave.”
Are you comfortable being uncomfortable?
So, what are the signs that you’re stuck in a comfort relationship? Isn’t a relationship supposed to be comfortable?
Of course, you should feel comfortable in your relationship. But there’s a difference between happy-comfortable and miserable-comfortable. If you’re not sure which one your relationship is, that’s probably the first sign that something is wrong. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to summon your courage and break things off immediately — it just means you should probably spend some time looking honestly at your feelings, and your relationship.
Do you post a lot on social media about how great your partner is? Is your Instagram feed full of cute couple-selfies, anniversary shout-outs to yourselves, and #ManCrushMonday tributes to your boyfriend? Research shows that the people who post about their relationships the most on social media are the people who tend to be the most unhappy in their relationships. It’s like you’ve got something to prove to the world – or, more likely, to yourself.
Other signs you might be staying in an unhappy relationship out of fear are if you’re doing things like overeating (feeding your feelings), losing your temper a lot, drinking too much or using other addictive substances, or constantly comparing yourself and your relationship to other people. In her conversation with Oprah, Brené Brown said many people don’t understand all the ways fear manifests in our lives. “People buy into [fear] and feel fear because they don’t have the language to attach to what it is. Eating is fear. Drinking is fear. Drugs are fear. Rage is fear.” Added Oprah, “I think people don’t understand that anxiety is fear. Jealousy is fear. Greed is fear. All of those are elements of a fear-based culture.”
If this rings true for you, be gentle with yourself. You’re not alone in wanting to pull the blanket over your head and stay where you feel safe. But know that when you finally do decide to throw off the covers and leap into that icy water of a future that is truly fulfilling — you’ll find that deciding to be uncomfortable might be very best thing you ever did.