Feeling Stuck: Exploring the Development of Felt Constraint in Romantic Relationships


Objective: This research investigates the processes leading to felt constraint in romantic relationships.

Background: Romantic commitment can be driven by a genuine desire to remain romantically involved with a partner, or it can be motivated by real or perceived constraints (e.g., shared property, psychological control or coercion, perceived obligations to one's partner) that make leaving relationships challenging. When relationship commitment and stability are driven by constraints rather than personal desire, individuals may feel “stuck” in their romantic unions, leading to negative outcomes for both individuals and couples.

Method: Using data from in-depth interviews with 35 individuals about their relationship histories, we employed grounded theory techniques to define and explain the process of entering and exiting relationships with high levels of felt constraint (i.e., stuck relationships). The final sample included 14 individuals discussing 21 stuck relationships.

Results: Participants often entered stuck relationships in their teens and early 20s. Based on positive early experiences, couples quickly accrued barriers to breakup (e.g., cohabitation, marriage, children, family entanglement) that sustained the partnership despite declines in relationship satisfaction. The decision to leave stuck relationships was often motivated by maturing out of the relationship or becoming more aware of alternatives.

Conclusions: Our study adds additional support for the notion that constraints are not universally problematic but must be understood within the context of the developing relationship in order to determine their likely consequences.

Implications: Our findings support relationship education focused on building an individual's capacity to (a) assess the future viability of their partnerships and (b) overcome barriers to breakup if and when that becomes relevant.


Family Studies

Publication Date


Journal Title

Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Science



Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Document Type



© 2020 National Council on Family Relations