Why You're Engaging In Retention Behaviors In A Relationship (And How To Stop The Cycle)

Relationships can be exciting, joyful, fulfilling experiences, and so much more — but they can also show us our pain points. Being with a partner, or several partners, can teach us about ourselves in ways that might not always feel good. When you are scared of your partner leaving, cheating on you, or betraying you in some way or another, you might feel an extreme sense of pressure to make them stick around — even when that fear might not be rational, and even when you have no control over your partner's actions. Certain patterns formed from past experiences could manifest in negative ways, and you may find that you would do anything to keep your partner with you. 

There is a name for these kinds of behaviors: Mate-retention strategies. A 2018 study published in the International Association for Relationship Research outlines three main kinds of strategies that are most prevalent in monogamous relationships: Disengaged, benevolent, and exhaustive. And each of these revolves around two main categories of behaviors, "benefit-provisioning," where a partner makes an effort to underscore the benefits of the relationship, and "cost-inflicting," where a partner might engage in behaviors to cut down a partner's sense of agency or esteem. Being aware of these behaviors might assist you in reflecting on how you engage with your partner. But to get to the root of it all, let's break down a few reasons why you're engaging in retention behaviors, and how to stop when it's hurting your partnership. 

You could have trust problems

When you have been betrayed by a partner in the past, you might still be carrying the fear of that pain into another relationship. Reflect on signs that past betrayals are haunting your current relationship, then interrogate whether you are using retention behaviors as a result. When being cheated on is your central fear, you might engage in benefit-provisioning behaviors, which manifest similarly to people-pleasing. Perhaps you're constantly doling out compliments, doting on your partner, and spending more money on them than you can afford. As you play up your worth, showing your partner how much you can do for them, you might be signaling to them that cheating on you is a bad call because of how much they stand to lose. Of course, being kind to your partner and showing them you care is part of the joy of being together. But when you are placing your partner's happiness over your own needs, both to keep them satisfied and to mitigate your fear of their unfaithfulness, it might be time to reevaluate how you are engaging in your relationship. 

Rather than employ superficial solutions, work on building trust with your partner. Know that the value you bring to a relationship comes from who you are, and not what you can do for someone else. Work on disengaging with benefit-provisioning behaviors that center your partner, and instead focus on finding ways to build your own confidence. 

You might fear abandonment

Perhaps you have experienced abandonment in the past and feel terrified of being abandoned again. You might be engaging in retention behaviors to keep your partner from leaving. While these could take the form of benefit-provisioning behaviors, where you emphasize what your partner would lose in leaving you, cost-inflicting behaviors might also be at work, where you might be manipulating your partner into staying, whether knowingly or not. Cost-inflicting behaviors are considered higher-risk than their counterpart, both because they could backfire and because they often entail some kind of harm. Calling your partner to track their whereabouts could be an example of a cost-inflicting behavior, as could flirting with another person to make your partner jealous. More extreme cases could include telling your partner you would die without them or other such threats. 

Cost-inflicting behaviors work by instilling in your partner the same fear you have of your partner leaving — and it's clearly not healthy. Where relationships should be a safe, secure space for both parties to thrive, cost-inflicting behaviors undermine this. Work on improving communication with your partner to avoid resorting to such tactics. Being vulnerable can feel frightening, but it's worth it to ensure both you and your partner feel comfortable together and remain individuals with complete agency. 

You're forcing a relationship to work

Perhaps there are elements of the relationship that are simply not working for you. But instead of ending it, you are doing everything you can to change your partner's behavior or change the balance of the relationship (or both) to mold it into what you want. Rather than face the pain of ending a dysfunctional partnership — which might not be due to any fault of your own — you might become protective of it, willing to try anything to make it last. Those with children might feel that the stakes are particularly high. Here, the threat of failure looms large, rather than the threat of another person or of abandonment. A combination of retention practices might be at work, where you could be seeking confirmation from your partner that the relationship is still worth "fighting" for, and in the end, you do not receive what you need. And let's face it: Breaking up is an awful ordeal with challenging consequences, even more so with children involved. Many other facets of your life and well-being could become destabilized. 

Even still, remember to weigh the pros and cons. Rather than put yourself through even more pain by engaging in retention behaviors that are doing more harm than good, consider taking a mental and emotional step back from the relationship. Look at the big picture: Honoring your needs is not a failure, but a win.

How to change the pattern

When you feel as though you are at the mercy of your worst fears, it is time to change the pattern (or patterns) of behavior in your relationship. Acknowledging your behaviors is a significant first step, as some retention behaviors might be subconscious. Next, acknowledge the way you feel; your feelings and fears are real, and should not be dismissed when you want to make emotional progress. Then, you might choose to communicate how you feel with your partner. Share with them what you have learned about your behavior, about how you feel, and invite them to work with you as you move forward together. 

But your relationship with your partner is not the only relationship at play here; the relationship you have with yourself might also be a significant factor in how or why you might engage with certain retention behaviors. Reflect on your relationship with yourself. How do you talk to yourself in your head? When was the last time to checked in with your needs and desires? Are your behaviors an accurate reflection of who you are, and how you feel? From there, try to stop yourself from engaging in harmful retention behaviors, and opt for another approach. Should you need additional help, seek assistance from a mental health expert, who could further guidance.