"This is getting painful. We should make an excuse to leave," my boyfriend whispers into my ear.
We're having drinks at a friend's house, and two of the guests are tearing strips off one another.
This isn't the first time I've cringed through one of their very public insult-hurling matches. The pair are known to fly into heated arguments over everything from their polarising political views to the ethics of double-dipping into the guacamole.
While separately, they're each likeable, level-headed people, in one another's presence, they're insufferable.
They also happen to be in a two-decade-long relationship with one another.
Their situation is not unique. Our modern definition of relationship success has become interchangeable with personal sacrifice. We've taught couples the model of a healthy union is not how happy each individual is within that union, but how valiantly they've each continued to endure misery in order to stay together.
While the emotional toll of remaining committed in an unhappy coupling was minimal when the average human lifespan was just 40 years, saying "til death do us part" today means signing up to a potential 80-plus-year sentence – a seemingly hefty price to pay for being able to say: "We might hate each other, but at least we both made it to the finish line."
We accept relationship dissatisfaction so openly as a culture, we've developed an entire lexicon around it. We refer to our spouses as "ball and chains", to marriage as the "end of the game" and describe our consequential unhappiness as "the end of the honeymoon period" and the beginning of the "seven-year itch".
Even couples who don't sign on the dotted line experience this. Research shows relationship satisfaction drops steadily over time, regardless of marital status.
Which begs the question; when nobody wins at the finish line, why are there couples still begrudgingly running the race?
A scientific phenomenon known as "learned helplessness" may shed some light. American psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a groundbreaking experiment with fellow researchers during the '60s, in which a dog was conditioned to expect small electric shocks via the sound of a bell.
Each time researchers administered a shock, the bell would ring, leading the dog to associate the sound with the shock so strongly, that, even in instances where the bell rang and no shocks were delivered, the dog responded as though being electrified.
In the second stage of the study, the same dog was given an option to evade the shocks. The floor was divided into two halves, separated by a small fence – one electrified, one not. To the surprise of researchers, the dog lay down on the electrified floor and continued to receive the small but painful shocks instead of jumping to the safe side of the fence.
In contrast, when researchers introduced a dog who had not participated in the first part of the study, and as such, had no history of trauma, it quickly leapt to the safe side of the fence when the floor became electrified.
In the same way the first dog in Seligman's rather cruel study learned to accept its depressing situation, even when a feasible escape route was within reach, we're often compelled to tell ourselves there's "no point" attempting to instigate significant changes in an unhappy relationship scenario. That, regardless of what we do, we'll continue to suffer, and as such, would be better off lying down and accepting defeat.
It's also vastly easier than the alternative – acknowledging our accountability for the situation. No one likes to fess up to being at fault. Even I have a hard time coming clean to my partner when I've screwed up.
It's arguably more comfortable to take on the role of the victim and complain about how bad our relationship is and how "stuck" we are, in the same way we moan about the environment, the government and our crappy jobs without taking proactive steps toward impacting change.
"What about people with kids?" I'm often asked.
My response to this is: Kids are surprisingly resilient; research shows they recover rapidly from divorce. What they won't soon recover from is growing up in an environment with a relationship model that prioritises commitment over happiness, and learned helplessness over accountability.
"I rely on my partner financially. I don't have the luxury of just walking away," is another common challenge.
My response to this is: Do you have parents? Family members? A friend whose couch you can crash on for a few weeks while you find an entry-level job? Are you willing to swallow your pride and take a role mopping floors or serving coffee and renting somewhere humble for a while in order to start living life on your own terms?
Then your situation is not inescapable.
It's never too late to make a change. Heartbreak heals, kids bounce back, and you can always earn more money; but you can never gain back the time you lost publicly arguing over guacamole.