What Relationship Factors Really Compel Us to Stay or Leave?
We may not anticipate the reasons that ultimately influence our decisions.
Posted Nov 19, 2020
New research by Machia and Ogolsky published this month in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin investigates the reasons we choose to stay in or to leave our current relationships.
The researchers used two different methodologies to investigate stay/leave decisions: one in which they asked individuals to imagine that their current relationships would continue or would end, and one in which they followed couples’ real relationship experiences over an eight-month period.
When considering the hypothetical reasons for staying or leaving their current relationships, participants stated that they would continue their relationships if they were satisfied with their relationships, if they were in love, and if they had strong friendships with their partners. Conversely, the respondents thought they would leave their relationships if their partners did not fulfill their personal needs, if their relationship needs were unfulfilled, or if they were not in love.
However, the authors noted several factors that seem to strongly influence our decisions to stay in or to leave our relationships that were not obvious to those involved in the research.
The Inevitability of Staying
In the current research project, the researchers found that only 20% of the couples broke up over the eight-month period. This finding may indicate that the couples in this sample were particularly satisfied with their relationships. Or, the authors argue, these individuals may have chosen to stay in their relationships because staying is the “default” choice, while leaving requires a major change in behavior. The authors explain that “people who do nothing—who wake up and go about their day as usual—will have stayed in their relationship at the end of the day… whereas staying occurs via inertia, leaving requires great effort… The reasons to ‘leave’ a relationship might need to be much stronger or more intense than the reasons to ‘stay.’” Furthermore, the reasons to leave a relationship may have to be stronger than the reasons stated above, such as feeling unfulfilled or not being in love, which couples thought would compel them to leave their relationships.
Another reason we might choose to stay in a relationship, even when we feel unsatisfied, is that when we decide to end a relationship, we often experience mixed feelings. The authors suggest that we “simultaneously experience motivation both to stay and to leave [our] relationships.” For example, even when we feel that our partners are not meeting our needs, we may still feel love for them. These feelings of ambivalence, coupled with the default decision to stay, make it likely that we will need stronger reasons to leave a relationship than to stay in a relationship.
Mismatch Between Thoughts and Behaviors
Recall that in the hypothetical portion of the study respondents indicated that they thought they would leave their relationships if their personal or relationship needs were not met, or if they were not in love. However, as is common in psychological research, the current research suggests that we do not always predict our behavior very well. Machia and Ogolsky found that the reasons people gave for hypothetically ending a relationship didn’t match the reasons people gave for actually ending a relationship.
In the longitudinal portion of the study, over the course of eight months, non-married dating couples from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds were interviewed in person eight times. The researchers found that the only variable they examined that predicted couples’ breakups was the existence of an alternate dating partner. The authors state that “whereas the top-rated reason participants selected for leaving the relationship in Studies 1 and 2 was something missing from the relationship (i.e., lacking satisfaction or need fulfillment), in Study 3, the only significant positive predictor of breakup was involvement with alternative dating partners.” Although the respondents in the hypothetical portion of the study were different from the real couples whose relationships were tracked over time, the reasons to stay in a relationship were similar across the hypothetical responses and the real relationship experiences of the couples.
Factors Inside Versus Outside the Relationship
When participants considered the reasons they thought they would stay in or leave their relationships, they were most likely to cite factors within the relationship—satisfaction or lack of satisfaction with the relationship, love or lack of love, etc. While the authors found that couples’ reasons to stay in a relationship related to factors inside the relationship such as love, friendship, and satisfaction, couples’ decisions to leave their relationships were more strongly related to factors outside the relationship (alternative partners). As stated above, the reasons to leave a relationship may need to be stronger than the reasons to stay in order to prompt individuals to change their relationship status.
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Machia, L. V., & Ogolsky, B. G. (2020). The reasons people think about staying and leaving their romantic relationships: A mixed-method analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167220966903.