When You Stay, but Not for You

Leaving a romantic relationship is hard, especially if your partner needs you.

Posted Jan 11, 2019

Are you in your romantic relationship because you want to be, or because you're thinking about your partner's feelings? Have you thought about breaking-up, but then you imagine how it would affect your partner and change your mind?

Trite is true: breaking up is hard to do

Relationships are often recognized as nuanced and complicated, but so too are decisions about breaking up or staying together. New research by Samantha Joel and colleagues (2018) suggests that people are much more inclined to think about their partners than previously thought when they evaluate whether their relationship should continue. It's not just about self-interest; people are carefully considering how committed their partners are and how distressed they might be if a break-up were to occur.

Self-related reasons to stay together

In the past, psychologists have focused on aspects of the self that affect break-up decisions, and not without reason. We base a lot of our stay-together vs. break-up decisions on our own perceptions and experiences. The investment model suggests that commitment determines whether we stay with our partners, and that commitment is predicted by our relationship satisfaction (e.g., relationship costs vs benefits), the investments we've made in the relationship (e.g., kids, financial, emotional investment), and the availability of potential alternative partners (Rusbult, 1980). These are very much self-related reasons to stay together (e.g., "how will a break-up affect me?"), and research suggests they do a good job predicting relationship stability.

Partner-related reasons to stay together

There's more to our break-up decisions than just what affects us directly. We think about our partner, his or her happiness, and his or her possible distress over the situation. How much does she need me? Could he handle a break-up right now? As proposed by Joel, Impett, Spielmann, and MacDonald (2018), break-up decisions have a critical interdependence to them: our own feelings matter, but  our partner's feelings matter, too. 

People don't casually break hearts. Data were collected in two longitudinal studies, the first contained over 1,000 participants who reported about their relationships for 10 weeks, and the second study, which took place over 2 months, contained 500 participants who were considering breaking up with their partners (Joel et al., 2018). Results suggest that people are less likely to leave their partners when they think their partners are highly committed to the relationship, or if they think their partners would be highly distressed by a break-up.

Some people - who are high in communal concern, i.e., they really want to meet their partner's needs - are particularly likely to stay in a relationship as a function of their partner's commitment, whereas those people low in communal concern are more apt to make decisions based on their own needs.

There's no one recipe for relationship decisions

Even as partner-related reasons contribute to decisions more than previous research has noted, self-related reasons are still important. In other words, even if someone stays in a relationship because of his or her partner, there might be a point at which one's own needs start to outweigh prioritizing the other. More research is necessary to fully understand how break-up decisions are made, but we now have documented evidence that if you shy away from breaking up with a partner because you're thinking about your partner, you're certainly not alone.

References

Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 172–186

Joel, S., Impett, E. A., Spielmann, S. S., & MacDonald, G. (2018). How interdependent are stay/leave decisions? On staying in the relationship for the sake of the romantic partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(5), 805-824.

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