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Relationships

Why It's OK to Leave a Relationship That's Not Thriving

Comparing how much you want to stay vs. how hard it is to leave.

Key points

  • Some long-term dating relationships are unsatisfying, have a moderate amount of conflict, and the partners are unsure about their future.
  • Strong relationships have a balance of dedication commitment (wanting to be together) and constraint commitment (barriers to leaving).
  • Leaving a "good enough" long-term relationship takes either a significant event or a slow building of personal momentum to change your life.
  • Moving on leaves us open to build relationships that inspire more dedication and feel more fulfilling.

Looking back on your relationship history, do you ever think, “I stayed too long with [whoever]—we should have broken up way before we did”?

In hindsight, it can seem clear that we would have been better off moving on. Yet in the moment, some relationships feel “good enough” that we coast through the months and years without really considering whether they meet our needs.

My research with Jonathon Beckmeyer reveals that some long-term dating relationships are not very satisfying, they have a moderate amount of conflict, and the partners are not sure they want to be together in the future. Especially for young people who are building the foundation of their adult lives, staying in stagnant relationships can hold them back from pursuing other goals or seeking out more compatible partners.

In a recent study, we described this situation as being “stuck” in a relationship. (For a great breakdown of the whole study, see this post.) Feeling stuck was really about the balance of different types of commitment. How much do you want to be in the relationship (dedication) and how much do you stay because of the barriers to leaving (constraint commitment)?

In strong relationships, there is a balance of both types of commitment. Couples want to be together because they enjoy each other’s company and want a future together and because they have built a life that makes it more difficult to break up, such as investing in each others’ families, getting married, having a child, or adopting a beloved pet. Constraint isn’t all bad. It simply needs to be balanced by a healthy dose of dedication.

How Couples Get Stuck

In “stuck” relationships, the beginning was wonderful. Research participants talked glowingly about the early days of their relationships and how they kept hoping to return to those good times. But eventually, the positives faded away and the drawbacks of the relationship grew. This process is normal for relationships, and strong couples find new avenues for growth and connection. When that doesn’t happen, couples can get stuck in long, unsatisfying relationships.

Delaying a breakup also contributed to becoming stuck. Several participants in the study talked about wanting to break up with a long-term dating partner, but then something came up that delayed them. For example, they were about to end things and then their partner found out their mother had cancer or their parents were divorcing. It felt cruel to end the relationship at a time their partner needed support—so they stayed.

Is It Possible to Get Unstuck?

Leaving a long-term relationship that is mostly OK takes either a significant event or a slow building of personal momentum to change your life. For example, a few participants reported that, infidelity (theirs or their partners) helped them decide to break up. For most, it was about realizing they had individual interests and goals they simply could not pursue in the current relationship. They allowed their own interests to override the history they shared with the partner and whatever good remained between them. In hindsight, they were always glad they chose to leave the relationship.

Dating is meant to be a testing ground for how to be in relationships, assessing what we need in romantic partners, and establishing the boundaries we want. When we stop considering whether we are compatible and whether our needs are being met, we are missing something important.

The take-home message here is that not every relationship is suitable to move forward to greater commitment or a longer investment of time. Even a relationship that feels “fine” should sometimes end. Moving on leaves us open to build relationships that inspire more dedication and feel more fulfilling.

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

References

Jamison, T. B., & Beckmeyer, J. J. (2021) Feeling stuck: Exploring the development of felt constraint in romantic relationships, Family Relations, 70(3) 880-895. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12496

Beckmeyer, J. J., & Jamison, T. B. (2021) Identifying a typology of emerging adult romantic relationships: Implications for relationship education, Family Relations, 70(1), 305-318. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12464

Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (1992). Assessing commitment in personal relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 54(3), 595–608.

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