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Of the 15,000 Reasons to Stick With a Relationship, Only These Two Matter

The availability of an alternative can drive a decision to leave.

Key points

  • Predicting who stays and who goes in a relationship is a major focus of psychological research on couples.
  • A new motivational model of relationships separates reasons for staying from reasons for leaving.
  • When asked about their relationship high and low points, more than 230 participants in one study came up with over 15,000 reasons.

When you ask yourself why you stay in your relationship, what’s the first reason that comes to mind? Is it because you’re passionately in love with your partner, you like your life as it is now, or you feel obligated to fulfill your commitment? Now ask yourself why you might leave. Is it because you’re fed up with your partner, feel your partner doesn’t care for you, or that you’ve just fallen out of love?

Relationship research poses questions such as these all the time. Indeed, the holy grail in relationship research would be to predict, with close to 100 percent certainty, whether a given relationship will make it or not. Barring such an ambitious goal, researchers in this field would be glad at least to identify the key psychological elements that keep couples satisfied if not together. However, this area of study is littered with investigations that fall short even of this goal. The available theories that guide these studies propose a number of factors ranging from the idea of “equity” (you want to get the same as you give) and “exchange” (the benefits outweigh the rewards) to the quality of your communication with your partner.

The Interdependence Theory of Relationships

Given the many competing proposals about what makes relationships work or not, it’s tempting to think that maybe this is an impossible theoretical knot to unravel. Indeed, according to Syracuse University’s Laura Machia and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Brian Ogolsky (2021), previous “work indicates that the future state of a relationship can be predicted with only a modest amount of certainty.” As an indicator of a relationship’s health, it makes sense to use the stay-leave decision as an ultimate criterion. People are either together (and intend to be) or they’re not (and don’t intend to be). However, another factor to consider, as Machia and Ogolsky point out, is that the reasons people stay may not be the opposite of the reasons they leave.

With this in mind, the focus of the Machia and Ogolsky investigation was on separating “stay” reasons from “leave” reasons, recognizing that “people in relationships may experience competing motivations” that “may be driven by independent reasons.” According to Interdependence Theory, it’s not enough to look within the couple to find out why the partners decide to remain or not. Instead, it’s also important to consider what the expected outcomes might be in other relationships. In other words, if an attractive alternative presents itself, you might decide it’s time to leave but without that alternative, you would have remained.

“Dissolution consideration,” then, may be the inverse of commitment to remain in the relationship, or it may have its separate predictors. However, this concept hadn't been put to the empirical test, leading the researchers to look at stay-leave reasons as independent predictors of relationship status. Adding another level of complexity, people may decide to stay or leave based not just on their own motivations, but on their perceptions of the motivations of the partner.

The Two Motives That Matter

In the first of three studies, Machia and Ogolsky tested the Interdependence Theory on a sample of undergraduates, all of whom were in relationships, who completed questionnaires about a hypothetical leave-stay decision. The findings were consistent with the theory showing that reasons to stay weren’t simply the opposite of reasons to leave. Feelings of love and commitment predicted reasons to stay, but the availability of another alternative emerged as the strongest reason to leave.

These findings provided the initial confirmation that stay-leave decisions don’t operate along a single dimension. To put the theory to a more stringent test, the authors then recruited a sample of heterosexual dating couples drawn from a nationally representative, U.S.-based, sample. The participants ranged in age from 19 to 55 and agreed to be interviewed over a nine-month period during which they were tested seven times, approximately one month apart. Of the final sample of 232 couples, the average age was 24 years, and they had been together on average about two years.

At each testing occasion following initial baseline data collection, participants rated their commitment to wed that day, and also whether that commitment changed in their minds since the last interview. These real-time data allowed the research team to track any turning points in the relationship that might be reflected in their responses about what was keeping them in the relationship and what was potentially leading them to want to leave. The key research question was whether these changes over time would be connected in stay-leave reasons in a manner similar to the original undergraduate sample study.

The eight interviews provided a remarkable 15,117 separate reasons for the relationship turning points that developed over the course of the research period. The coding team was clearly faced with a formidable job. Eventually, they were able to pare these down to nearly 14,000 reasons which, in turn, could be classified into 14 major categories. The most frequent reasons for positive turning points (38 percent of all ratings) were positive attributions of the partner or relationship. Conversely, and consistent with Interdependence Theory, the most frequent reason for actually contemplating a breakup was the availability of an alternative partner.

As the authors concluded, “Because lacking alternatives is an abysmally rated reason to stay in a relationship, when an alternative appears, that alternative may be particularly dangerous for the relationship because removing it does not provide a compelling reason to stay.” In other words, it's only when what's keeping you in the relationship starts to fade that the reason to leave will kick into high gear.

Friendship motives also factored into the equation, but not in ways you might think. If you feel that your partner is your friend, you might be likely to stay but if you lack this feeling, you won’t necessarily be inclined to leave. The authors propose that in this situation, you might actually put more effort into your relationship to promote feelings of friendship, at least if no alternative presents itself.

What the Findings Mean for Your Relationship

Try the study’s methods on your own as you think back on the highs and lows of the past few weeks in your relationship along with your likelihood right now of wanting to leave. You may not be able to identify 15,000 reasons on your own for staying or going, but you can most likely come up with 50 or 100. In this thought experiment, be sure you separate your reasons into the two categories that Machia and Ogolsky imposed onto their own data.

Perhaps you enjoy toying with the idea of leaving your relationship if an attractive stranger came along who swept you off your feet. What if there is actually someone now that you’re attracted to who isn’t a stranger? Now, all those reasons you have for staying may seem to recede in significance, and all you can think of is how to plan your escape.

Prior to abandoning your relationship, though, the Machia-Ogolsky findings suggest that you go back to the “plus” column in evaluating your reasons to stay. It’s possible that the attractive option is distorting the appraisal you’re giving to your partner. What were those reasons you got together in the first place? How much of your personal needs are being fulfilled in your relationship that you would then miss out on if you were no longer with your partner?

To sum up, being tempted by reasons to leave, then, doesn’t mean that your relationship is headed in a downward trajectory. Furthermore, as relationships by definition also involve two people, understanding your partner’s reasons to stay can be just as important as sifting through the hundreds, if not thousands, reasons of your own.

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Machia, L. V., & Ogolsky, B. G. (2021). The reasons people think about staying and leaving their romantic relationships: A mixed-method analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(8), 1279–1293.

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